Why Aged People Should Not Be President

Watching Robert Mueller’s halting, tentative, sometimes fumbling responses to being grilled for hours by highly charged (and much younger) congressmembers today, I was struck anew with my increasing conviction that past, say, age 70, people should no longer try to become leaders of their country.

Call me ageist if you will, but my reasoning is not that I don’t think elderly people have much to offer the world (so long as they keep their wits about them). It’s just that ideally, they move into a senior advisory role, a steadying hand, a source of wisdom and historical perspective in the ear of younger, more energetic leaders who benefit greatly from their senior confidantes.

Mueller, just short of 75, looked and sounded somewhat lost a good deal of the time yesterday over a grueling 6-hour stretch as he faced two different committees, half of their members hostile and yelling at him from the get-go, the other half praising his service to his country and craftily trying to corner him into saying things that would be damaging to President Trump. (While all the while, Trump stomped around his bedroom firing off increasingly desperate tweets after having told everyone he really wouldn’t be paying much attention.)

It was a tad shocking, I must admit. Within seconds of tuning in, my immediate impression was, “He looks really uncomfortable,” as in, “He would rather be on a rack having his eyeballs forcibly removed than be listening to yet another vein-popping Jim Jordan harangue.” (Someone get that man a sedative!)

From there, things seemed to get only worse for this public servant of impeccable integrity who “deflected or declined to answer questions 198 times” through the two hearings, according to NBC. (A big huzzah here for the intern charged with reviewing the tape and keeping count.)

Watching Mueller grope for everyday words, unable to command his thoughts, vocabulary and elocution…was a stark reminder that while age itself tends not to make anyone dumber (unless they were dumb to begin with), it makes almost everyone slower.

Mueller seemed to have trouble following the rapid-fire questioning, often asking inquisitors to repeat their question, sometimes apparently not hearing what was said, other times seemingly not able to process the proceedings quickly enough to gather a meaningful response.

Admittedly, it was not a fair fight, the panel members reading rapid-fire off of prepared scripts while the defendant, er, the “testifier,” had to field and quickly respond to their queries while they drummed their fingers, itching to zip ahead to their next statement, er, “question, given the strictly enforced five-minute time limit each of them labored under.

You could feel their impatience as every one of Mueller’s “Uh…uh”s and “Could you repeat the question?” requests cut into their precious time.

Nevertheless, watching Mueller grope for everyday words, unable to command his thoughts, vocabulary and elocution in rising to what the occasion demanded of him, was a stark reminder that while age itself tends not to make anyone dumber (unless they were dumb to begin with), it makes almost everyone slower.



I feel it myself in both my writing and my talking (not to mention my running). The advantage of the former is that I have time to wait for the word or phrase or historical anecdote that I know best fits a particular need, but which I can’t recall readily from the groaning, increasingly crowded circuit board of my memory. But I can viscerally feel what the word or phrase is, and also when I am getting closer to it. And then it comes, freed from the cobwebs where it had been snared and trying to wriggle free, urged on by my intention.

A happy moment, that, repeated many times every day.

But on-my-feet talking or sitting and conversing is a different matter. There, one lacks the luxury of time to gaze at clouds and trees waiting for a stubbornly hiding word or image to reveal itself. Whether in conversation or an address, one can’t ask a partner or audience to hold on for a few minutes (“If you have to go to the restroom, this might be a good time!) while one gathers thoughts or gropes for a word. After a few “…Uh, uh”s, listeners’ eyes glaze over.

This is not a big deal when with loved ones, but in front of a congressional panel, or a cabinet meeting discussing what to do about Iran’s latest ship seizure, or on the phone with the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff who has just informed you missiles appear to be headed toward our mainland from North Korea, it is highly beneficial to 1) hear the words well, 2) readily process the information you’re hearing, and 3) be able to size up the situation and come to a sound decision about it without  a potentially damaging or fatal delay.

And the plain fact is that most 75-year-olds and above don’t match up to their 45-to-60-year-old selves in any of these matters.

Older people have less stamina, their brains are less plastic, and their short-term memory is a source of constant, in-their-face frustration. (It would be an interesting data collection for me to count which occurs more frequently in the course of a month: where I set down my keys, where I left my wallet, or how many times I walked purposely to another room only to forget why I did so. And I’m still milking a couple more years of my 60s…)

All of this is to say, that after due deliberation, I think neither Joe Biden (78 next inauguration day), Bernie Sanders (79), nor Donald Trump (74) should be vested with the most powerful position in the world. (Trump, of course, for infinitely more reasons than his age.)

On every level sans possibly their experience and whatever wisdom they have managed to accrue from that, they are diminished from what they were as younger men—slower of thought, less energetic in body, and subject to steadily more rapid diminishment as age takes the toll that it always does. Mueller’s performance yesterday spoke volumes on this matter.

While it is true that 75-year-olds today are not the equivalent of what they were a generation or two ago, most of that change is cultural, as we have continued to push the boundaries of what is “acceptable” as adults. Going on bike rides with cronies at 70 years old and then repairing to a beer joint? Who would have conceived of such a thing in 1960? (Of course, such activity must be followed by a nice long nap.)

No doubt old people in many professions—including politics—continue as gifts to their workplace and world. From the methodical, scrupulously careful nature of the report that bears his name, it is evident that Mueller can still oversee an investigation and bring it home. And a huge part of his own competence is revealed in knowing how to assemble a team and letting them do much of the heavy lifting on it.

So I do not at all mean here to shortchange the quality of the investigation Mueller oversaw. But anyone watching today had to notice that he was anything but crisp and confident in its presentation and defense.

Nancy Pelosi (79), doesn’t seem to have slipped much if at all. Big job she’s got there—but it’s still not the presidency of the United States, a job with such burdensome responsibilities and demands on one’s time, attention and spirit that it can buckle even the most youthful occupant.

Though on the face of it we might think it discriminatory to put an age limit on the presidency, we could say the same thing about the minimum age requirement of 35. Why is that in place, given that 21 is considered legal adulthood and countless people accomplish tremendous things in the subsequent 14 years?

Apparently, we think that despite being adults, those through age 34 simply don’t have enough life experience to manage the burdens of the presidency.

Why is it that far less energetic, potentially doddering 75-or-80-year-olds get a free pass on the other end of life, when experience might hold them in good stead but their bodies and brains betray them and reveal certain deficiencies that do not marry well with the most powerful and influential job in the world?


The young Neil Young, singing to an old man!

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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Mueller caricature by Donkey Hotey https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/

Lamps by Nicole Lee, San Francisco, California, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nicolelee/

Sign by Dan, Canada  https://www.flickr.com/photos/theotherdan/

Sidewalk leaves by Andrew Hidas  https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/

17 comments to Why Aged People Should Not Be President


    I’ve worked in government for the past few years and have witnessed my superiors slimy tactics in deflecting and interrogating. My perception of Mueller yesterday was, this is his political tactic to the situation, right down to, “Can you repeat the question”. It will inherently cause frustration for the panel member to be asked to repeat the question and it runs down the clock. Every person in that hearing had their own angle to try and break Mueller and no one suceeded; except maybe Mueller.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Oh Lordie, Lindsay, you think so? I am going to respectfully disagree with you, but it would be a truly amazing thing if any of what you are saying is true. Here’s why I suspect it isn’t: Mueller seems to me to be constitutionally incapable of duplicity or “acting,” and what you describe here would require abundant amounts of both. The man doesn’t play games—he’s a ramrod straight ex-Marine and lifetime prosecutor with an impeccable reputation for integrity and honesty (something those jackal, Trump-acolyte Republicans throughout both houses of congress have been doing their best to besmirch, to their everlasting shame). I can’t see Mueller putting all of that on the line by pretending to be a hearing-impaired, at times clearly flustered and groping old man. His resolute refusals to do any of his questioners’ bidding was exactly as he warned it would be months ago and in his opening statement, so that wasn’t game-playing, just a dogged adherence to the limits of his mission and job description. The man is always true to his word!

      Helluva interpretation/speculation, though, and kind of delicious to think about; thanks much for putting it out there! I could see it as a play that I would pay to see—would you mind getting to work on it?

  • Mary  says:

    I do not disagree with your assessment of Mueller and the general premise of age being a potential factor in overall fitness for certain positions. However, this is an extremely slippery slope being traversed here.

    It’s not the accurate assessment that Roger Federer isn’t outside the age curve for a Wimbledon finalist (ancient 37 that he is), or that Mueller wasn’t nimble enough for the rigors of the hearing that doesn’t sit well with me. It’s the generally accepted view, not expressed here but in the wider world, that anyone who is older in their field, or in a grocery store line, or on a computer support help line, is someone to be tolerated at best, and often the object of open disrespect and patronization. I do not disagree with your general premise, but it is very ripe for positing blanket generalizations about older individuals.

    Ageism and age discrimination does exist in our culture, as does discrimination of differently abled people. It took many, many, many years for the Americans with Disabilities Act to be passed, and in many ways and places it is still struggling to be implemented. And that is a law which can be regulated and does not touch the atmosphere of irritation and impatience that so often surrounds any of us who are slower or less able, not just to move or speak, but to advocate for ourselves: children, any person with mobility, health or communication issues.

    I know you are linking Mueller’s age to his ability to do this specific job, and extending that idea to other persons seeking positions of complicated responsibilities and requiring nimble responses (in addition to wisdom, experience and sound judgement). You make very specific reference to his many contributions and current skills and are not suggesting kicking him out the door simply because he is 75. This is a timely discussion given the aging demographic in the United States: Age is a problem when a person rests on their laurels, is arrogant or complacent (actually no age limit on those!), refuses to remain current and connected, or consistently can’t answer the question (I never saw Robert Mueller testify in his early years so we assume his challenges were age related).

    However I am concerned that with no cultural balance of appreciation and respect for much of anyone outside the norm that this dynamic will worsen for people who do still have much to do and give. In the case of this hearing it was not functional to defer, to stumble, to be slow. But, as you mentioned, many people are still able to work and contribute and thrive and enrich their professional and social worlds indefinitely, and we all suffer when those persons are discounted.

    That discounting is intensifying. Ours is not often a culture of compassion, or even much of imagination of other possibilities. We openly revere speed, youth and beauty over other qualities as wisdom, patience, caring and inclusion. This is becoming even more pronounced with the rise of millennial Work culture, at the expense of other quality of life concerns. We must call it when someone can’t do a specific job and we must also work to create a world where people of all abilities can be vital and engaged.

    Last week I watched a lot of footage from the 1969 moon landing and could not fail to note that, to a person, every individual in the NASA control room was an able bodied white male. For years we colluded that that demographic was the smartest and brightest and they had all the best jobs and the rest of us could just deal with it. Well, we did deal with it and in many ways the world looks pretty different now and is much the better for it. Let’s be careful to revere and preserve that progress and not throw the (old) baby out with the bath water.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Mary, thanks much for your thoughtful reflections here, not one stitch of which I have a quibble with. After so much progress on the ageist-sexist-racist front, any retrenchment would be inherently tragic. What I would shoot for among those ist/ism’s is being “realist”—appreciating the abundant gifts of aging, which I am experiencing myself as the most fertile period of my life—and its actual material limitations.

      I hate the patronization from all sides—those who claim “You’re only as young as you feel”; “Age is just a number”; “She’s 84 years young!”—and those who see an old person and either dismiss them out of hand as irrelevant or adopt that high-pitched, “Hello, how are we doing today, honey?” schtick so popular in nursing homes. I have long felt that the first time I ever hear that from a nurse’s aide I’m going to either punch her or throw the water vase so it narrowly misses her head. (I’m banking on my aim still being true, despite my age…) Maybe then I’ll be labeled “the crazy guy in Room 104” that they mostly leave alone and approach with caution, dropping their voices an octave or two when they do….

    • Jay Helman  says:

      Nicely articulated, Mary. I agree with most of what you present in your post. With that said, Allow me to take an “inside-out” approach to Andrew’s position. As you will see, I fully agree with his view and will use my own experience as a case-study of one. I served for 13 years as a College/University President; beginning my run at age 50. By most measures and feedback, the first nine years were quite successful. Early in my tenth year I was felled by a severe ischemic stroke (blood clot to the brain). Thankfully I had access to remarkable care at the University of Utah hospital and recovered more fully and more quickly than the doctors and others expected. Following three months in the hospital and intensive in-patient and out-patient therapy I returned home and to work in time for that year’s spring commencement. My immediate colleagues were forewarned that I would need to limit my hours on the job, take frequent naps, and may exhibit a noticeable decline in short-term memory and speed of thought processing. All of this was true for those first few months back in office. Over time my stamina returned and to those observing me I seemed to have made a full recovery. Experientially, however, I knew that I had not. My thinking was much slower; appearances before Legislative Committees in the State Capitol were not nearly as sharp and clearly lacked the “thinking on my feet” acuity in responses that existed pre-stroke. Also lost was my “filter’ that for nine years allowed me to absorb the criticisms and sometime-attacks of faculty, alumni, community, et al. I began to demonstrate anger and fatigue with the daily battles of trying to move an agenda (and a university) forward. I served for three more years in this state, but it ultimately caught up with me and the Board recognized that my best years were now behind me. Clearly, a brain injury and the simple fact of growing older are two different things; at least to an extent. I do think, however, that my stroke experience aged my brain substantially. The brain, as with all of our muscles and organs, atrophies with age. Having experienced first hand the slowing of the “hard drive” and the many elements of judgement, emotion, processing, and execution that the brain controls, my conclusion is that there are many contributions that elders can and do make socially, culturally, and professionally. But being POTUS is well beyond the scope of those in the twilight of life.

  • David Moriah  says:

    I have a really great response to your piece but I can’t seem to remember what it was. I’ll get back to you.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Don’t worry, David, just stare off into space or at the sky for a while and it will come back to ya, I am certain…

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    I’ll be 70 on New Year’s Eve. A couple of years ago my colon became a semi-colon. Running has been replaced by a “watch out for the curb” walk. In high school, I put to memory most of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Today it’s simply a “Let us go then, you and I/When the evening is spread out against the sky/like a patient etherised upon…a gurney?” I’m paraphrasing Dylan lyrics. In 1st grade, I could recite in rapid-fire all the Presidents of the United States. Today, it’s still there but the pauses are more often and definitely longer. “Jeopardy” isn’t a challenge anymore; it’s an impossibility. My 25-foot jumper is at the moment a slo-mo layup. Next year it’s going to be a “Where’s the basket?” My days of playing “over-the-line” or whiffle ball “Home Run Derby” have been supplanted by “Hey, where’s the remote, Claire?” or “Honey, where did you put my glasses?” Last week, my Trivial Pursuit answer to “Who directed ‘Citizen Kane?’” was a confident “William Randolph Hearst.” In short, I’ve become Robert Mueller.

  • Mary  says:


    Thank you for sharing your experience with your health and work and the lessons learned. I agree with both you and Andrew on the general premise of age being a factor in any position of extensive responsibility, and know myself the challenges of an aging brain and body. It is a great gift to know when to stop.

    However, I do feel strongly that there are larger implications circulating about age in this country. As the demographic shifts it is increasingly accepted to be dismissive, impatient and patronizing of older individuals and to make them the subject of ridicule. Rather than treasuring their experience and skill, or employing simple patience and kindness, people are being pushed to the side, often with impunity. Rather than make accommodations or take the effort required to utilize experience it is becoming more mainstream to openly roll your eyes at someone who is experiencing challenges….someone who is brilliant and handicapped, someone with mobility or hearing issues, someone who is old.

    Baby boomers have had a good long run and no doubt it is time, in many cases, for them to yield to more capable and current talent. I think it is also possible to do that while being respectful of past achievements and current gifts. Possibly one reason people hang on past their viable tenure is that there is so little status once one leaves.

    • Jay Helman  says:

      Thank you, Mary. And thanks to other readers for my biographical self-indulgence on this matter. I fully agree that, culturally, we rarely recognize and take full advantage of the many strengths offered by an aging people. Ours is a cult of youth that quickly judges on appearances and performance measures and often overlooks the benefits of the long, determined march of wisdom and grace. I recently heard the term “elderhood” used to describe our senior phase of life. For me it provides a useful and substantiating term to accompany those used for toddler, childhood, adolescence, middle-age, etc. Elder hood is, as poet David Whyte has described, a time for the ‘harvest” of lives lived well and thoughtfully.

  • Randall Chet  says:

    Hi Andrew – while I do agree generally with your idea, my first thought witnessing Mueller’s testimony was this: is this just Mueller being Mueller? He has been so reticent to testify, could it be “stage fright”, age, health related issues, or combination of all three? Have you seen any footage of Mueller testifying in the past? From all the accounts I’ve read he is a deeply personal professional lawman.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Robert, that’s a fine line about your semi-colon: an original or did you steal it? No less than T.S. Eliot gave you permission for the latter, so come clean if you did! Also had to laugh about Hearst directing “Citizen Kane.” Amazing how the mind works, isn’t it?

    Jay, that is some powerful tale, my friend—the mind watching and noting itself and overcoming the psyche’s natural defensive armor to achieve a deeper illumination. No small trick, that.

    Mary, reading your re-emphasis on not dismissing the elderly out of hand, I was reminded of the Swahili term mzee, which I first encountered in Kenya when I spent a summer there many years ago. It’s an honorific, signifying respect, though one need not be a tribal chief or highly educated to earn it; it just comes with the territory of living a longish life. It’s telling that we have no equivalent term in English.

    Good question, Randall. Mueller was definitely reticent, all his worst fears coming true of the hearing becoming the kind of spectacle he is loathe to see centered on him. That said, it is instructive indeed to look back to old clips where he exhibits little to none of the stuttering-stammering-uncertainty on display yesterday. Here’s one from six years ago, though I must warn you it includes an exchange with Ted Cruz, which might be a bridge way farther than you want to go. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BsbX5iNdjk

    More dramatically illustrative is a 2009 appearance at Stanford, where he absolutely commanded a room for 53 minutes, speaking without notes on the history of the post 9-11 FBI. Even if you observe for just a short while, you’ll see that he’s funny, engaging, and shares a wealth of material with ease, with a near flawless delivery in stark contrast to what we saw yesterday. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BsbX5iNdjk. Good to hear from you, had been wondering what you might think on this matter as a (relatively, I know) young ‘un…

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Drew, as far as I know the “colon-semicolon” line is original.

    Jay, I’m not sure I told you this, but your strength following the stroke is to be admired. The hard work you put into rehab has helped me face some of my recent medical issues. Your experience has reminded me that one’s resiliency depends on an individual’s desire to overcome any obstacle that this crazy journey called life takes us.

    Mary, your comments about ageism and the thanks we owe our parents, grandparents and beyond were beautifully stated. In my own case, my mother painted and wrote poetry well into her 80’s. My father painted, sculpted, wrote am unpublished novel and completed the “New York Times” Sunday crossword puzzle in a couple of hours all after the age of 93.

    • Jay Helman  says:

      Many thanks for sharing this with me, Robert. While in rehab and recovery ten years ago, I vowed to work to inspire others to overcome medical setbacks whenever possible. I realized while in those therapy sessions that I was one of the very lucky ones, and that I must never forget the outstanding care, love and support I got to help me through. Resiliency is a characteristic that we must never underestimate; as individuals,and as a collective.

      • Andrew Hidas  says:

        Jay, your point about resiliency has me hoping upon hope that our nation will exhibit it in the abundance that will be required to recover from the deep and multiple injuries inflicted upon it by the current administration.

  • Randall Chet  says:

    Wow Andrew thanks for the links. Quite a contrast.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yes, indeed, Randall. A lot of people have done the same with the younger Trump, digging up tapes of him, despite being the same kind of schmuck, at least being a far sharper and quicker-thinking schmuck, as a way of suspecting his serious cognitive decline. (Not that that would excuse his behavior…) Haven’t examined much of those yet, but I’m curious.

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