President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020.
( Jim Bourg
Brooke Gladstone: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Micah Loewinger: And I'm Micah Loewinger. On Wednesday, Utah Senator Mitt Romney announced he will not seek reelection in 2024.
Senator Mitt Romney: At the end of another term, I'd be in my mid-80s. Frankly, it's time for a new generation of leaders.
Micah Loewinger: That parting shot was aimed at both of the likely front runners, though at 80 Biden is the oldest to ever occupy the Oval Office and the prospect of adding on another four years has set the discourse ablaze.
News clip: That's all I hear all day. I know it's all you here all day. I can't walk 5 feet without somebody going, "Is Joe Biden too old to run for president?"
Micah Loewinger: Some pundits say, "Yes," citing a growing list of warning signs like unsteady legs.
News clip: I just want to bring you some pictures that we've had in from the United States showing President Joe Biden who tripped and fell whilst handing out diplomas at a graduation ceremony.
News clip: President Biden trips, not once, not twice, but three times as he tries to climb the stairs to Air Force One today. He brushes off his pant leg and continues on.
Micah Loewinger: And verbal flubs.
President Joe Biden: There's no national treasure, none that is grander in the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon, one of the Earth's nine wonders, wonders of the world.
Micah Loewinger: Meanwhile, Biden's defenders say that age is just a number and that the gaffes are neither new nor inaccurate representation of his ability to run the country. Too old is just one shorthand signifier that contenders and reporters have used when framing candidate narratives in election years. John Kerry was designated a feet. George W. Bush, a frat boy. Trump, a carnival barker, just to name a few.
James Fallows is the writer of the Breaking the News newsletter on Substack and the former chief speechwriter for the Carter administration. I asked him whether this media trope whereby reporters reduce a candidate's essence to a single catchy trait is just a 21st-century phenomenon or if it goes back further than that.
James Fallows: If Abraham Lincoln were running for president right now, there'd be stories about is he too clinically depressed to bear the burdens of this office.
Micah Loewinger: That's what people wrote about him in his heyday.
James Fallows: Yes. The opposition press that day said, "Is he too closely related to chimpanzees to be president?" There was all this really horrific coverage of Lincoln, but anybody comes to that office falling short in some way. They are too old like Biden or they are too young like John F. Kennedy or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. They are too much insiders like the first George Bush or they're too much outsiders like Jimmy Carter for whom I worked. Are they too much steeped in the culture of Washington like Lyndon Johnson or are they too little steeped in that culture and don't know how to get things done, again, like Jimmy Carter?
In Texas, Gerald Ford in 1976 ate a tamale with the entire wrapping on with the corn husk and that was part of his losing Texas. There is always a way that a president falls short. Interestingly, that comparison assumes some matching up against an immaculate perfect version of the person who would do everything right in office. Whereas the real choice is how does that person compare in the real history of that moment with the alternative?
Probably the starkest example was Franklin Roosevelt, too sick to run for office for reelection to his fourth term in 1944. Certainly, he was too sick. He died a few months later, but would the country or the world have been better off with Thomas Dewey instead? I say no. I think Franklin Roosevelt, too sick to run for reelection, still there was a reason they got more than 400 electoral votes that year.
Micah Loewinger: A lot of the coverage, while perhaps laying the articles about this topic on a bit thick, are quoting polls. For example, one that has been cited quite a bit from AP-NORC that found that 77% of people thought Biden was too old to serve another four years. This isn't just like in the chatter classes imagination. There is some real reflection of how voters are feeling.
James Fallows: Yes, but: First, those polls, a year plus before an election, they almost always show some limited enthusiasm for any of the choices because by definition, the two choices we end up with always fall short. There are flaws with any of the people who served up to us as alternatives.
The second is it's a very different question to ask, is Joe Biden too old for this job? Versus, is Joe Biden being too old a better or worse choice than Donald Trump who at the moment seems like the likely alternative? The third point I'd make is that any story whose starting point is how is factor X going to play with the voters really is a story that shouldn't be written because it's trying to tell voters what they're going to think and the voters will figure that out for themselves.
Micah Loewinger: I'm not getting the sense that you think it's off-limits to acknowledge Biden's age and journalists would be ignoring reality if they did. Can you give me some examples of the particular coverage, the kinds of specific articles you've seen that don't do it?
James Fallows: In one of the papers recently, it was noticed with raised eyebrows that Joe Biden in the midst of some huge trip to Vietnam said, "What time is it here?" As somebody who has made probably three dozen trips to that part of the world from the years we lived in Malaysia and Japan and China, I can tell you the most natural thing for anybody getting off a plane or begin a trip in that part of the world is what time is it here, and all the more so if you've been in India where the time zones are in the half hour.
Micah Loewinger: It's interesting to me that you didn't name The New York Times because I'm almost certain that they included the detail of his age in its headline about the coverage of that speech. You're too polite, James.
James Fallows: I'm Mr. Can't We All Get Along? I will say that The New York Times eight years ago and before that with Hillary Clinton led the coverage which has been rightly ridiculed as, but what about her emails, and so too, you can almost see an equation again, I would say led by The Times in Biden being old with Donald Trump being under dozens of felony indictments.
Micah Loewinger: I was actually reviewing a study published in the Columbia Journalism Review that found, "In just six days The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton's emails as they did about all the policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election." A disproportionate coverage about the emails compared to what matters most. I have seen a burst of Biden coverage this year from The Times, but do you think it's really that bad?
James Fallows: The election is still what, 14 months away [chuckles] so we haven't seen the full run of events. We haven't had anything yet comparable to the James Comey revelations 10 days before the final vote. I think it's worth being aware of this ahead of time. I think it's worth also asking this about the, is Biden too old coverage? It is a very legitimate topic and should be explored along with other things about Joe Biden's accomplishments and fitness for office and prospect.
If he were reelected to ask, what does it mean that he be by far the oldest person ever to hold this office? What do medical authorities think about the way he carries himself, the things he says, the things he does, et cetera? That's all legitimate. It is also legitimate and more important for the fate of the nation, asking what he has done in his now three-plus years in office.
Micah Loewinger: I'm 30 years old and I identify with the political frustrations shared by a lot of millennials, in part because I think many of us see our beliefs and our well-being not well-represented both materially and symbolically. I mean, you look at the average age of Congress, it's been trending upwards since the '80s. It's hard not to look at Dianne Feinstein, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Grassley, Biden, Trump. You see like a gerontocracy, right?
James Fallows: This is a genuine problem. Gerontocracy is a genuine problem. The Supreme Court is its own grotesque case of one. When the Constitution was written and life tenure was established for the Supreme Court, most people didn't live that long and you didn't have the idea that people would be on there for decades upon decades. The Supreme Court obviously needs to have 18-year limited terms. The Senate is different because there are elections, but I have written myself that Senator Feinstein should step down and we know all the complications of that to have held that office.
I speak having once been young myself, having worked in the White House when I was in my 20s. I remember celebrating Jimmy Carter's birthday on the campaign trail about a month before the election, and he had just turned 54. I thought, "God, that is so old." I think it's inevitable that the media would focus on the age of the oldest person ever to hold the office, but I think it is less useful to the public in considering our choices than the people putting out these stories might think.
Micah Loewinger: James, thank you very much
James Fallows: Micah, my pleasure.
Micah Loewinger: James Fallows is the writer of the Breaking the News newsletter on Substack, and the former chief speechwriter for the Carter administration. James Fallows thinks the press can and should ask questions about Joe Biden's age, but without letting it dominate coverage.
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