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Jewish World Review August 4, 2000 / 3 Menachem-Av, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports

Cheney, Abe Lincoln and Ricky Martin -- do they add up? -- "BY SELECTING Dick Cheney as his vice presidential running mate," the renowned national television news commentator intoned last week, "George W. Bush has made a point of choosing a man 10 or 12 years older than he is."

This was a highly symbolic move, the commentator said: Cheney "is a contemporary of [George W. Bush's] father," and by selecting a running mate approximately the same age as former president Bush, his son had sent a deference-to-an-older-generation message to the voters.

Well . . . George W. Bush is 54 years old. Dick Cheney, far from being 10 or 12 years older, is 59. A "contemporary" of former president Bush? The former president is 76.

Cheney may look far older than George W., but he isn't; his service in the administration of George W.'s father may endear him to the Bush family, but as far as chronological age, Cheney and his former boss aren't even close.

What is interesting about this is the obsession with age. George W., whatever else you may think of him, looks great -- any 54-year-old man would be grateful to look like the Republican nominee. Dick Cheney looks all of 59; chances are that when George W. reaches the age of 59, he'll still look like he's in his early 40s (although, as far as keeping his youthful appearance, he'd be better off to lose in November; presidents get old very quickly).

All of this has to do with the much-overused word "gravitas." It means (at least in the context of this election year) the quality of seriousness, the air of experience, the weight of somberness and anti-frivolity. George W. Bush, many say, lacks gravitas; Dick Cheney oozes it.

And it helps that, at 59, Cheney could pass for 70. If he had exactly the same amount of governmental experience, exactly the same biography that he does now, but he somehow looked like Ricky Martin, he would be less valuable to the Republican ticket. Conversely, Al Gore is chock-full of gravitas -- he may be the gravitasiest politician on the current Washington scene -- but he's only 52. Stylistic stiffness aside, Gore might be in better shape in the polls if he was exactly the same man he is now, but looked like Cheney.

As for young George W. Bush -- is he really that young? Fifty-four is a pretty good age for a president, but the fact that Bush the younger represents a purported youth movement in national politics ignores the fact that the deeply experienced two-term departing president he seeks to replace -- Bill Clinton -- is 53.

What Americans consider a desirable age for presidents -- and what they consider to be youthfulness -- appears to be a malleable concept. George W. might or might not represent a breath of fresh air in the Oval Office -- but how old do you think Franklin D. Roosevelt was when he took over the job? Talk about gravitas. He was 51 when be became president -- three years younger than George W. Bush.

And Cheney, the alleged old guy? He's two years younger than Gerald Ford was when be became president.

Presidential youthfulness is in the eye of the beholder. Who's the oldest-seeming president you can think of? Woodrow Wilson comes to mind. Now there was a man who seemed older than old. But he was 56 when he became president -- three years younger than Dick Cheney, only two years older than George W.

Fifty-seven when he became president: George Washington. There's a number that will give comfort to those who want to portray Dick Cheney as an old coot, and will also please those who want to make the argument that Cheney isn't so old after all. Dick Cheney is two years older than President George Washington was when he got the job.

But . . . Cheney is five years younger than the first George Bush was when he became president; President Bush started the job at 64. And Cheney is three years younger than Dwight Eisenhower was -- Ike was 62 when he and Mamie moved to Pennsylvania Avenue.

One more thought with which to leave you today. Both George W. Bush, at 54, and Dick Cheney, at 59, are older than another fellow who has never exactly been thought of as a presidential spring kitten:

Abraham Lincoln was 52 when he got the job.

Where were we?

Oh. Yes. Dick Cheney is not, national news commentary to the contrary, a contemporary of George W. Bush's father.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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