Jewish World Review Feb. 14, 2008 / 8 Adar I 5768
McCain uses laugh lines in his speeches to act as an inoculation against age
By Roger Simon
Should John McCain get the Republican nomination this year, he will be 72 years old, a wounded war veteran and a cancer survivor.
When Dole ran, he got beat up pretty good about his age.
David Letterman began running a series of mock, but realistic-sounding, Dole TV ads.
"Some candidates for president lived through Vietnam and World War II," the announcer said in a serious voice. "But only one candidate lived through the Civil War and the Declaration of Independence. Vote for Bob Dole! He's a thousand years old!"
On the day that Bill Clinton, who was 50, went in for his annual physical, Letterman said, "And in a related move, Bob Dole went in today for his annual autopsy."
Letterman continued: "Bob Dole is so old his Social Security number is 2. He's so old that when he was a teenager, his cologne was New Spice. He's so old, his Secret Service code name is The Clapper."
Just jokes, of course. But can McCain expect to be treated any differently regarding his age should he get the Republican nomination?
So far in the primary campaign, age has not been much of an issue. And McCain often uses a laugh line in his speeches that acts as an inoculation.
"I am older than dirt," he says, "and have more scars than Frankenstein."
He also mentions that his mother, who recently turned 96, is doing just fine.
Mark McKinnon, a senior McCain adviser, told me: "By emerging vigorously from the wreckage of his early campaign, by out-hustling his opponents doing twice as many events on half the sleep, by parading around his 96-year-old mother who just got her driver's license renewed, John McCain effectively has put the age issue to rest."
But last August, at a town hall meeting in Ankeny, Iowa, a woman asked McCain why he really wanted to be president. "You're getting pretty old," she said. "And it's such a hard job!"
"I'm sorry I called on you," McCain replied as the crowd laughed.
Then, last month, there was the Chuck Norris incident.
Norris is a karate champion and actor who is supporting Mike Huckabee. The day after McCain won the South Carolina primary, Norris said McCain was too old for a job as stressful as the presidency.
"That's why I didn't pick John to support, because I'm just afraid the vice president will wind up taking over his job within that four-year presidency," Norris said.
Huckabee was asked if McCain was fit for the job and said, "Only John McCain and his hairdresser know for sure."
Then Huckabee went on: "I think he's got a lot of vigor. I think, you know, Chuck's point is, it is a very stressful position. ... I'm not going to say he's too old. I think he has a lot of strength, good genetic factors from his mom. So you know, I don't know. I know more about whether I'm fit to do it, and I think I am."
Huckabee is 52. Barack Obama is 46 and Hillary Clinton is 60. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll released last March, less than 1 percent of the people surveyed "said that the 70s were the best age for a president, while 52 percent said the 50s were the best age."
But McCain works hard on the stump. His campaign days are long, and instead of spending downtime, he can be found talking virtually nonstop to reporters.
And age is far from a perfect guide to health. John Kennedy, at age 43, became the youngest person ever elected to the presidency (and still is associated with the word "vigor"). Yet, as was revealed decades after his death, Kennedy was sick from age 13 through the rest of his life. According to Dr. Jeffrey Kelman, who examined Kennedy's medical records in 2002, "he was never healthy. I mean, the image you get of vigor and progressive health wasn't true."
When McCain ran in 2000, he released 1,500 pages of medical and psychiatric records.
Do you think all candidates should release their medical and psychiatric records? I asked him in an interview last year.
"I don't know," he said. "I think probably in my case it was a little more unique because of my POW status and the war injuries and the fact that people were spreading rumors that I was crazy and disabled both. So we'll probably have to do that again."
You think the rumors will start again? I asked.
"They already have!" he said.
But they have been pretty quiet. And McCain has not really had to face any age or health issues in the primary or any jokes that I can recall on national TV.
This will change in the general election. Everything changes in the general election. Everything takes on a heightened importance, and small weaknesses often are blown up into major vulnerabilities.
McCain says he is ready.
"Usually, people watch my performance to see if I need a drool cup, or stumble around, or anything like that," McCain said a few months ago. "Usually, people just come and watch me, and I try to show them the energy and vigor that I'm capable of."
Tuesday, I talked to Mark Salter, McCain's top aide, co-author and closest associate. He disagreed that age has not already surfaced in the campaign.
"Every time Mitt Romney talked about 'old' ideas and 'old' ways, he was just emphasizing old, old, old," Salter said. "But just spend a day with McCain. There is not a single candidate on either side of this race who has worked as hard as he has, not one."
And then there is what McCain does in his "free" time.
"Not a single candidate, including the new and exciting Barack Obama, opens himself up to press questions 12 hours a day like John McCain does," Salter said. "John McCain has proven his vigor and enthusiasm for the campaign ahead."
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© 2008, Creators Syndicate