The Era of Octogenarians

True to his reputation of being a compassionate man, President Joe Biden phoned Mitch McConnell after his most recent momentary paralysis. For the second time in five weeks, the Senate Republican leader, one of the most influential elected officials in Washington, D.C., froze in front of reporters last Wednesday and remained in worrying silence for more than 10 seconds.

Referring to the phone call two days later, the Democratic president wanted to be reassuring about the state of health of his “good friend.” “He was his old self on the telephone,” he told reporters, before stating that the 81-year-old’s reaction wasn’t abnormal after the serious concussion he suffered last March after falling down in a Washington hotel. “I’m confident he’s going to be back to his old self,” added the first octogenarian president of the United States.

Ironically, Joe Biden showed compassion for McConnell that was lacking among many Republicans, including Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a fierce ally of former President Donald Trump. This attitude is distinctively part of the reign of octogenarians in Washington, D.C., which Trump would also join if he won a second term in the White House.

“Severe aging health issues and/or mental health incompetence in our nation’s leaders MUST be addressed.”

— Marjorie Taylor Greene, last Wednesday.

She accompanied her message with a clip of the uncomfortable episode where McConnell was incapable of answering a journalist’s question about whether he would seek an eighth term in 2026. According to Greene, President Biden and Sen. McConnell are “examples of people who are not fit for office.”

Last Wednesday night, Fox News host Laura Ingraham offered a blunt yet honest explanation for the callous attitude of some Republicans toward McConnell. According to her, it’s “cruel” for Republicans to keep McConnell as Senate leader, given that he shares the same “obvious symptoms of both serious physical and cognitive decline” with the 46th president.

“And it also negates [Republicans’] ability to make Biden’s own decrepit state an issue in 2024,” she added.

Decrepit. The word reflects the exacerbated ageism that the American right uses to target Biden, with words like “senility” or “dementia” to describe the president’s mental state.

It bears remembering that this description doesn’t match with the description that Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has used. After last spring’s debt ceiling negotiations, the California representative used the words “very professional, very smart” to describe Biden.

Biden’s age is not just an obsession among his opponents; it also worries his own supporters.

An AP/NORC poll released last week indicated that 77% of American adults, including 69% of Democrats, believe that the Democratic president is too old to run for a second term in the White House.

Only half of the respondents offered the same answer concerning Trump, who nevertheless celebrated his 77th birthday last June. Clearly, the former president projects a more dynamic image in the public eye than that of Biden, whose well-counted 80 years are among the topics covered in his administration’s first behind-the-scenes book, which will go on sale on Tuesday.

“His advanced years were a hindrance, depriving him of the energy to cast a robust public presence or the ability to easily conjure a name,” writes author and journalist Frank Foer in “The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future.”

“It was striking that he took so few morning meetings or presided over so few public events before 10 a.m. His public persona reflected physical decline and time’s dulling of mental faculties that no pill or exercise regime can resist. In private, he would occasionally admit that he felt tired,” added the author in an excerpt from his book published by The Guardian.

Foer, who enjoyed unprecedented access to members of Biden’s entourage, is hardly a Make America Great Again author.

Targeted in four criminal cases, Trump has his own image problems. According to the AP/NORC poll, Americans worry more about his character than his age. When asked to describe the owner of Mar-a-Lago, the words “corrupt,” “criminal,” “traitor,” “liar” and “dishonest” came up as often, if not more so, than the words “old,” “outdated,” “senile,” “dementia” or “sleepy” to describe Biden.

So, the Democratic president can take comfort in the thought that age will not necessarily be the deciding factor for voters in 2024. But both strategists and voters from the two major political parties know that a political disaster may be one medical problem away.

Who knows? The compassion Biden showed to his “friend” McConnell perhaps stemmed from an unconscious or secret wish to inspire the same feeling if he, in turn, were temporarily incapacitated in September or October 2024.

But compassion has its limits in politics.

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