Crock and top role – as oldies vie for US presidency

‘Ageism’ has become as toxic as racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and all the other dangerous -isms that are pitfalls for the unwary and politically incorrect.

Perhaps that’s why a unique aspect of the US presidential election has gone largely unremarked. No such constraints here, so if you haven’t noticed, here it is:

The candidates are the oldest in presidential history.

Incumbent Donald Trump is already the oldest president of all time, being 70 years and 220 days when inaugurated in 2017. He is now 74 as he bids for a second term. But his opponent, Joe Biden, is already 77 and will be 78 just 17 days after the election, almost as old as Trump will be should he win and finish a second term.

Biden will be all of 86 should he win and complete two terms, twice the age of John Kennedy, the youngest elected president on record, who was 43 when he defeated Richard Nixon in 1960.

This raises another unspoken point: what are the prospects of Mike Pence or Kamala Harris, the would-be vice-presidents, succeeding in office? History is on their side.

Of the 45 people who have served as US president, eight have died in office: four were assassinated, and four died of natural causes. In each case, the VP has succeeded to the presidency. This practice is governed by the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the United States constitution, ratified in 1967, which declares that, “the Vice President shall become President” if the president is removed from office, dies, or resigns.

Let’s put aside the four who were assassinated – Lincoln, Garfield, McKinlay, and Kennedy – and consider those who died of natural causes.

  • The first was William Henry Harrison, on April 4, 1841, only one month after his inauguration, aged 68.
  • Next was Zachary Taylor, died on July 9, 1850, aged 65.  
  • Warren G. Harding suffered a heart attack, and died on August 2, 1923, aged 57.
  • On April 12, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt collapsed and died, just after beginning his fourth term in office, aged 63.

None were in their 70s, unlike Trump and Biden who are in mid- to late progress through their eighth decade. The odds favour their running mates, quite apart from history and the candidates’ ages.

Trump is recovering from Covid-19, alone a contributor to shortened life expectancy, obese, and lacking physical exercise. Biden’s physician is on record saying that he receives treatment for irregular heartbeat, high cholesterol, and has a history of aneurysms.  

Neither has made the age and health of the opponent a campaign issue, probably because both are well aware that it cuts two ways. But on election day, will Americans consider whom they might really be voting for as president – Mike Pence or Kamala Harris?

Who can remember vice-presidents who have succeeded to the presidency, far less those who didn’t or were losing running mates? Lyndon Johnson, maybe, successor to the assassinated Kennedy. But Gerald Ford? Chiefly remembered for being the eminently forgettable replacement for the disgraced Richard (but still an improvement on the original running mate, Spiro Agnew). 

Mike Pence (age 61) seems pretty much in the Ford category, hardly noticeable after four years as VP. And Kamala Harris (55) would be the first woman president, and a black woman of apparently very conservative inclination in some areas.

Like their senior partners, neither seems to have immediate or widespread appeal. “A contest between the evil of two lessers,” as one commentator so memorably described US presidential elections. Thinking of that could well change the minds of many come November 3. But in which direction?