Quindlen: How Old Is Too Old?

Here's my unscientific theory about the presidency: it ages a person in dog years. Each year in office is roughly equivalent to seven years in the life of an ordinary citizen. I base this on before-and-after photographs of the occupants of the Oval Office, who frequently look as though they've spent their time in captivity, being beaten with sticks. Which may help explain why 71-year-old John McCain, who actually has been beaten in captivity, may think that the fact that he would be the oldest person ever to enter the job is immaterial. In this, alas, he is mistaken.

Fifty is the new 35. You're not getting older, you're getting better. American culture has rejected the very notion of aging. Older people seem younger today, thanks to diet, exercise, Botox and often inappropriate clothing. The gentle but inevitable passing of the guard that once gave young people an opportunity to rise has stuttered and sometimes stopped. Ergo the slogan "Age is just a number," the vitality-culture equivalent of "The check is in the mail."

Americans have been lucky in the health and well-being of their leaders. No president has died in office of natural causes since Franklin D. Roosevelt 60 years ago. And no president in recent memory has become seriously ill unless you count Ronald Reagan, whose press contingent saw signs during his second term consistent with the Alzheimer's with which he was later diagnosed. When first inaugurated, Reagan was more than two years younger than McCain would be if he became president.

Our election routine today surely militates against advanced age. What we've gained in longevity and health since the Lincoln-Douglas debates, we've lost in the amped-up primary process. The candidates subject themselves to a schedule in which none of them gets a decent rest for two years in order that one of them might win a job in which there will be no decent rest for at least four. I suppose you can argue that that is good preparation for the presidency. Forging on, exhausted, is right up there with podium presence and policy knowledge as a basic job description.

Senator McCain likes to say he has good genes on his side. It is not every 71-year-old man whose mother stands by as he gives a stump speech. At 95, Roberta McCain is still elegant and ambulatory, the sort of person for whom the expression "sharp as a tack" might have been invented: not long ago she went on television and blamed the Mormons for scandals that plagued the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics while her son sat beside her looking slightly pained.

But the senator is not your average man of his age. He takes stairs slowly and cannot lift his arms to comb his hair. One reason few people want to address his age, or his infirmity, is the valor of his Vietnam service. It's humbling to consider that he broke both arms and a leg when his fighter jet was shot down, then suffered fractured shoulders and broken ribs when he was tortured during five and a half years as a POW. You can tell he thinks it should be humbling, too: when a boy at one event asked him respectfully if he was too old for the job, he responded with his trademark acerbic humor, "Thanks for the question, you little jerk."

But the kid was only acknowledging the elephant on the campaign trail. There's been plenty of talk during primary season about gender and race; it's age that has become taboo. While there is a minimum age of 35 to be elected president, there's no maximum. Perhaps that's why it's more acceptable to suggest that a contender is callow than over the hill. Each time I'm described as middle-aged the 25-year-old still living deep inside me lets out a scream.

Granted, I now have a perspective, a wisdom, a more comprehensive body of knowledge, if only I could remember it. But words elude me occasionally, which is challenging for a wordsmith. More important, there's a certain spark that now smolders sometimes. So where's the sweet spot, that moment when the timeline of experience intersects perfectly with the trajectory of excitement? It's different times for different people, but it seldom occurs late in life.

Please, please—don't feel the need to let me know that you're 82, swim every morning and finish the New York Times crossword, in ink, even on Saturday. I'm aware that there are women and men who perform brilliantly at arduous jobs far past the time the rest of us would be phoning it in or tuning it out. But the job McCain seeks is like no other, in its demands and its import. It's significant that while the old mandatory retirement age of 65 has been largely junked, there are still age limits for jobs like airline pilot or police officer, the kinds of jobs that require some of the same skills as the presidency—unwavering mental acuity and physical energy.

Political operatives say that his age makes McCain's choice of a running mate particularly critical. But if you enter the process stressing a hedge against mortality or incapacity, shouldn't that suggest something about suitability for the job in the first place? The senator's pursuit of the presidency reminds me a bit of those women who decide to have a baby in their late 50s. The impulse is understandable, the goal possible. But, looking at all the facts, and the actuarial tables, is it really sensible?