Joe Biden’s problem is not his age per se but his deteriorating mental and physical capacity. This is not a distinction without a difference since the two often diverge.
Of course, this is not to deny that they often go together, as I can affirm from my own experience. I am younger than the President but notice my own deterioration, and not only my knees. Ideas and arguments still come easily, but remembering names, which are usually disconnected from any analytical threads, is much harder, something my friends of similar age also report.
In an academic discussion I can quote verbatim from Why Liberalism Failed or some other volume and discourse on the themes of that book by, by, by … that guy, whatshisname? If someone nudges me with “Deneen” then that is enough to jar the old synapses and I can quickly add “Patrick Deneen” and further drone on about why I found the book unpersuasive, mainly because it is too rationalistic, as though politics is the unfolding of abstract ideas.
In other respects, my memory is still excellent. I can even remember things that never actually happened—or at least never happened as my memory says they had. I remember on the morning of 9/11 being evacuated as part of a remarkably disciplined crowd from the Capitol itself, where we were about to hold a much long-planned event on Sudan. But, later, I have been corrected by many other participants that we were not exiting the Capitol but the adjacent Rayburn House Office building. This was a mere block away, so the key themes are true but, still, there was something important which my memory had blurred, perhaps to increase the drama of the occasion. This latter seems to be a widespread malady, especially among politicians and senior journalists who recount amplified or even false versions of their adventures under fire.
So, yes, of course our mental powers usually do deteriorate with age.
What was I saying….?
Ah yes, but age itself is only one dimension and is not per se determinative.
I am working on a book about John Perkins, who is 93-years-old, born a sharecropper in Mississippi in 1930. He’s slowed down a bit but he has still been turning out almost a book a year, a lot more than I have.
Konrad Adenauer served in a key and demanding role when in 1949 at the age of 73 he became the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, tasked with rebuilding a country that had become a pariah and that had been devastated a mere four years before. He inherited from its foreign military governors a broken, divided, and vilified country. He bore this load for fourteen years, stepping down only in 1963 at which point he was 87. He served a further three years, until he was 90, as the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a party he co-founded, and which was the dominant force in the country under his leadership. Whether you agree with his politics or not, by nearly every account, he was on top of the job—indeed, his critics charged that he tended to make most of the major decisions himself and treated his ministers as mere extensions of his authority. Whatever he may have been, he was not a fading political force.
Or take Andy Marshall, the long-time head of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment. This is a think tank in the Department of Defense. It was not merely one of such many outfits but was a core one—hence the “net” assessment—a place where to draw on many, many resources to reach an integrated overview of the world situation we face. He was a genius at this, the Yoda of the Defense Department. In an interview in 2012, Major General Chen Zhou, the main author of four Chinese defense white papers, stated that Marshall was one of the most important figures in changing Chinese defense thinking in the 1990s and 2000s. The Washington Post obituary was the one that referred to him as the “Yoda” of defense policy. He retired in 2015 at the age of 94.
On May 27, Henry Kissinger had his hundredth birthday, and I still read eagerly anything he writes. You can disagree with what he says, but he is certainly not past it. I wouldn’t put him in a position that requires energy in the executive, but even now he would be a wonderful advisor.
Nancy Pelosi was until January 2022 the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Born in 1940, she is older than the President by about two years, but in office until she was 81, did not appear to have lost a step. To borrow a CNN phrase, she was in her prime. Many Republicans, stymied by her political abilities, would perhaps have wished fervently that she had shown more of Biden’s deficiencies, but she did not seem to.
In a slightly related matter, several of the more scurrilous tweets that regularly cross my desk intimate that she drinks a lot. I do not say that this is true but, if it were, I would have advised Democrats to follow Lincoln’s advice. The New York Times reported in 1863 that “When someone charged Gen. Grant, in the President’s hearing, with drinking too much liquor, Mr. Lincoln, recalling Gen. Grant’s successes, said that if he could find out what brand of whiskey Grant drank, he would send a barrel of it to all the other commanders.”
Where was I…?
Oh yes, it is not President Biden’s age per se that is key, but the fitness of his mind and body. He may at times be sharp and alert, but perhaps only for a limited period each day. His official schedule is reportedly very light–little in the early day or after the late afternoon. But what if one of the newly released to Ukraine F-16s attacks Russian territory and Putin responds with a tactical nuclear strike on a relatively unpopulated area? This would require an horrifically difficult decision from any American President. FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Reagan, even at the top of their game, would be very hard pressed in knowing how best to respond. But it is much more terrifying yet if the question of proper response were to land on the desk or phone of a tired and befuddled President.
We should avoid the common American infatuation with youth and a tendency to exclude the old because they are old, as if this world were created yesterday and we hubristically believe that we can learn little or nothing from what has come before. The young can learn from the experience of the old just as the old can learn from the novelties created by the young.
There are people much older than we who function very well, in politics as elsewhere. And older people can also bring vast practical experience unavailable to the young. We need experienced Yodas who have actually “been there.” If not, fail we shall and regret we will.
The worries about President Biden should not be focused on his age: the world is full of older energetic, talented people. The key issue is the reported deterioration of his faculties. We should focus not on age but on ability.