Ques­tion­ing Clin­ton fit­ness for pres­i­dency

The vigor of her ideas is more crit­i­cal than her age

The Washington Times Weekly - - Front Page - By David A. Keene

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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