Outraged posturing over Karl Rove’s recent inelegant injection of Hillary Clinton’s age and health into the discussion of whether she is up to a national campaign for the presidency predictably dominated the weekend news shows. PBS’ Gwen Ifill and Mark Shields, for example, disdainfully dismissed “Dr.” Rove’s comments, Mr. Shields calling them the political equivalent of “injecting heroin into the bloodstream.”
I feel their pain: I can remember similar feelings when Democrats — including some of those now attacking Mr. Rove — charged that Ronald Reagan was too old in 1980 and 1984; that Bob Dole was over the hill by 1996; and that John McCain should be dismissed as an ornery old man in 2012.
Reagan put concerns about his age and health to bed by campaigning vigorously in New Hampshire in 1980 and with openness and good humor in the Mondale debate in 1984. He also released his health records and vowed that if he ever became “medically unable” to function as president, he would resign. His obvious vigor both as candidate and president overcame the rumors and neither his age nor health prevented him from being elected and re-elected by overwhelming margins.
In fact, Reagan’s success is now being used by Democrats to rebut Mr. Rove’s questions about Hillary. In citing concerns about the former first lady’s age and health, Mr. Rove said, “if you’re turning 69 less than two weeks before the 2016 election and if you serve two terms, you’ll be 77 on leaving office.” So age, then, becomes a legitimate issue. True enough, but if Reagan could serve so successfully at a similar stage in his life, Hillary’s supporters ask, why should she be questioned? After all, didn’t Reagan put such questions off the table forever?
The answer is yes and no. Reagan overcame the questions himself even though they comprised one of the most feared attacks on him in 1980, yet the same issues were raised again in 1984 and later against both Mr. Dole and Mr. McCain. Supporters responded to the innuendo and attacks in much the way that Mrs. Clinton’s friends are responding today.
It may not be fair, but age and health are issues that are always raised either by the press, an older candidate’s opponent or both. To argue that age and health shouldn’t be issues won’t wash, but Ronald Reagan proved in 1980 and 1984 that openness and good humor can turn the issue on one’s opponent.
Even Hillary supporters who begrudgingly acknowledge the legitimacy of the issue argue that Mr. Rove’s comments were over the top, joining Republican Newt Gingrich who condemned Mr. Rove for his “personal” attack on Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Rove might have handled things differently, but it is hard to figure how questioning a candidate’s ability on the basis of his or her age or health can be taken as anything but personal.
Age was used to personally bludgeon Bob Dole in 1996: Mrs. Clinton’s husband’s ads subtly played on the age difference between the “vigorous” incumbent and his “tired” challenger. Even before Mr. Dole was actually nominated, more than 800 stories appeared in newspapers around the country raising the age issue and at least half of them concluded that Mr. Dole’s age would hurt his chances in November. The Atlantic Monthly asked “Should a Senior Citizen be President?” and the bashing got so bad that even The New York Times began to question the tactic, asking “Is Age Bashing Any Way to Beat Bob Dole?”
Many apparently thought it was as long as there was a chance it would work. Pollsters kept raising the issue. Eight CBS-New York Times polls asked, “If Bob Dole is elected President he will be 73 years old when he takes office. Do you think his age will help him be an effective President, or do you think his age would be an obstacle to being an effective President, or wouldn’t his age matter that much?”
The answers were predictable. Clinton supporters and Democrats thought Mr. Dole’s age was a problem. Dole supporters, not so much. Voters in the middle or the folks Rush Limbaugh likes to call “low information voters,” however, got the message by Election Day when, by a five to one margin, voters were concluding that Mr. Dole’s age was a problem.
Looking back, it is clear that Reagan was able to overcome attacks on his age and health because he looked, sounded and acted younger than many of his critics. Mr. Dole and Mr. McCain had the opposite problem: Their age tended to “show.” Everyone knows there are young people who are more impacted by bad health than older people, and vice versa. President, John F. Kennedy appeared the picture of health but was in constant pain — “a very sick man” — as liberal biographer Richard Rovere later described him. Britain’s Winston Churchill and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, like Reagan, didn’t reach the height of their intellectual and leadership powers until after many of their contemporaries had retired.
Perception trumps reality in politics. As 2016 approaches, the question that could decide Mrs. Clinton’s chances is not whether she will be too old to serve or whether her health is actually something they should worry about, but whether voters see her as the energetic, articulate and successful potential president her supporters believe her to be or an aging, tired symbol of equally tired ideas and a past many want to put behind them.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.
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