Hillary Hurt by Pneumonia? US Leaders Have Weathered Worse

Reflecting on age, health and politics.

By Crawford Kilian 13 Sep 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

I am a time traveller from the year 1941, which makes me 75 this year. Those who were 75 in the year I was born were themselves born in 1866, the year before Canada became a nation, and just a year after the American Civil War came to its dubious end.

One of the consolations of living this long is that you know how much you can do, and how much you can’t. One of the drawbacks, as Calvin Trillin wrote long ago, is that you realize the idiots you roomed with in college have been running the country for a long, long time.

In this endless U.S. presidential campaign, much has been said about the candidates’ character, but little about their age — at least until this past weekend, when Hillary Clinton had to leave the 9-11 ceremony at Ground Zero feeling ill, and was then reported to be dealing with pneumonia.

Suddenly we remembered she was born in 1947; she’ll be 69 in October, and 73 when the 2020 election rolls around. Donald Trump, meanwhile, turned 70 in June. This is one of the most geriatric elections in American history.

So the health of these aged candidates is a reasonable concern — or is it?

Plenty of U.S. presidents have been very sick men indeed. Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke soon after the end of the First World War, and his wife was the de facto president until the end of his second term in 1920. Franklin Roosevelt was elected four times between 1932 and 1944, and rarely if ever did any newspaper publish a photo of him in the wheelchair that polio had put him in.

Dwight Eisenhower suffered a serious heart attack near the end of his first term. His successor John F. Kennedy looked gorgeous, but was a very sick young man with a serious back injury and Addison’s disease. Richard Nixon drank too much. Ronald Reagan was nearly killed in an assassination attempt, and possibly ended his administration with his dementia well advanced.

Notwithstanding all these sick presidents, the U.S. under their leadership became and remained the world’s superpower. They all made some terrible decisions, but they won two world wars; JFK prevented a third by defusing the Cuban missile crisis, Nixon went to China, and Reagan saw off the Soviet Union. So ill health in itself is no drawback, though no politician ever wants the subject to come up.

In fact, mental illness may spur many on to leadership, as was argued a few years ago in a book that claimed in troubled times, only a madman can rise to the challenge. The boringly sane, like George W. Bush, just can’t hack the problems created by inspired lunatics.

This may begin to sound like an endorsement of Donald Trump, who seems to be at least half a bubble off plumb every time he opens his mouth. But the great Danish physicist Nils Bohr once dismissed a colleague’s theory, saying: “It’s crazy, but it’s not crazy enough.” Nor is Trump.

He’s just a garden-variety narcissist businessman who’s conned his way into the spotlight. His international adversaries would, like Hannibal Lecter, eat his liver with fava beans and a nice chianti.

Trump’s own health, meanwhile, remains hidden under his unlikely hair and his florid complexion. His doctor’s endorsement is dubious. Watching him on TV, I’m reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of a middle-aged matron: “one of those elderly ‘good sports’ preserved by an imperviousness to experience and a good digestion into another generation.”

When JFK was elected in 1960, my father at 44 was shocked to find himself older than a president; they had usually been men in their 50s and 60s. There was a good demographic reason for his surprise. For most of history, human life expectancy has been very short. A man who’d survived to age 45 or more was a fount of experience and wisdom for the boys rising into power in their late teens and 20s. The Romans established a Senate (from the Latin senex, old man), where the geezers could share their knowledge and sometime calm the young hotheads in power.

The institution worked so well that both we and the Americans established our own senates — though party loyalty and access to funding count more with us than mere age.

At the same time, we have managed to build an advanced society where far more people live to a great age than ever before in history. We are already quarrelling about raising the retirement age from 65, which Bismarck established in the 19th century when the average German worker was dead at 66. The average Canadian today can expect to live to age 90, which means many of us will reach 100 whether we can afford to or not.

Like everyone else, seniors vote their interests — and they vote a lot. So we’re likely to be ruled by older people long after Clinton and Trump have shuffled off this mortal coil. Old folks may succumb to pneumonia and flu, but in general they’ll be far healthier (and saner) elders than those of earlier generations.

The elders will generally prefer to elect one of their own, but not always. It’s pleasant to have a young, smart prime minister whose heart seems to be in the right place. But his real advantage is that Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was taught by his father, a Senate of one. An old head sits on those broad shoulders. He is therefore likely to escape many of the follies of most young national leaders (Kim Jong-Un springs to mind).

But even Trudeau will be 60 in the fall of 2032, when he makes his fifth run at the prime minister’s job. By then palm trees may be growing on Parliament Hill and a fourth of us will be foreign-born. Some smart millennial will look healthier, smarter, and more attractive to even the oldest in the electorate, and will relegate old Justin to the opposition benches.

When asked how it happened, the millennial will likely reply: “Because it’s 2032.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Politics

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