I’m old enough to have begun my working life in the age of the telegram.
When an interview subject wouldn’t respond to a phone call, it was not uncommon at my magazine to send a message via Western Union printed on paper and delivered in person. Western Union charged by the word, so I was taught to write with telegraphic brevity. I was also taught about a colleague — possibly apocryphal — who, while fact-checking a story, dispatched such a query to a certain famous personage. It read: “How old Cary Grant?”
I’ll get to Grant’s response shortly, but the same question is being telegraphed a lot these days in reference to Joe Biden. We know he’s 79, but the subtext is whether he’s too old to run for a second presidential term — or even finish the first one.
Biden doesn’t help his case when he falls off a bicycle or messes up a speech. Polls show that even many Democrats think he should step aside for somebody younger.
I’m not convinced. For a guy born before the U.S. entered World War II, Biden is unexpectedly burning up the track. In two short years he has:
• Cut COVID deaths from 4,000 a day to a few hundred, mostly by ramping up testing, vaccinating and sanity.
• Gotten a $2 trillion COVID relief bill through Congress, sparing millions of Americans from pandemic-related hardship.
• Brought the unemployment rate down to a 50-year low and created more jobs than any president in history.
• Enacted the biggest infrastructure bill in decades.
• Countered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by uniting NATO and restoring U.S. leadership of the democratic West.
• Bumped off the leader of al-Qaeda.
• Extracted the U.S. from an intractable two-decade conflict in Afghanistan, though the exit was a bit messy.
• Secured passage of the biggest gun safety reform in 30 years.
• Pushed through laws to boost U.S. semiconductor production and expand veterans’ health care.
• Whipped his Inflation Reduction Act past a hostile Senate. (House approval is expected as early as today). That measure will reduce carbon emissions, prescription drug costs and even the federal deficit.
• Provoked not a single FBI raid on his private residence.
Still, it’s way too soon to update Mount Rushmore. Biden has done little to cool our national divisions over abortion, contraception, gender, race and the results of the 2020 election.
Nor has he adequately addressed two pressing issues: China’s ambition to replace the U.S. as the world’s predominant power and the potentially more destructive problem of climate change.
Besides, the president’s accomplishments — impressive as they are — don’t make him any younger. The job is a killer. Eight of the previous 45 occupants died in office, and the rest aged visibly and sometimes shockingly.
Biden will be 82 by next Inauguration Day, which would make him the oldest president ever. Both parties are rich with rising presidential aspirants, so it’s ironic that the two most likely candidates in 2024 have already exceeded the average life expectancy for an American male.
Take a closer look at the actuarial tables, however, and you’ll see that anybody who can avoid the usual health landmines and make it to Biden’s 79 (or Donald Trump’s 76) will likely last another decade — maybe more. With the advance of gerontology, pharmacology and pickleball, 80 has become the new 70.
There is much to be said for old age. As poets and psychologists have long observed, it carries the benefit of experience. Robert Frost, for instance, noted that, “The afternoon knows what the morning never expected.”
Then there’s wisdom, of which we could use more in public life these days. Whatever it is — good judgment, maturity, restraint, humility, self-knowledge — the quality has long been linked to old age and considered useful in a president.
Yet wisdom also includes knowing when to go. Consider the case of Cary Grant. He stopped making movies at age 62, still charismatic as ever, and lived another 20 years. He never fully retired.
Grant died in 1986 while rehearsing a theatrical performance based on his career. I couldn’t find a script, so I don’t know whether the show included a reference to the famous “How old Cary Grant?” telegram.
But I can share his sly response: “Old Cary Grant fine. How you?”
Old Joe Biden — trim, fit and on a roll — seems to be doing fine, too. To cite a wise old saying about politics, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”