An axiom of American presidential politics is that an issue passes from the state of possibly pertinent to being gravely serious when it becomes the subject of parody on Saturday Night Live. In fact, the more irreverently SNL writers and performers treat the subject, the more politically significant it is.
Fair or not, Saturday Night Live has spoofed public perceptions of Gerald Ford's clumsiness, Jimmy Carter's paltriness, Ronald Reagan's forgetfulness, George H.W. Bush's whininess, Bill Clinton's tawdriness and George W. Bush's vacuousness.
Presidential elections offer a bounty for the comedy minded, with this year's harvest yielding as much parody of the media's coverage of the candidates as the candidates themselves. As in the past, the leading presidential contenders have made cameo appearances to demonstrate that they are adept at parodying themselves.
John McCain made the most recent and most consequential of these appearances last month. In it, he asked the American people: "What should we be looking for in our next president?"
The answer: "Certainly someone who is very, very, very old."
"I have the courage, the wisdom, the experience and most importantly the oldness necessary the oldness it takes to protect America, to honor her, love her and tell her about what cute things the cat did."
Race and sex have been the contentious issues of the extended Democratic primary fight. As the focus begins to shift to November, age will join the mix.
If, as expected, Barack Obama and John McCain become the nominees, they will have the largest age differential of presidential candidates from major political parties in American history 25 years, an entire generation. If sworn in at age 47, Obama would become the sixth youngest American to reach the Oval Office. McCain at 72 would be the oldest.
So it's wise for McCain to try to defuse the age issue by mocking himself before a young, hip audience that naturally gravitates toward Obama. That generational difference separates men and women who lived through the Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War, the civil rights struggles and the upheaval of Vietnam from those for whom these are merely historical references.
At best, the most recent of these events are but distant memories for Obama and his contemporaries. To bridge the generational gap, McCain portrays himself as a wise, old patriarch who tells kitty-cat stories to the grandkids.
There's more than just satire at work in this portrait. After eight tumultuous years of the Bush administration, McCain will use the wisdom and experience that come with age to campaign against the prospect of another leader untested on the national stage. McCain can't turn back the hands of time. But he can manipulate them to his advantage.
When Hillary Clinton tried to earmark $1 million in federal funds for a museum to commemorate the Woodstock music festival of 1969, McCain highlighted their differing ages and different political worldviews. "I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event," the former POW deadpanned at a GOP presidential debate in Florida. "I was tied up at the time."
You can be certain that McCain strategists are formulating how best to juxtapose McCain catapulting off aircraft carriers with Obama in diapers, or McCain enduring torture in Hanoi while Obama was enrolled at Honolulu's exclusive Punahou School.
The challenge for McCain is that his newly cultivated, avuncular and jovial character is at odds with his better-known, short-fused and ill-tempered character one reminiscent of the Grumpy Old Man once played with great hilarity on Saturday Night Live by Dana Carvey:
"I'm old and I'm not happy. Everything today is improved and I don't like it. I hate it! In my day we didn't have hair dryers. If you wanted to blow dry your hair you stood outside during a hurricane. Your hair was dry but you had a sharp piece of wood driven clear through your skull. And that's the way it was, and you liked it!"
Wise old man or grumpy old man? For McCain, that's the Saturday Night Live dilemma.