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The 2 oldest presidential frontrunners move closer to a rematch. Should age matter?


President Joe Biden's age - he's 81 - has become a presidential campaign issue that he and his reelection team are having a hard time shaking off, even as his very likely GOP opponent, former President Donald Trump, is almost the same age. He turned 78 in June. So is chronological age any measure of competence for the job? To discuss this, I'm joined by presidential scholar Alexis Coe. She's a fellow at the New America Foundation. Alexis, welcome to the program.

ALEXIS COE: Thank you for having me.

FADEL: So in this election, we're seeing the oldest two frontrunners by far in the history of the presidency. And for Biden, it's really become a campaign issue and a point of attack from Republicans. So I want to ask you, should the age of a president matter?

COE: I think that age should matter less than the physical, mental and emotional health of a president. History tells us that no one comes out of the White House in better shape than they entered, no matter what age they are. So we have, in the past, in our - in modern history, JFK. He was plagued by poor health his entire life. Yet that's spoken of like a wonder because it didn't, in fact, derail his presidency. Consider, however, on the flip side, what becomes very obvious is that in the age of television, in a town that's bad at keeping secrets, true dementia would be very obvious.

1984, Ronald Reagan, presidential debate. He makes a joke of it. He says, you know, he's older at the time. He's, I believe, 73. He says, I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I'm not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience. And just, like, there's a - there's less of an age difference between Biden and Trump than there was between Reagan and Mondale. But right in front of viewers, after he said that Reagan did mangle facts during the debate, and yet he went on to achieve something Trump has yet to do in two presidential elections - he won by a landslide.

FADEL: Now, is the conversation we're having right now - you and I are having, are we just having an ageist conversation? I mean, the talk of age limits, for example, is something that Senator Bernie Sanders says is just ageism.

COE: I think it is. And I think that we're not having the right conversation. I think that what's really important here is to discuss if we're going to, why limits exist. So we don't have an upper limit, but we have a lower limit. And it's good to consider why. And to do that, we have to look back at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. But I promise it's a new point we're making here. George Mason, 62 at the time, was the one who introduced an age requirement of 35. And he did so for two reasons that really aren't relevant anymore. Congress was a good school for young men, which is a great idea, but one that didn't take because it wasn't codified. We have Grant, Hoover, Eisenhower, and of course, Trump, they spent no time in Congress before ascending to the highest office.

FADEL: Right.

COE: And George Mason based his opinion on his younger self. That is one person. But here's the kicker - Mason, the progenitor of the age requirement, disagreed with other parts of the Constitution. For example, he wanted to end slavery, so he didn't even sign it. And yet this still exists.

FADEL: So are you saying there should be no age limits at all, younger or older? I mean, because a majority of Americans, according to a Pew survey, think there actually should be maximum age limits.

COE: I think if we're going to have age limits, we should have one at - we should have them at both ends, or we should have no age limits. But it is something that we should be discussing in a more balanced way.

FADEL: You know, it's 2024, major advances in medicine, technology. So people who have access to that kind of care are living longer and healthier lives. So is this something that we're just going to see more of - older people running for the highest office in the country?

COE: It's possible. I mean, published reports have told us that Biden is healthy for his age, so it does continually feel like a straw man or but her emails moment.

FADEL: Presidential scholar Alexis Coe is author of "You Never Forget Your First: A Biography Of George Washington" and the forthcoming biography of President John F. Kennedy in his youth, "Young Jack." Thank you for your time.

COE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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