How Old Is Too Old?

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

Presidential hopeful John McCain.

Presidential hopeful John McCain. Source: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Source: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

If he wins the election this November, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), at 72, will be the oldest President in history to take his first oath of office. Some say that's too old, while others say it's just a number. When I think about it, I know a lot of grandparents, in their 60s, 70s and 80s, who are spry and completely able-minded — even more so than I am at 24! With all the modern advancements in medicine and nutrition, 72 isn't as old as it used to be.

We've heard a lot about racism and sexism in this campaign. But is McCain breaking barriers against ageism? What's your opinion — how old is too old to be President?

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of COURSE it is TOO OLD!!! MUCH TOO OLD! This would make McCains VP choice all the more important, as that individual would probably have to finish out Johnny's term after he kicks the bucket!! and Johnny, no matter how hard he tries, will never be able to relate to normal, 9-5, working-class Americans!! I'm voting for Obama...

Sent by Thomas Prebis | 2:43 PM | 7-8-2008

Why is it that Ageism is deemed just as unacceptable as other "isms" like Sexism or Racism, in other venues, but perfectly acceptable in this instance? Additionally, so much of the campaign to this point has been about dispelling notions that factors such as Sex and Race could hinder ones ability to govern. The focus needs to be on competency, character, and what a candidate stands for, not there age. By the way, I'm 31

Sent by Oscar Walters | 3:09 PM | 7-8-2008

I feel it is too old. Elections are about the future and he represents the past. How can a 72 year old man represent me, a 24 year old, or even my parents, who are in their fifties? I think he is too old to be in touch with new ideas and new technologies. I think he is too old to best serve America going into the future.

Sent by Kevin Conway | 3:10 PM | 7-8-2008

No its not too old! I would much rather have an older wiser President.

Sent by cindy hammontree | 3:12 PM | 7-8-2008

we ask our candidates to have physical exams to check their heart, lungs, etc.; why not take ageism out of the verbiage and simply add an increment of brain exam to the mix. Younger people can be very forgetful too.

Sent by Phyllis | 3:18 PM | 7-8-2008

how old was Ben Franklin?

Sent by Chris Greider | 3:19 PM | 7-8-2008

Daniel Schoor is brilliant, we should ask him.....

Sent by janae wallace | 3:19 PM | 7-8-2008

Joe Paterno, enough said

Sent by Luke | 3:22 PM | 7-8-2008

I completely disagree with your guest and caller, I'm 32 from generation X if you'd like to label me. i agree John McCain and his views, I can't stand it when some thinks that they can speak for and generalize so many people. I think he is a strong leader and it's what this country needs since we've had such a lack of leadership.

Sent by Alex Cabrera | 3:22 PM | 7-8-2008

The wisdom of the older people? wasn't it them that got us--the younger generations--into this mess in the first place? We don't need an artifact for a president. We need a reformer!

Sent by Kathryn | 3:24 PM | 7-8-2008

I don't think age is an issue. Rather, I believe that to run for President, every candidate should have to have a certain IQ!!

Sent by Marcia | 3:25 PM | 7-8-2008

personally, I like to watch my president's hair color change. I won't be able to with John!

Sent by Steve Herrick | 3:26 PM | 7-8-2008

With regard to wisdom, my 90-year-old grandfather likes to say, "Stupid young, stupid old." That said, I would agree that as long as a person is mentally fit for the job, age should be irrelevant.

Sent by Noah Liebman | 3:26 PM | 7-8-2008

Nobody has mentioned McCain's genes. His mother is something like 96? She's sharp as a tack. Does McCain have a really good chance of having those amazing genes?

Sent by Dan | 3:28 PM | 7-8-2008

should we also look at the opposite question? How young is too young? The founding fathers put 35 as the minimum age, which 200 years ago was more than middle age. Today, adolescence has been extended into the late 20s, as evidenced in the returning home youth. That in mind, are today's 35 year olds as mature and experienced as those 200 years ago?

Sent by Paul Otis | 3:30 PM | 7-8-2008

Some of the greatest presidents of both parties were suffering from major conditions. FDR had polo and Regan had Alzheimer's. Both of these people were greatly respected by there parties and are still role models for there parties. On the flip side both parties had great young presidents. JFK was the youngest president ever and Teddy Roosevelt was the youngest president when he was elected.

Sent by Jared Bressler | 3:30 PM | 7-8-2008

A candidate's age will also show in who that candidate chooses to help him or her run the country. Looking at the differences in our current two candidate's campaigns gives us a good idea of how they might run the country and who they would choose to help them do it.

Sent by Erik | 3:30 PM | 7-8-2008

Using statistics to assess an individual is a poor use of statistics. We just had a 41 year old woman get on the olympics swimming team.

Sent by Susan Bernatas | 3:32 PM | 7-8-2008

all 72 year olds are not created equal, neither are 37 year olds. as it relates to John McCain he was not and is not presidential at any age. We are not electing an age or birthday we are electing a president. We are not electing John McCain's mother either.
I am a 70 year old Vietnam era combat veteran. It's not 72 years old, it's John Sidney McCain III. I am tired of being embarrassed by incompetence in the White House.

Would you rather buy an old Yugo or a new Lexus for $60,000?

To not elect Barack Obama as the 44th president of the USA is to be uncivilized.

Sent by Bob Cross | 3:33 PM | 7-8-2008

The real question should hinge on the politics of managing an aging president. Should a president begin showing signs of dementia (either frontal lobe or Alzheimer's) would the handlers and politicians around him continue to make excuses and carry him past his capability to govern and lead? Look at the movie "Dave" where the president was incapacitated and his handlers found a stand-in rather than allow the vice president to take over. Or, what if the VP pushed the issue saying that the president was incapable of governing so he could assume the position.

Sent by Dave Smith | 3:35 PM | 7-8-2008

It depends on the person and given that criteria, John McCain is too old. He suffered horribly as a POW, he's had every skin cancer there is, his medical status in general is poor to fair. President of the United States is possibly the most stressful job in the world, and I want someone who I have the confidence will be able to physically and mentally handle it - and I don't think McCain is up to the job.

Just because someone is old, doesn't mean they're wise. Just because someone was a POW, doesn't mean they should be Commander in Chief.

McCain has embraced Karl Rove with open arms as a strategist - obviously, he's forgotten what kind of character Rove is (a sure sign of early dementia).

Sent by C W | 3:35 PM | 7-8-2008

Are there any examples of elected officials that were too old, really screwing things up?

Sent by Marty | 3:36 PM | 7-8-2008

I think this is a poorly worded question that does not address the real issue in question. I believe the issue is whether or not a candidate is mentally and physically fit to carry out the duties of the Presidency. A person my suffer from any number physical or mental ailments that may make them unfit to serve as President, but age itself should not determine whether or not someone is fit for office. We should decide who to vote for based on their policies, not their age.

Sent by B | 3:37 PM | 7-8-2008

I am a 36 year old doctor, and my observations are that people all age differently depending on how they have chosen to live their lives, their environment and their genetics. Some 70 and 80 year olds are in great shape and extremely sharp! Conversely, some 30 and 40 year olds are unhealthy and incompetent. I think some of the caller's comments are biased based on populations that typically haven't aged well ... such as in a nursing home. (btw ... I won't vote for McCain, but his age isn't the reason why)

Sent by Matt | 3:37 PM | 7-8-2008

What do mortality tables suggest for someone 72 years old? Although we have had some great VP's, would we be more likely to have an un-elected President, if the President dies in office?

Sent by Mavis Coley | 3:37 PM | 7-8-2008

If you wonder about decision making capabilities...G.W.Bush is only 62

Sent by Dr. Knowledge | 3:37 PM | 7-8-2008

I don't believe age, per se, should be the most important factor...it's the individual that matters. I think people are discussing McCain's age because he acts old,looks old, talks old & thinks old.

Sent by Liz | 3:39 PM | 7-8-2008

Winston Churchill has been mentioned several times during the show, as an example of an elder statesman who performed well in office...but Churchill was sick in his last years in office...he had a stroke in 1953, when he was 78, though it was hidden from the world at large...it's thought that he probably had dementia in his last year or two as Prime Minister.

Sent by Peter Kent | 3:40 PM | 7-8-2008

I would argue that a primary reason history repeats itself is due to ageism - a failure to learn from the wisdom of those who have come before and have learned from their mistakes. What is normally lost in quick thinking is replaced with a gain in wisdom - the key human asset that facilitates the positive progression of a society from one generation to the next.

Sent by Anne Wellington | 3:42 PM | 7-8-2008

While taking McCain as a very healthy guy with great genetics, and a mom that's more active than I am at 35, that still doesn't take into account that he's looking to take on the most stressful position in the world. There hasn't been a president who's entered office with dark hair who's finished his service without white hair. McCain will be positively decrepit should he manage to deal with the stress long enough to last out his term.

Sent by Sean Bradshaw | 3:42 PM | 7-8-2008

I am 66, a democrat and would never vote for someone over 65 for president.
Some of my republican friends would not either. Age matters as much as party politics.
People are in denial about what happens to them when they get older, both mentally and physically.
Sure you can cite exceptions to anything but as a rule age causes all types of significant physical and psychological changes.

Sent by carlos | 3:44 PM | 7-8-2008

Some 30+ years ago I attended Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco-as I understood it, Hastings had been instrumental in starting the Over-65 Club-Professors who were at the time "to old" to be teaching in other institutions because of mandatory retirement rules. Because the administration was open to having older professors teach at Hastings, we received an education that was in many ways exceptional and of great depth and many of the alumni went on to become top attorneys and judges in their fields. On the other hand, we did have several professors over the years that were clearly past their prime, and because they were not tenured, were susceptible to removal.
John McCain may be capable at the moment of taking command of the Ship of State, but during the next four years, what will happen if his abilities should deteriorate and his decisions put the country or the world in danger. There is already a question about his temper; who will make the decision that he should stand down when the members of both parties have such a difficult time agreeing on anything, let alone if a Republican in office should be removed due to his mental capacity.
Age does bring wisdom, but it also brings weakness in both physical and mental capabilities. The wisdom may remain longer than the weakness' which come with age, but any way one looks at it, age takes it's toll and it is a slippery slope to take as leader of the free world.

Sent by Doug Paris | 3:46 PM | 7-8-2008

NO it was the younger Presidents who got us into, this so called "mess". Generally that is true. Looking at Europe, we are better off. It could be worse!

Sent by cindy | 3:47 PM | 7-8-2008

Your focus was on cognitive ability, if that is to be the focus then why wasn't GW given an intelligence test before we considered him for President. Perhaps you should consider the fact that Winston Churchill was 65 when he took office and preserved England and the western world. By the way I am an Obama supporter.

Sent by Karen Tuttle | 3:51 PM | 7-8-2008

Are we going to elect a seventy two year old man to the most important, stressful and dangerous position in the world? As people age, their ability to handle stress diminishes, while stress increases the rate of aging and diminishes the ability to fight off illness. The presidency involves intense unremitting stress and comparing the responsibilities and stress of the presidency to any other position now or before is simply not valid. Yes it is possible that a 72 year old could function well and not deteriorate, but is this a chance we want to take?

Sent by Ray | 3:52 PM | 7-8-2008

I am a long time listener of NPR, and did not appreciate the comments made by your guest, when saying that being a drug addict and a moselm which are some of the things that would be problematic to the American public...really shocked me and made me pause for a second and made me think if maybe I wasn't listening to the right radio station?!

The comment has been made and it's too late because millions of people have listened to it. I all of a sudden feel distanced from my favorite and only reasonable,entertaining media in the country, and would like to know how this could be rectified on the air if at all?

This was hosted by Guy Raz discussing how old is too old to be president.

First of all moslems shouldn't be equated to drug addicts. Second of all, if some extreme media sources are carelessly and purposefully using intimidating and false terminologies about Islam, then it shouldn't be used or expanded on by other responsible media sources (in this case one of your guests). Some people are working very hard to remove these false and intimidating labellings that are being carelessly cast upon many moderate law abiding citizens, simply by association of a small group of extremists, then it's frustrating and truly ...what can I say..unfair, especially when being a moslem is part of the American Public.

I am writing to you because I feel upset, and feel that somehow you will rectify the situation to your loyal listeners including myself.

I rarely listen to Guy Raz, but I'm sure if Neil Conan, Steve Inskeep, Melissa Block or if Diane Rehm amongst others, would have quickly said something on the air to rectify what your guest has said.
I'm truly upset he never even commented on it...a shame

Sent by Ida | 4:01 PM | 7-8-2008

I believe that age has more impact on a candidate's ability to handle modern day issues than it does their capability to make rational decisions. As mentioned during this broadcast, McCain has already admitted that he doesn't touch those boxes with blinking lights (read computers), and his favorite movie (Viva Zapata) was released in 1952, so I'm thinking that we're lucky he's not scared senseless by them new-fangled horseless carriages. The leader of the free world should be capable of guiding us into the future, not taking us back to the past.

Sent by Ashley | 4:06 PM | 7-8-2008

I take particular offense to the caller from Phoenix, who says that he works with elderly people. By his own admission he "deals" with people from age 55 to 95. And he broadly painted a picture of mentally instable and unreliable people. First, there's a huge difference between 55 and 95, not just in terms of physical well being but as well as of mental stability. Second, I don't appreciate "Jason" from Phoenix talking about my generation like he was appointed the spokesperson. He does not share my sentiments.

I, myself am 27; my parents are of an older generation. My Father is 74 and my mother is 70, today. Both my parents are of sound mind, body and soul! Both my parents are well accomplished individuals in their own right. Both earned their Masters degree, as well as multiple undergraduate degrees and both my parents are just as sharp today as they were in my childhood and teenage years. And for the sake of my parents, I say that we all should be proud of anyone who reaches the age of 70 or older. It's an achievement, something that should be honored and revered. Not so long ago, say 200 years ago, the idea of living to 70 years of age, perhaps seemed more like a dream than a reality. I hope someday that the age of 70 is thought of as middle age rather than old age.

The problem with Jason inferring that people of age 55+ (say the age of my parents 70 or 74) are mentally unstable is that it breeds resentment toward the elderly. And that resentment turns to contempt and that can be a dangerous thing especially for those that work in the health care system, specifically those that treat the elderly. There are far too many elderly individuals who are abused at the hands of their caretaker's everyday, every year in this country and the world over, that it is frankly disgusting.

I hope someday Jason; you learn what splendor and achievement old age is additionally I hope you learn to respect it.
Don't speak for me, Jason from Phoenix, I respect the elderly for what they have already done and for what they still endeavor to achieve.

Sent by Andrew Fenn | 4:07 PM | 7-8-2008

Charles Blow is 37. When I was 37 I thought anyone over 60 was too old for everything. What I've learned is that sometimes we mellow; consequently we make more prudent decisions. I'm 66 and I'm voting for John McCain. He has experience.

Sent by Mary Jo Converse | 4:30 PM | 7-8-2008

I think McCain's age and Obama's youth should be taken off the table. These two men are unique individuals who should be not be stereotyped based on their age. Assuming ALL elders are wiser with more valuable experience is as foolish as claiming that this population is also slow, and prone to dementia. It is equally foolish to assume youth means naive, poor judgment or a fascicle brain and energy.

Let's stop the stereotypes and judge these two candidates on an equal footing.

Sent by Sarah | 4:42 PM | 7-8-2008

Of course we want our leaders to be thoughtful, wise and be able to make good decisions. Sometimes age brings this -- sometimes age also brings stubbornness and impatience (temper?). Perhaps the really great "older" leaders in history had these latter attributes in small portion.

Sent by Jim Aiken | 6:11 PM | 7-8-2008

I forgot who said it this afternoon on the show, but that comment about not trusting a 72 year-old to pick up dry cleaning. Ridiculous! What's next -- are we going to toss McCain out onto the tundra if he loses? Senior is not synonymous with senile. My fiancee's dad is a 75 year-old dentist, STILL PRACTICING, and probably gets more done in a day than I do in a week (and I'm 26!).
The inherent ageism of the whole discussion made me want to scream. Especially the "Gen-X" caller who so arrogantly stated that John McCain's campaign and proposals are not in line with Gen-X values. Ugh, speak for yourself, pal. Sure, I'm behind Obama, and you may be behind Obama, but guess what? There's a LOT of people out there in that age bracket with conservative values and that's OKAY. Doesn't make them traitors to their demographic. It's exactly that kind of absurd generalization that gives liberals a bad name.

(See, in my world, being a liberal means you're allowed to be a Republican and I won't harass you, insult your intelligence or morals, or suggest your voice is any less noteworthy than mine.)

Sent by Eve Elizabeth Lee | 7:08 PM | 7-8-2008

Age would not be an issue IF McCain could run intellectual circles around other people. But McCain is infected with the same lack of curiosity as George Bush, and has NOT delved into the details of economics and has NOT pioneered on a better way for Iraq. Given his age, he should have learned to use computers, MySpace, and the Internet just to prove he is up to date.

Sent by CyberCitizen | 10:32 PM | 7-8-2008

It is beyond any doubt that he is too old for THIS job..as a nation we deem "retirement age" to be 65, this is the standard we use as a "general rule of thumb",in part based on their optimum job effective work years.The other equally important fact to remember is that he is NOT as forward thinking as his younger opponent. To those who say young people aren't "wise" enough to understand/lead...do you not remember it was the young who forced the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era.

Sent by 48 year old William Pocrnich | 1:28 AM | 7-9-2008

I don't know if Dr. Cooning on June 8th's Talk of the Nation was just splitting hairs when he told a caller that MRI can't detect dementia, but I think he was misleading at the least. I recalled seeing a documentary that showed very obvious differences in brain images of people with Alzheimers -- even the early stages -- and people who didnt have Alzheimers. So I went to the Web and found the article below published last year. I think a correction, or a clarification at the very least is due your listeners.

MRI may detect early Alzheimers disease
By Anthony J. Brown, MD Tuesday, Sep. 25, 2007 2:27 PM

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - An imaging technique called functional MRI, or fMRI, can spot an abnormality in brain function that may help identify people in the early stages of Alzheimers disease, according to a new report.

SOURCE: Radiology, October 2007.

www.healthcentral.com/alzheimers/news-160777-66.html

Sent by Jerzy Hayslette | 5:19 PM | 7-9-2008

As Sarah wrote, it is not some unidentified 70+ vs some unidentified 40-something. It is McCain vs Obama. McCain is not in a nursing home. He was ahead of Bush on changing strategies in Iraq, and way ahead of him on global warming. Obama is beginning to show signs of being unwilling to make judgements -- is he flip-flopping? Or is "new information" coming in that makes him change his mind on several issues?

It's McCain vs. Obama, not a 70-something vs a 40-something. And if you think that age means an inability to identify outside your generation, consider Diane Rehm's compassion, ability to multi-task and use a computer, energy, ...

And Ida, I wish that it were the case that Neil Conan or other NPR hosts would correct absurdities from guests and callers, but they do not. Listen to Diane Rehm's interview with President Carter, and she sounds as deferential as Larry King. Neil Conan let a caller essentially insult his guest Daniel Pipes.

Sent by Randy Silvers | 3:21 AM | 7-10-2008

I want to know why when you talk about presidential candidates you do not include Ron Paul? He is a very viable candidate. I for one am sick of democrates and republicans alike! It is time to get an independent in the presidency to straighten out our government!

Sent by Jim | 2:53 AM | 7-11-2008

THIS one is too old, yes.
So are his policoes and tired ideas.
I believe that the Democrats will run away with the congress AND the White House. To me, its the pendulum swinging in it's reverse-arc. It went to an extreme, and age in that arc is part of the reason it's correcting itself now.

Sent by M. Orton | 5:32 PM | 7-11-2008

John McCains Grandfather died at 61 and his father died at 70. John McCain is a male not female. Right? Females usually live longer. John McCain has gone to war and was hurt and tortured for 5 years. That has to shorten your life a fue years. So, having a mother living to be in her 90s with a different life style probably will not help him.

Sent by Lola | 9:20 PM | 9-13-2008