Here is the question of the age, or at least the question of age: "Are you certain that you are quite ready for the country, or the country is ready for you? ... (We need someone) with the greatest possible maturity and experience. ... May I urge you to be patient?"
That question, or a variation on the theme, has been swirling around American politics for a year, reaching its highest pitch in the last two weeks with the nomination for president of a man four years out of the Illinois state senate and for vice president of a woman four years out of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Indeed, as recently as 2000, Barack Obama was so obscure a figure he couldn't beg or borrow a floor pass to that year's Democratic National Convention, and Sarah Palin was mayor of the old trapping and mining town of Wasilla, a community that at that time had fewer residents than Carnegie Mellon University has undergraduates.
Kennedy faced questions
The actual question was posed in 1960 by Harry S. Truman nine days before the opening of the Democratic National Convention, and it was pointedly addressed to Sen. John F. Kennedy, who had served four more years in Congress than Truman had served when the latter became president in 1945.
All year the Kennedy camp had been expecting that question, and when it arrived the president's counselor, Theodore C. Sorensen, had a file marked "youth and age" stuffed full of rebuttal material. When it came time for Kennedy to answer - exactly a week before the opening gavel - he was ready. If "14 years in major elective office is insufficient experience, that rules out all but three of the 10 names put forward by Truman, all but a handful of American presidents, and every president of the 20th century - including Wilson, Roosevelt and Truman."
Kennedy wasn't finished. If what matters is age, not experience, he said, then that "would have kept Jefferson from writing the Declaration of Independence, Washington from commanding the Continental Army, Madison from fathering the Constitution ... and Christopher Columbus from even discovering America."
In truth, both Truman's question and Kennedy's answer are a bit facile. But both make a point. The presidency is the most powerful office on Earth, the most prized gift in American politics, and the challenges it presents in all eras are so daunting that logic suggests the value of an experienced hand. At the same time, some men and women are so gifted that their talents bring them to the fore unusually early, and sometimes the match of the man and the woman with the times is just right, in fact, indispensable.
Both ends of the spectrum
Nelson Mandela's presidency of South Africa necessarily came at age 75, and it is arguable that three-quarters of a century worth of privation and struggle was necessary to give him the perspective and moral authority he needed. (This would be an argument that Sen. John S. McCain, a onetime prisoner like Mandela, would find especially congenial.) Then again, could anyone imagine that someone older than 17 would have had the ingenuity and determination that Joan of Arc displayed at the Siege of Orleans in the 15th century?
Mandela and St. Joan are special cases, of course, and I am not arguing here that McCain is a (slightly) younger version of Mandela, nor that Obama or Palin are modern-day versions of the Maid of Orleans. It is just to suggest that unlikely results sometimes come from unlikely sources, and that it is hard to know in advance what sort of experience is required for the future.
It may be that the simple experience of being Barack Obama - son of both a Kenyan and a Kansan, reared in Indonesia and Hawaii - may be what the age requires. It may also be that the simple experience of being Sarah Palin - ingesting all that a life of moosemeat stew and the pregnancy of a teenaged daughter offers to a woman whose appeal to McCain was as much what she lacked (an establishment impulse) as what she possessed (a frontier honesty) - may be especially well-suited to the vice presidency.
John Kennedy, who resisted Truman's definition of experience, did in the end rely on a cult of experts known today as the "best and the brightest." We also know today that they were architects of a disastrous policy in Vietnam. A group of experts also drew him into the Bay of Pigs.
The lesson here isn't that experts are bad. The lesson is that experts are good if you are looking for expert advice. But it remains only that: advice. The corollary is that the voice of experience is good if you understand the limits of experience.
Young or old?
But Kennedy, confronted with the argument that most world leaders in 1960 were born in the 19th century, had an intriguing answer: "Who is to say how successful they have been in improving the fate of the world?" He argued, according to Sorensen's account in his 1965 biography of Kennedy, that the emerging nations of the 1960s, in Asia and Africa, had young leaders "who can cast off the old slogans and delusions and suspicions."
Both Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon were in their 40s when they opposed each other for president. Eight of our presidents, including Bill Clinton, have sat in the Oval Office during their 40s. Some, like James K. Polk, were successful, and some, like Ulysses S. Grant, were not.
Age is a test of longevity, not of character, and it is telling that the man who is seeking to become the first chief executive to take office in his 70s - and who selected a 44-year-old governor as his running mate - has been arguing all year that the measure of a president is ... character.
- David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.