Archive for Sunday, September 8, 1996


September 8, 1996


Stereotypes of aging reach into the presidential election, says a Kansas University professor.

Here's a quick political quiz: When you think of Bob Dole, does he remind you more of John Wayne in "The Cowboys" or Walter Matthau in "Grumpy Old Men?"

Give yourself a shot of prune juice if you said both.

Both positive and negative aging stereotypes of the 73-year-old Kansas Republican are emerging on the presidential campaign trail, says Mary Lee Hummert, a Kansas University associate professor of communications studies.

"We certainly do know that age is a powerful influence on our perception of other people," Hummert said.

It can work for or against an older candidate like Dole, said Hummert, a nationally recognized expert on the relationship between stereotypes of older people and communication.

"I really think that the views of voters could go either way," she said. "It could depend on party affiliation or their particular viewpoints on aging."

Vitality is the key

Ken Collier, a KU assistant professor of political science and government who teaches classes on the presidency, said people tend to look at vitality, rather than age, in a candidate.

"I think about Franklin Roosevelt in a wheelchair but still projecting confidence," Collier said.

Collier said it doesn't surprise him that presidential candidates in recent years have been older.

"It's not that unusual when you consider life expectancy is increasing," Collier said.

For example, life expectancy was 35 years in 1797, the year President John Adams took office at age 61, Collier said.

Competency counts

Age has never been relevant in presidential politics -- it's competency that counts, says John E. Wickman, director emeritus of Abilene's Eisenhower Library.

"It's really the individual and does he have all of his faculties and can he perform his job," Wickman said. "I just don't think that age is relevant."

Dwight D. Eisenhower was 62 when he took office in his first term. Following a heart attack he had toward the end of his first term, there was a question whether he should run for a second, Wickman said.

"He recovered from the heart attack, and he projected the same energetic, take-charge personality," Wickman said.

"Our population is aging, but we've got people in their 60s, 70s and 80s who are quite sharp and able. If you look across the whole spectrum of Western Europe, the heads of state are much older than our presidents have been."

Dole as John Wayne

KU's Hummert just completed a 5-year, $500,000 study on stereotypes of older adults and communication, funded by the National Institute on Aging and National Institutes of Health.

Her research has focused on stereotypes of older persons and what kinds of associations people have with those stereotypes.

"When most people think of stereotypes of aging, they only focus on the negative aspects," she said. "One of the things that my research has been able to support is that there are positive stereotypes."

One of those positive stereotypes is the "Perfect Grandparent," defined as being family oriented, loving, kind and supportive, she said.

Another positive image is of the "Golden Ager," who is active and interesting, well-traveled and intelligent, she said.

A third positive stereotype is called the "John Wayne Conservative," she said.

That stereotype is of "an older person who is proud, determined, tough and patriotic. ... And who does that remind you of? Dole," she said.

Hummert said it was very clear during the Republican National Convention that all of the speakers, including Dole himself, were pushing the "John Wayne Conservative" type of positive stereotype.

Dole as Walter Matthau

However, negative aging stereotypes of Dole persist in the news media, she said.

One is a negative stereotype she called the "Shrew/Curmudgeon," describing someone who is a bitter, greedy, selfish, complaining type of person.

Examples were the characters Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon played in the "Grumpy Old Men" movies, she said.

"I've been collecting various news items and editorials about Dole," she said. "People often cling to this particular stereotype when they describe Dole."

For example, Mike Royko, columnist for the Chicago Tribune, has described Dole as a "sharp-tongued and irritable elderly man."

Other presidents

In terms of the stereotypes, President Ronald Reagan, who was 69 when he was first inaugurated, had some of the elements of the "John Wayne Conservative," Hummert said.

But Reagan also combined those with the positive elements of the "Golden Ager" because he was more articulate than Dole.

President George Bush, who was 64 when he first took office, ran into something of an age issue when he faced baby boomer Bill Clinton in 1992. However, rather than Bush's age, the issue was more generational, she said.

On the other side of the spectrum, President Clinton, who was 46 when he entered the White House, is still considered a young man in political terms.

"Only in a presidential campaign is someone who is 50 described as young," Hummert said.

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