Does history show that age affects US presidents’ performance? Plus, how old is too old?

With septuagenarians dominating the 2020 US presidential race, Peter Ling writes for HistoryExtra on the age of presidents through history, considering whether a president’s performance can ever be linked to age-related issues…

John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon were both in their 40s during the 1960 presidential campaign. (Image by Alamy)

President Donald Trump has been criticised for many things, but the fact that he was 70 years and 220 days old when he took the oath of office on 20 January 2017 is rarely mentioned. This made him the oldest American president ever at first inauguration, pushing Ronald Reagan off the pedestal – although if Trump loses in 2020, Reagan, who was 73 years and 349 days at the start of his second term in January 1985, would still be the oldest person to take the presidential oath.

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Unless, that is, the successful Democratic contender were either Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont or the former vice president, Joe Biden. Sanders would be well into his 80th year in January 2021 and Biden reaches his 78th birthday on 20 November 2020. The other Democratic front-runner of the moment, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, turned 70 on 22 June 2019, so if she were elected, she would be older than Trump was on inauguration day. Late November brought the news that billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who was born in 1942 and turns 78 in February 2020, was putting himself forward for the Democratic nomination.

With septuagenarians dominating the 2020 race – and with Sanders hospitalised after a heart attack and reporters seizing on Biden memory slips – the conversation has turned to whether there should be an age restriction. Already the US Constitution requires all presidential candidates to be at least 35 years old, a reflection of the belief among the Founding Fathers that the nation’s chief executive should be a figure of some experience.

The 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951, by setting term limits, also limits age indirectly. No-one can be elected president for more than two four-year terms, and this amendment was a response to the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who died in office in April 1945 having won a fourth term the previous November. Clearly then, health is one important consideration when determining how old is too old. Let’s look at some famous examples to see if presidential performance is age-related.

Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren – septuagenarians are dominating the 2020 race. (Images by Getty)

George Washington

Washington was very much the prototype for subsequent presidents. His age when he took office in 1789 (57 years and 67 days) is just on the high side of presidential average age at inauguration, of 55 years and 3 months. There was no legal requirement for him to step aside in 1797, but he did so to reaffirm that the new nation was a republic and not a monarchy.

US president George Washington
George Washington was 57 when he took office in 1789. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor

Harrison and Taylor were the first presidents to be firmly past 60 upon taking office. Harrison, at 68 years and 23 days, was the oldest president before Ronald Reagan when he took the oath in 1841 and like Washington, had parlayed military achievement into political success. His defeat of the Shawnee chieftain Tecumseh at the battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 may not be well remembered by white Americans today, but it was sufficiently famous at the time for Harrison to be known as “Old Tippecanoe” for decades to come. However, only 23 days after his cold, wet, windswept inauguration day, during which he delivered a two-hour address without overcoat or hat, Harrison succumbed to what was thought to be pneumonia but was most probably typhoid fever.

US president William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison, at 68 years and 23 days, was the oldest president before Ronald Reagan when he took the oath in 1841. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Despite this signal that an older candidate might be a risky option, the Whig Party turned to another military hero, Zachary Taylor, to be their standard bearer in 1848. He was 64 years and 100 days old at the start of his presidency and the weather was kinder. However, he was required to attend a lot of ceremonial occasions and to tour the north-east, a region that the Virginian-born, Kentucky-based Taylor did not know well.

Fatefully, the presidential routine of dinners and receptions did not suit Taylor’s system. On Independence Day 1850 the president attended a fund-raising event for the Washington Memorial where he rashly consumed raw fruit and iced milk. Initially diagnosed as gastroenteritis, Taylor’s illness did not respond to treatment and he died on 9 July, 16 months into his office. He was still only 65 years of age.

William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor are not positive proof that elderly candidates run a higher risk of dying in office

Harrison and Taylor are not positive proof that elderly candidates run a higher risk of dying in office. They might better be seen as an encouragement to all ages to dress appropriately for the weather and follow good food hygiene, but they did reinforce the wisdom of choosing a younger vice president. The 51-year-old John Tyler saw out the rest of Harrison’s term and the 50-year-old Millard Fillmore served out the remainder of Taylor’s term.

However, choosing a good VP cannot be solely a matter of age. When William McKinley was re-elected in 1900, his running mate was the flamboyant Theodore Roosevelt, who was not yet 43. Succeeding to the presidency on McKinley’s assassination in September 1901, Roosevelt remains the youngest person to become president – although he was older than John F Kennedy when he took the oath of office to begin his first elected term in 1905.

US president Zachary Taylor
US president Zachary Taylor died in office aged 65. (Courtesy of the National Archives/Newsmakers/Getty Images)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt’s fifth cousin, Franklin had just turned 51 years old when he entered the Oval Office in 1933. He had been stricken with paralysis of the lower body in 1921 but this had not prevented him being an effective governor of New York. However, by the time he secured re-election to a fourth term in 1944 he had passed 63, and was in bad shape with congestive heart failure and other ailments aggravated by his chain smoking.

When Roosevelt returned from the Yalta conference with Stalin and Churchill in 1945, his frail and aged demeanour shocked observers. Yet his vice president, Harry Truman, remained largely excluded from key policy decisions, which meant that FDR’s sudden death in April produced a dramatic transition. It was Truman, for instance, who decided to use nuclear weapons against Japan.

Ronald Reagan

During his first term, America’s oldest president Ronald Reagan gained a reputation for delegation of responsibilities. However, his unimpaired geniality combined with his recovery from a near fatal gunshot wound ensured that few Americans questioned Reagan’s competence on age grounds after his landslide victory in 1984.

Reagan's recovery from a near fatal gunshot wound ensured that few Americans questioned his competence on age grounds

But these concerns did resurface as the Iran-Contra scandal unfolded – especially in the context of Reagan’s frequent response to investigators that he simply did not remember conferring over the illegal weapons deal that sold arms to Iran in order to procure funds for right-wing Nicaraguan rebels. At the time, critics thought this was a subterfuge, but Reagan’s Alzheimer’s disease, although diagnosed five years after he left office, may have contributed to his inability to monitor what was happening in his administration. This threw a spotlight on the significance of age as a risk factor in relation to presidential performance.

US president Ronald Reagan
US president Ronald Reagan makes an announcement from the White House. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

John F Kennedy

In the election of 1960, Kennedy and his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, were around the same age, and both apparently signalled that a new generation was taking charge. It was a development that Dwight D Eisenhower’s two heart attacks while in office suggested was prudent. In the first ever televised debate, Kennedy exuded youthful, sun-tanned vigour while Nixon, who was recovering from an infection looked, in the opinion of one observer, as if he were already embalmed.

Ironically, in fact, Kennedy was chronically ill due to damaged adrenal glands and crumbling spinal vertebrae that often required him to wear a back brace. He was sustained by a complicated legal and illegal drug regimen, which may have impaired his performance in his first summit with Khrushchev in Vienna, but seemed to keep him calm while others faltered during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thus, the image of youth was an illusion in 1960 but one that was sharpened in public memory when the wartime generation of leaders – Churchill, de Gaulle, and Eisenhower – joined in the mourning after Kennedy’s assassination.

His successor, Lyndon B Johnson had recently turned 55 when the shots rang out in Dallas, but his own bid for the presidency in 1960 had been hampered by memories of his heart attack in the Senate in 1955 when he was just 47.

 

How old is too old?

Choosing a young president is no guarantee of stability, although health checks should ensure that no one as ill as Kennedy is ever again elected. Nevertheless, choosing a president who is older than the proverbial three score years and ten does carry some additional risks, particularly if the politician stands outside without an overcoat in the rain or even just eats unwashed fruit. If we consider Reagan as a test case, it can mean that there is not just delegation but inadequate oversight of policy (although scholars argue over whether Reagan genuinely was unaware of a project that pursued his stated goal of aiding the Contra rebels).

Observing Donald Trump as president has elicited plenty of commentary about his mental state and distinctive style of governance, but in truth relatively little links his performance to his age. Living former presidents – Carter, Clinton, Bush Junior and Obama – agree that the presidency is a demanding role, and its pressures are sometimes conspicuously evident in before-and-after photos of these individuals. Carter himself is on record as saying that he does not believe he could have undertaken the job effectively as an older man. However, health monitoring, term limits and public scrutiny seem fairer safeguards than a simple numerical age limit.

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Peter Ling is a professor of American studies at the University of Nottingham, and the author of a biography of John F Kennedy (Routledge 2013).