Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Katherine Taylor)

Bernie's not "too old" to be president: Voters need to stop obsessing over Sanders' age

Sanders looks and sounds energized, a living counter-argument to the assumption that age dulls one's faculties


Brogan Morris
February 22, 2016 5:30AM (UTC)

Bernie Sanders is 74 years old. In November, when the American people head out to vote for their 45th president, he'll be 75. Providing he connects with a broader range of voters and beats the media shield currently defending the sputtering Hillary Clinton campaign, and providing he then tops the eventual GOP candidate in the election as predicted, Bernie Sanders won't end his first term as president until he's 79 years of age.

Of the key arguments that have been made against Sanders, few stand up to serious scrutiny. The pundits’unfounded theory that Clinton is more electable simply doesn't hold water, while Sanders is stronger on the economy and foreign policy than the press generally suggest. If it is ultimately Bernie vs. Trump rather than Clinton vs. Trump in November, the attacks from the GOP will be brutal, but that shouldn’t matter – the Donald's favorability rating is lower than any other candidate running, surely too low for him to bag the presidency. (Never mind liberals, imagine Trump trying to win over Hispanic, Asian-American and Native American voters – or collectively one-quarter of America – after some of his previous comments. No wonder the Republican Party wants to shut him down.)

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The matter of Sanders' age, however, remains an understandably legitimate concern for some. In the fall, CNN considered the Democratic contender’s 74 years and asked the question, "How old is too old to be president?"; lo and behold, earlier this month, the Chicago Tribune answered: "Bernie Sanders." Even those who’ve felt the Bern are pondering whether Sanders is too far past his prime to be a safe vote. Perforating the praise on Twitter you can find comments like, “I want to support Sanders but he’s too old," or, “Is he gonna last 4 years in one of the most stressful jobs?”.

People are genuinely wondering if Sanders’ age could limit his ability to carry out some of his ambitious long-term proposals. Sanders has been tirelessly speechifying and jetting across the country at any/all hours during his campaign, but actually being president of the United States is a more taxing job than asking voters to give you the position. It isn't entirely unreasonable to ask whether a septuagenarian is up to a minimum four years at the controls.

It’s been mentioned that, if Sanders were to become president, he would be the oldest ever to be sworn into office. Less has been said about how Donald Trump, who will be 70 in November, would also qualify as the oldest ever, or that Hillary Clinton, 69 at the election, will be the same age that oldest-president-of-all-time Ronald Reagan was when he was first sworn in. And if Michael Bloomberg goes ahead with his threatened independent run, there’ll be another man in his 70s on the ballot. Unless Ted Cruz (45) or Marco Rubio (44) do the unexpected and trump Trump, this just isn't going to be the year for anyone hankering for a young, hip head of state.

But so what if the 2016 presidential candidates aren't fresh-faced things? It's not uncommon for all-time great leaders to emerge well into typical retirement age. At the last televised Democratic debate, Sanders cited Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as two key inspirations. Some asked why Sanders would choose Churchill after so strongly rebuking Henry Kissinger, but the fact remains that despite the (reasonable) controversy, Winston Churchill has gone down as an incredibly important figure in British politics. He carried out his role as prime minister until he was 81.

On the other side of that debate, Clinton singled out Nelson Mandela and, again, FDR as her two most inspirational heads of state. After years of intense incarceration, Mandela began his spell as president of South Africa at age 76, or two years older than Bernie Sanders is now. Roosevelt, meanwhile, died in office at just 63, broken by sicknesses kept secret from an electorate that had just handed him a fourth term.

Sanders has already outlived Roosevelt by 11 years. We know he has a clean bill of health because he underwent a medical checkup early this year, seemingly to placate those voters worried he might soon die (and because prospective presidents can't hide their health issues from the public anymore). We’ve seen him shooting hoops and doing comedy skits on "SNL." We’ve heard him proselytizing with a passion and clarity that seemingly hasn’t abated since he began yelling some five decades ago. On the surface, at least, Sanders looks and sounds energized, a living counter-argument to the assumption that age inherently dulls one's faculties.

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Looking to the near future, things look rosy for Sanders, at least according to the statistics. With American life expectancy at a record high, men who have reached the Bern’s age are likely to live another 11 years on average, while there’s no evidence to suggest the stress of the role causes U.S. presidents to die sooner than other American men.

Statistics aren't everything. Statistics couldn't have predicted that 49-year-old James Garfield would be assassinated six months into his presidency, nor could anyone have foreseen 65-year-old Zachary Taylor succumbing to a bizarre gastric ailment one year after his inauguration. Presidents much younger than Sanders have snuffed it in office, while eldest POTUS Ronald Reagan – approaching 80 at the end of his stint in the White House – managed the full eight years and in that time helped to change the way the world works.

History of the American presidency tells us that an effective reign isn't guaranteed by youthfulness, while notable world leaders past prove men and women of greatness can achieve significant success in their later years. You can look around the world today and still find evidence of that.

Tunisia's current president, Beji Caid Essebsi, didn't get the job until he was 88. Under him, Tunisia has remained the only Arab Spring state not to have fallen to major instability and conflict. Meanwhile, over in Myanmar, 70-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi is right now overseeing a monumental regime change after her party won the country's first free election since 1962. These two alone are proof that advanced age doesn't necessarily inhibit what leaders can achieve, even into their 70s and beyond.

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Brogan Morris

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