Age has been a big factor in this election.
For the first time, two candidates in their 70s are running for the nation’s highest office. And as you’d expect, both parties are claiming the other’s candidate is feeble, disoriented, and making no sense — i.e., too old for the job.
But 70 years doesn’t mean decrepitude as it once did. “Threescore and ten” years was the lifespan the Bible allotted to a human, but today’s 70-year-olds are different. They’re generally healthier, more active, and less mentally impaired than their parents or grandparents were at that age (if they even reached that age). Can an older candidate be less competent because of age? Certainly. But incompetence can be found in candidates of any age.
Perhaps the concern with age issue is really a concern over health: can a 70-year-old endure the stress that comes with the Oval Office?
The chances are good for either candidate because presidents appear to be unusually hardy.
For example, the Republican Party tried to recruit Dwight Eisenhower to be their presidential candidate in 1948. He turned them down, concluding he would be unelectable. They expected Thomas Dewey — the candidate they chose instead — to serve two terms. Which would make Eisenhower 66 years old if he chose to serve in 1956, and the country wouldn’t want someone that old.
But Eisenhower ran in 1951 and won. Three years later, he had a heart attack, but entered the race again in 1955, and won again. After he left the White House, he continued to play a dominant role in the Republican party until he passed away at 78.
Gerald Ford was 61 when he assumed the presidency upon Nixon’s resignation in 1974. He lived 29 years more. Ronald Reagan, aged 69 years at his 1981 inauguration, served two terms and lived 16 years beyond that. George H.W. Bush was 64 when he entered the Oval Office in 1989. He lived another 29 years.
And of course, there’s Jimmy Carter, who was elected at the tender age of 52. Thirty-nine years later, he’s still with us, building homes for Habitat for Humanity.
It’s significant that, of the six presidents who have celebrated their 90th birthday, four — Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush — served in the past 50 years.
But the number of decades is just one way to consider age. We can also judge a president’s age relative to the average lifespan of his time.
Up to the 1930s, Americans could think themselves lucky if they reached their 65th birthday. But our lifespan has continually lengthened; since 1920, the average American has gained 25 years of life.
Historians have estimated that, in the centuries preceding the 1800s, the average human lived just 35 years. The number is surprisingly low because it is calculated from the ages of all deaths within a year. Nearly half of these deaths (46 percent) were among children under the age of five, which lowered the average age of mortality for adults.
One researcher has concluded that a more realistic average lifespan of a 20-year-old American in 1800 was 47 years — still not a long life. Which is what makes John Adams so exceptional. Adams became president at the age of 61 — fourteen years beyond his expected lifetime. And he lived 25 years beyond his presidency!
Adams’s son, President John Quincy Adams, lived to 80. Thomas Jefferson reached 83, and James Madison saw his 85th birthday.
Today, the average American lives 78.54 years. But an American male who reaches the age of 65, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, has a good chance of living another 19 years.
Which means either candidate might be likely to live to the age of 84 – or beyond.
It’s possible that presidents in their 70s will be looked on more favorably as the proportion of elders in the population increases. By 2060, a quarter of the U.S. population will be over 65 years and old, and the average American lifespan will have risen from 74 to 85 years.
Children today may live to hear candidates someday complain that their 100-year-old opponents are too old to be president.
Featured image: John Adams, Dwight Eisenhower, and Andrew Jackson, three of the older presidents when they assumed office (Adams: National Gallery of Art; Eisenhower: Wikimedia Commons; Jackson: whitehousehistory.org)
On September 8, 1974, in one of the most controversial shows of presidential clemency, Gerald Ford pardoned “all offenses against the United States” that Richard Nixon may have committed between January 20, 1969 and August 9, 1974.
According to Alexander Hamilton, the Constitution gives the president the power to pardon criminals in order “to restore tranquility to the commonwealth” in politically divisive cases. But sometimes, instead of tranquility, pardons further divided the country and even destroyed presidents’ careers. Although few pardons are without controversy, some have created more waves than others.
Here’s a look at some of the more memorable pardons by our nation’s presidents.
George Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion
George Washington granted the first presidential pardon when he spared the lives of two men who’d been sentenced to hang for their part in Pennsylvania’s Whiskey Rebellion. Washington had sensed the rebellion was dying away and didn’t want to revive the cause by hanging men for treason. Hamilton didn’t approve; he wanted to make an example to other tax resisters. But pardoning the men shifted the country’s attentions away from the fading rebellion and helped defuse lingering anti-government feelings.
Andrew Johnson and the Confederacy
Andrew Johnson had the same idea in 1865, but not the same results. After the Civil War ended, he sought to reunite the country by pardoning thousands of former office-holders of the Confederacy. He believed he was carrying out the lenient attitude that President Lincoln would have wanted. Within a year of the war’s end, Johnson had granted pardons to more than 6,000 former officials of the Confederacy.
Members of the Republican Party were furious with Johnson. They believed he was giving power back to the rebels and traitors who’d started the war. Some senators thought Johnson was guilty of treason for aiding the Union’s former enemies. The Republicans split between the pro- and anti-Johnson factions. In 1868, Johnson’s opponents began impeachment hearings against him. Johnson escaped impeachment by one vote, but the Republicans, and the nation, remained divided between pro- and anti-leniency factions for years.
Harry Truman and the Conscientious Objectors
During World War II, over 15,000 Americans objected to participating in the war and refused to serve in the military. When the war ended, President Truman asked a board to review these cases to see who truly qualified for conscientious-objector status. The board found 1,500 objectors who had legitimate religious convictions barring them from service. Truman pardoned these men on December 23, 1947.
Amnesty activists pleaded with Truman to pardon the others, but he refused. Believing he’d released all honest draft resisters, he regarded the remaining conscientious objectors as “just plain cowards or shirkers.”
Jimmy Carter and the Draft Dodgers
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter was considering the fate of American men who’d refused to serve in the Vietnam War. The war had ended, but thousands who had evaded the draft were still in prison. Carter knew Americans were sharply divided over the war. He thought pardoning the draft dodgers would help resolve the divisions and move the country forward.
On January 21, 1977, he extended amnesty to all men who’d failed to register for the draft or who fled the country to avoid conscription. This included more than 50,000 American men who’d fled to Canada. The amnesty did not extend to over 500,000 men who were imprisoned for going AWOL while in uniform.
The pardon was welcomed by the families of draft dodgers, but veterans who’d served in Vietnam were infuriated. Resentment among Americans who’d supported the war only deepened. The pardon helped erode Carter’s support and probably contributed to his failed re-election bid.
Ford and Nixon
One of the most controversial presidential pardons was Gerald Ford’s pardoning of Richard Nixon. Ford must have known he’d lose some of the general support he’d enjoyed when he took over the White House after Nixon left. But he’d seen the country preoccupied by the Watergate scandal for over a year, and he knew a lengthy, public trial of Nixon, which would consume at least another year, would further divide pro- and anti-Nixon camps and distract the nation from pressing economic and international issues.
Ford was ready to move on, but the country wasn’t. Though praised by legislators in both parties, he was criticized by many Americans who wanted to see justice meted out to Nixon. A Gallup poll that month showed most Americans disapproved of the pardon. Instead of restoring tranquility to the nation, as he’d hoped, Ford had raised the Watergate issue to even greater prominence. The unpopularity of this action probably cost Ford the presidential election in 1978.
Pardons and Politics
Since then, critics have seen political motives in presidential pardons. Some considered President George H.W. Bush’s pardoning of six participants in the Iran-Contra Affair as a convenient way of protecting himself from having to testify on the affair before Congress. Some of President Clinton’s pardons were viewed by critics as efforts to protect major donors or buy votes among minority groups. In 2007, President George W. Bush commuted the prison sentence of vice-presidential advisor Lewis Libby, who’d been convicted for obstruction of justice and perjury. Bush’s action was so widely considered a cover-up for the president’s involvement that the House Judiciary Committee investigated whether pardons were being used for political gain.
It’s impossible for a president not to gain political advantages by extending a pardon. But the chief motive in pardoning should always be what Hamilton described in 1787 — restoring tranquility to the commonwealth — even if some Americans aren’t ready to forgive.
Featured image: Gerald R. Ford (White House Archives, Gerald R. Ford Library)