On the day before the 1980 presidential election, I telephoned friends urging them not to vote for Ronald Reagan.  The reason:  the 69-year-old candidate was showing signs of senility.

How did I reach that false conclusion? I was fresh from two weeks reporting on Reagan’s campaign, traveling on his press plane, observing the candidate up close at rallies. In October during a campaign stop in Columbia, South Carolina, I spent 20 minutes interviewing the former California governor. 

My assessment was based on Reagan’s habit of cupping a hand behind his ear to hear questions shouted from afar. In addition, he often hesitated– looking down and nodding before answering.  

Looking back, I’m embarrassed that I made a judgement about age and fitness from such flimsy evidence.  In fact, Reagan’s partial deafness went back decades. And the pause before answering was his way of gaining an extra moment to collect his thoughts. 

Reagan was three months short of turning 70 and the oldest first-term president when he took office in 1981. Fast forward to 2021 and Joe Biden was nine years older than Reagan in 1981.

Mental competence, of course, is more important than age. And regrettably President Biden increasingly looks and acts like the octogenarian he is. His gait is almost a shuffle. He’s often confused, losing his train of thought when speaking without a teleprompter.

While Biden’s age was not a big factor in 2020, it already is as we approach 2024. 

Washington Post columnist, David Ignatius created a stir when he wrote in mid-September that the president should withdraw his candidacy. “Running for reelection,” the influential Ignatius wrote, “would risk undoing his greatest achievement—which was stopping Donald Trump.”  Ignatius argues that Biden’s age is a liability and notes that Biden would be 86 at the end of a possible second term.  

On the Republican side Donald Trump is only three and a half years younger than Biden but he does not yet exhibit the infirmities visible with President Biden.  Despite formidable legal problems and the possibility that he could be behind bars in November 2024, polls suggest that with a big lead over his rivals Trump is the likely Republican nominee. 

Republican challengers are cautious in addressing Trump’s age and fitness.  However, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley who was United Nations ambassador under Trump, is outspoken in her criticism. The 51-year-old Haley says “it is time for a new generational conservative leader.” She points to polls showing that three-quarters of Americans do not want a rematch between Trump and Biden. She urges Republicans to acknowledge that “the easily distracted and thin-skinned” former president is the country’s most disliked politician.   

Mike Pence, 64, vice-president under Donald Trump, similarly says Republicans needs new leadership, “that will stay grounded to timeless conservative principles.” Ron DeSantis, the 45-year-old Florida governor, who led the list of challengers to Trump also calls for generational change. “The ages of Trump and Biden,” he says are “absolutely legitimate issues for voters.” DeSantis says “the presidency is not a job for someone who is 80-years-old.” 

America’s gerontocracy extends past the presidency to the congress.  Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, is 81. Twice in recent months he has experienced face and voice freezes lasting several seconds. His doctors say there is no evidence of neurological damage. Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the house of representatives, is 83. She has announced her candidacy for reelection from her San Francisco district.

If President Biden were to withdraw, who would take his place? Vice-president Kamala Harris polls badly on popularity.  Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is not taken seriously.  California governor Gavin Newsom, 55, is a strong backer of Biden and says he is not a candidate.

As to myself, despite being stupidly wrong in 1981, I’m undeterred from making an early prediction about the 2024 election.  I believe that neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump will be their party’s candidates in 2024. Friends have responded saying they hope I’m right but doubting that I am.  We’ll see. But I hold to my prediction, convinced that Americans– no matter their party affiliation—are desperate for younger leaders.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR.

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Washington writer Barry D. Wood for two decades was chief economics correspondent at Voice of America News, reporting from 25 G7/8, G20 summits. He is the Washington correspondent of RTHK, Hong Kong radio. Wood's earliest reporting included covering key events in South and southern Africa, among them the Portuguese withdrawal from Mozambique and Angola and the Soweto uprising in the mid-1970s. He is the author of the book Exploring New Europe, A Bicycle Journey, based his travels – by bicycle – through 14 countries of the former Soviet bloc after the fall of Russian communism. Read more of his work at econbarry.com. Watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07OIjoanVGg