Some consider it taboo to ask whether a candidate is too old to serve as president. Not the press.
The New York Times, the Washington Post, Politico, CNN, the Atlantic, the Associated Press, Slate and just about every other premium and low-rent outlet you can name has crossed the ageism line to ask the “too old” question in recent articles about Joe Biden, age 76, often in the headline itself. These pieces render judgment on Biden’s physical stamina (damn good), verbal skills (he’s a little mush-mouthed), processing speed (seems a tad lost sometimes), memory (better on stuff that happened 30 years ago than five years ago) and tendency to gaffe (you have to ask?).
But after tallying Biden’s repeated stumbles, miscues and mental lapses, journalists tend to retreat from calling Biden too infirm to run the White House. The greater press taboo, it seems, isn’t asking the question about Biden but answering it.
The press corps’ refusal to resolve the question has made Biden’s age and his state of mental and physical fitness the primary lens through which it views his candidacy. Was he rusty on the debate stage, Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty asked, or bewildered at finding himself there? Was it a minor slip of the tongue when he told debate viewers to “go to Joe30330” instead of “text JOE to 30330,” or does he not know how texting works? Were Biden’s debate comebacks tellingly “slow off the mark,” as the New York Times put it, or did he consciously decide the best way to fend off Kamala Harris and Cory Booker’s punches was to rope-a-dope?
Other politicians of a certain age would be punished by voters and the press if they were as consistently loopy as Biden. But his career-long reputation of gaffeing in public indemnifies him from the charges that he has just now gone addle-pated. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he asked Missouri state Sen. Chuck Graham to stand up at a rally so the crowd could see him. Graham is a paraplegic. During the same campaign, he claimed that “jobs” is a three-letter word and introduced his running mate as “Barack America.” In an interview with CBS News that year, he said Franklin D. Roosevelt went on TV after the great stock market crash. That was a twofer: Roosevelt wasn’t president in 1929, and White House television broadcasts were not yet a thing.
Biden has further indemnified himself from his loopiness by embracing it. “I am a gaffe machine,” Biden acknowledged in December 2018 during a book tour. As long as his doddering and meanderings don’t exceed his par on the course, Biden obviously hopes to attribute flubs to his nature, not his age.
Biden can’t complain too much about people fussing over his age. After all, he asked supporters and friends whether he was too old to run last year when contemplating his campaign. One proposed strategy to deflate the issue, the Associated Press reported, would be to pick a young running mate after winning the nomination.
Instead of dodging the “too old” question, Biden has encouraged people to ask it, which should give reporters all the latitude they need to probe and arrive at an answer.