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Is Trump Giving 70-Year-Olds a Bad Name?

One noted columnist says older people shouldn’t run for the White House

By Grace Birnstengel

In his recent op-ed piece, “Time to take baby boomers off the ticket,” Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle argued that “no thriving society finds its fresh thinking among its oldest leaders.” By this, Von Drehle, 56, meant that the highest seat in United States office should be saved for those around 50 or younger — a bold case.

Credit: Gage Skidmore

This notion was of course sparked by the fact that the current United States president is its oldest-when-elected, 71-year-old Donald Trump, who was 70 when he won.

The four presidents Von Drehle says are widely regarded as “the best” — George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt — all took office around, or under, the age of 50. He thinks that's a telling link between age and ability.

“Why am I reading about potential candidates for 2020 who will be in their 70s?” Von Drehle lamented, citing possible future Democratic candidates like Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who are all either in their 70s or would be in 2020.

“The wisdom of years is a check, not an engine,” he wrote. “Though age takes its toll in different ways on different people, in the aggregate the science is clear: Mental agility, executive function and creativity all tend to decline as we pass through middle age.”

Von Drehle, who wrote a book about Lincoln, said he yearns for leaders at the peak of their “creative and conceptual powers” who reflect the body of people most affected by the president’s decisions in the long run.

“Decisions that will shape lives long after the baby boomers are gone should not be made by boomers and their older siblings. We’re passing a lot of red ink and unsolved problems to the next generation. We should pass the torch, too,” wrote Von Drehle.

Anti-Trump Sentiment: Fuel for Ageism?


According to NPR, Trump has the lowest job-approval rating of any president in modern polling. He has lingered around 39 percent approval since taking office. It’s possible that Trump is giving 70-year-olds a bad name in the eyes of most Americans, and it’s also possible that Americans — perhaps Von Drehle in his column — are making unfair connections between Trump’s behavior and his age.

At Next Avenue, we’ve done enough reporting about people over 50 to know that ageism is deeply and widely embedded into our culture. It’s pervasive in the tech industry, health care and the words we use. Ageism is everywhere. It's the "last socially acceptable prejudice." Not often enough are we conscious of how the way we speak, think and act reinforces stereotypes and misjudgments about older people.

While more attention was drawn to Hillary Clinton's age than Trump’s during the election campaign, people sometimes use age and the results of age as ammunition against Trump, too. Some have even said Trump has dementia or pre-dementia.

Is it fair to criticize and question the president? Of course. Democracy runs on it. But is it OK to center your gripes around the president's age and perceived intellectual capacity because of it? Are those aspects of objection as valid as say, his policy decisions or his treatment of others? Would Trump really have been a different president at age 40 or 50 than the one he is now?

Certainly, 70-year-olds can run triathlons, be cabaret singers and fight for women’s rights. It's not so far-fetched to think a 70-year-old could make a solid president and successfully run a prosperous and equitable nation.

Grace Birnstengel
Grace Birnstengel was an editor, reporter and writer for Next Avenue. She focused on in-depth storytelling and the intersections of identity and aging. Read More
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