NY Times, June 22, 2016

For Presidents, Age Is Not Just a Number

By JOSHUA PRAGER

“One of the mixed blessings of being 20 and 21 and even 23,” Joan Didion wrote, “is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.”

But of course it has. Whether we are 20 — or 2 or 91 — we feel, by and large, what billions of others have felt at that same age. Writers know this. Our great books are filled with universal observations about our every year, their desperations and delights.

All of us age more or less in step — you, me and our two presumptive nominees for president. Donald J. Trump, who turned 70 last week, would no doubt recognize himself in the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote, “A man of 70 should know what he wants.”

Still, not every passage can speak to every person. Hillary Clinton began her second bid for president at an age when such mountainous ambition is generally in decline. In a magazine article titled “Life at Sixty-Seven,” Theodore Dreiser wrote, “Fame, success, power, $500 million, world leadership — well, if they should arrive, I might not exactly take to cover, but as for lying awake nights craving them as in my youth I did — well, I really don’t care to any more.”

Nonetheless, the simple fact remains that age informs who we are. That fact is as relatable to our presidents as it is to the rest of us. And as we wait to see how age might shape a Trump or Clinton presidency, here is a sampling of observations about age that speak to the experiences of our last eight presidents.


obamaBarack Obama was months shy of 46 when he announced his candidacy for president.

At 46 one must be a miser; only have time for essentials.

—Virginia Woolf, “The Diary of Virginia Woolf,” March 22, 1928

clintonBill Clinton was 51 when news of his affair with Monica Lewinsky broke.

At fifty-one you had to keep running just to escape the avalanche of your own past.

—Stephen King, “Needful Things”

carterJimmy Carter was 54 when, in a bid to put a finger on the nation’s problems, he gave his “Malaise” speech.

At fifty-four, he thinks a lot of things, he believes a few, but what can he really claim to know?

—Julian Barnes, “Arthur & George”

bushGeorge W. Bush was almost 57 when he commenced his attack on Iraq.

Fifty-seven; it’s a critical age … Desire is much the same as it ever was but satisfaction brings in its revenges.

—Hjalmar Söderberg, “Doctor Glas”

nixonRichard Nixon was 61 when he resigned as president.

I might, at sixty-one years of age, have been a little inclined to stay at home.

—Daniel Defoe, “The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe”

 


fordGerald Ford was about to turn 62 when he slipped on a staircase in Austria; from then on he was lampooned as clumsy.

He was turning sixty-two, not an age of life-altering shocks but only of subtle diminishments.

—Paul Theroux, “The Lower River”

bushsrGeorge H. W. Bush was 66 when he chose to upend Republican orthodoxy and raise taxes.

At sixty-six I am more rebellious than I was at 16. Now I know the whole structure must topple, must be razed.

—Henry Miller, “Art and Outrage”

reaganRonald Reagan was 70 when he survived an assassination attempt.

You must take living so seriously
That even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees
And not for your children, either,
But because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
Because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

—Nazım Hikmet, “On Living”

Illustrations by Lauren Tamaki