The history of presidential politics is rife with subtle innuendos and political hits that land right between the eyes. In a recent sit-down with Megyn Kelly, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was asked a variety of questions over the course of the 50-minute interview. One question, in particular, caught my attention, and it had to do with whether DeSantis would pardon the former president should Trump be found guilty of any of the numerous crimes he’s alleged to have committed during and after his presidency. The answer that DeSantis gave to the question was interesting. He said, “I’m going to do what’s right for the country. I don’t think it would be good for the country to have an almost 80-year-old former president go to prison.” It seems like a safe enough answer to a legitimate question.
However, it brought to mind a couple of examples from presidential campaigns in the past.
The first and more famous example is Ronald Reagan’s response to a question in the 1984 debate with former Vice President Walter “Fritz” Mondale. The question, of course, had to do with Reagan’s age and stamina and whether it was a legitimate issue for the voters to take into consideration. The Gipper’s response was flawless and a checkmate move against Mondale when he said he had no intention of exploiting his opponent’s youth and inexperience for political purposes. Reagan’s answer brought down the house; you could hear laughter from sea to shining sea, including right there on the stage next to him, as Fritz Mondale could hardly contain himself, and, to an extent, knew he had just lost the race right then and there. Reagan was 73.
The other example is far more subtle and not too unlike DeSantis’s answer to Megyn Kelly. In the 1996 presidential campaign, the country had a choice between re-electing 50-year-old Bill Clinton to a second and final term or a 73-year-old Senator Bob Dole to the first of possibly two four-year terms. In that election, the age issue was always front and center due to the wide disparity in age between Clinton and Dole. Of course, nobody would question whether or not Bill Clinton was too old to be president, even as he celebrated a high-profile, celebrity-packed birthday party at Radio City Music Hall in New York City in the middle of the 96’ presidential campaign.
In the late summer of 1996, the country knew that its president was turning 50. But the Clinton campaign did something interesting. And I don’t think it was simply coincidental that the 42nd president had hearing aids installed due to his diminished hearing. As is often the case with presidents, numerous stories have been written about Clinton’s annual check-ups. And only the most dense of political observers missed the subtle messaging coming out of the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign. Bill Clinton was demonstrating his own physical vulnerabilities while reminding the country how much younger he was than his 73-year-old opponent. The point is that Clinton never had “to go there” because he allowed his own personal medical circumstances to go there for him, and by doing so, he effectively shouted it loud enough so that it was heard from Martha’s Vineyard to Houston, TX, to Seattle, WA.
Fast forward to 2023, and you have the issue of age front and center and on the tip of everybody’s tongue again. And why wouldn’t it be? The incumbent president, Joe Biden, is a feeble 80; he’ll be 82 if re-elected. The former president is 77, and he’ll turn 79 in the first year of his second term if elected again. The only other viable candidate in the race, at least as of the time of this commentary, is the young, energetic 44-year-old Governor of Florida, who, whether you like it or not, or whether you agree with it or not, has, like Bill Clinton circa 1996, so far decided not to go there. Even though the former 77-year-old president provides a target-rich environment with which to receive his share of ad hominems. But the classy and decent Governor of Florida refuses to do so, even to the point where I’m sure it annoys many of his supporters, but not nearly as much as it must annoy Trump because no such personal restraint or decorum governs Trump.
But is DeSantis right not to go there? History will be the judge. On the other hand, all of this does beg the question: Would it be good for the country to see an almost 80-year-old former president go to prison? I’m inclined to think not. But it also must force the following question: If being almost 80 is too old to go to prison, is it too old to be president? Obviously, the voters will end up making that decision, not Ron DeSantis.