First I should own up to the fact that I don’t know what we decided on Tuesday. This column is going to press as they’re counting the ballots. But I know it would be hard to get your attention with anything else this week, so I thought I’d bring up a demographic oddity that in any normal election cycle might have gotten more attention from the pundits.
If Hillary and Donald are the oddest couple to face each other in any presidential election, they’re also the oldest.
When Ronald Reagan campaigned for president in 1980, a major issue raised by Democrats was his advanced age. When he campaigned in Knoxville, with a parade down Gay Street and a speech on Market Square, he was a long-ago California governor, and an even longer-ago Hollywood actor, from the black and white era. I watched him roll by in a convertible as I was eating a Blaufeld’s Deli sandwich. To me, he seemed ancient.
He was 69. Back then, the pundits expressed concern that Reagan, well beyond what was then the mandatory retirement age in many corporations, was too old to take on such a big job and guarantee that he would be able to do it for four years. No one Reagan’s age had ever been elected president. The closest was William Henry Harrison, who was 68. He died after just one month in office. (By the way, Harrison’s earlier rival and Knoxville’s only resident presidential candidate, Hugh Lawson White was, at 63, among the oldest ever to seek the office. White died during what would have been his first term.)
Reagan’s opponents, a little unfairly I thought, often portrayed him in cartoons as a California raisin, his face a gross mess of wrinkles. As president, Reagan relished defying expectations with his health and vigor and quick wit. That is, until the latter part of his second term, when he was reportedly showing the early effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
Somehow Donald Trump doesn’t get the wrinkle treatment in cartoons. Still, Trump is eight months older now than Reagan was at the time of the 1980 election. Hillary Clinton, now 69, isn’t much younger.
Previously in American history, the old guys always ran against younger guys. Both times Reagan ran for the office, his opponents were more than a decade younger. Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale were both 56 when they were the Democratic nominees. Martin Van Buren was 58 when old man Harrison beat him. Bob Dole was 73 when he lost to 50-year-old Bill Clinton. John McCain was 72 when he was the Republican nominee against Barack Obama, who was just 47.
This time, we had a 69-year-old running against a 70-year-old. The United States has never seen so great an average age for its major-party nominees.
What does that mean? Ordinarily we don’t expect our elders to be the outrageous, combative, shameless, irreverent, profane ones of our society.
Or the indefatigable ones. This election is inspiring in exactly one respect, that maybe we don’t have to slow down at 65. Even if, in some cases, we should.
And it’s an irony that this campaign of America’s oldest-ever candidates is, by far, the most electronic-media driven election in U.S. history. In a weird way, that may not be a coincidence.
The nominees are both people we’ve been hearing about for a long time. More relevant than their combined biological age may be the fact that each nominee has been a national celebrity—or “a star” as Mr. Trump prefers—for more than a quarter century.
Not since the days of the Founding Fathers have both presidential nominees been people whose names had been familiar to most Americans 25 years earlier.
We’ve always had at least one choice who was, if not a dark horse, a fresher face, and to some extent an unknown quantity. We’ve always had the option of believing that maybe this less-familiar person will rise to the challenge, grow into the job. Unfamiliarity gives us hope, even though we know they’re human beings (and, even worse, human beings dealing with Congress), and will always disappoint us. Still, every four years, we do like to believe.
You’d think that decades in the public spotlight might offer an advantage, that long acquaintance might give Americans a chance to get to know these folks who want to lead us.
But maybe we know these two particular folks too well. We know their names, but we know them in part because we’ve also seen them made fun of on late-night talk shows, in Doonesbury, on Saturday Night Live, since the 20th century. I was a very young man when Trump first emerged, without any obvious political ideology, as a ridiculous caricature of the Yankee mogul. He was, during the Reagan administration, the “short-fingered vulgarian.”
It wasn’t long after that that I heard people making fun of Hillary Clinton as a cookie baker, and making comparisons of her with Tammy Wynette.
That was all a long time ago. We knew Hillary and Donald by first name even before most people had email, even before we’d ever seen a cell phone.
Maybe an irony of the fast-paced Twitter culture is that names don’t command the attention of modern voters unless they’re extremely familiar. Until they’ve been in the national public eye long enough to be associated with multiple rumors and scandals.
Twitter is new technology, but it’s not a place to learn about new political leaders with new ideas. Online political discourse relies on familiar hot buttons, familiar punchlines, quick-read caricatures. Unless you already have a profile, you’re unlikely to make an appearance there.
In 2016, our discourse is mostly thus: OMG. LOL. Emoji. Next subject.
Trump makes a big splash on Twitter. Lincoln, the ungainly country lawyer, would not have. He required paragraphs.
Hillary and Donald have both graduated through pop culture to the highest status of popular culture. They have been around long enough to become emojis. And, therefore, nominees.
Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.
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