To our intensifying discussion about whether President Biden has grown mentally fuzzy and too old for a second term, I’d like to add this question: How would we even notice Donald Trump’s lapse into incoherence, when derangement is essentially his brand?
Pretty much any interview he gives is a babble bonanza, and his recent lovefest with Tucker Carlson was no exception. He went on wacky tangents, including one about the wages of building the Panama Canal: “We lost 35,000 people to the mosquito. Malaria. We lost 35,000 people. We lost 35,000 people because of the mosquito. Vicious. They had to build under nets. It was one of the true great wonders of the world.”
“One of the nine wonders,” he added, then corrected himself. “No, no, it was one of the seven.” Seven, nine – he seemed unable to decide, unwilling to commit. “You could make nine wonders,” he ventured. I guess that’s some limit. Once you hit 10, they’re just curiosities. Wonder-ettes.
But was there a bevy of headlines about a brain ravaged by time? Were there notations that Trump, at 77, was already as old as Ronald Reagan at the end of his presidency, and that after another four years in the White House, Trump would be a touch older than Biden at the end of his first term and thus the oldest president ever?
Most certainly not. And that’s both noteworthy and troubling, because we can’t know — really know — that Biden’s occasionally prolonged, futile search for the right word or name is firmer evidence of cognitive fade than Trump’s hallucinatory musings are.
I’m not claiming that Biden, 80, and Trump project the same degree of vigor. I have eyes and ears. Trump talks louder and faster than Biden does and moves with a thudding force. He’s like a freight train to Biden’s cable car, or a big, bulbous tuba to Biden’s tremulous piccolo. Listening to Biden, I want a volume knob I can turn up. Listening to Trump, I crave nonsense-canceling headphones.
I’m also aware and suspicious of the paucity of Biden’s interactions with journalists, his avoidance of unscripted public appearances and a schedule that can seem strangely light. I’ve heard from influential Democrats who have crossed paths with him and were alarmed by how slowly he was moving and how disoriented he seemed.
But the situation is more complicated than that, and the conversation about it omits dynamics that it shouldn’t. Trump is a mere three years younger than Biden, and he’s overweight. His diet is garbage. His cardio is golf putts. Biden, on the other hand, is a trim tribute to regular exercise.
And Trump diverts attention from his age by going to significant lengths to conceal it.
A thought exercise: Imagine Biden with more hair — or at least some swooping, swirling, painstakingly contrived facsimile of more hair. Color it a shade of orange-gold that’s less a sneaky evasion of gray than a desperate pummeling of it. Now get to work on his face. Cloak his age spots under a fake tan. Spackle his wrinkles with makeup. Then dress him in suits so dark and baggy that they veil time’s toll on the body they’re tenting.
You’ve turned Biden at least partway into Donald Trump. Does he seem a little less ancient?
In several recent surveys, roughly three in four Americans, including a majority of Democrats, deemed Biden too old to be effective through a second term. In a recent Associated Press/NORC poll, a much smaller fraction — just over half — expressed reservations about Trump’s age.
At least a bit of that discrepancy surely reflects right-wing media organizations’ obsessive focus on Biden’s stumbles and mumbles and such. Their left-wing counterparts don’t home in on Trump’s dubious physical fitness in the same way –— they have so much else on their radar. After all, a candid image of Trump in flab-revealing golf wear or a shot of the wind exposing the truth about his tresses matters little next to candid audio of him hectoring a state official in Georgia to steal the 2020 election.
With Trump, it is always thus: The frequency of his outrages and volume of his vices guarantee that no single flaw stands out as it should. It’s just another ingredient in a gumbo of God-help-us.
We should also bear in mind that all the hints of Biden’s feebleness are amplified by a larger narrative of older politicians clinging to power despite their obvious physical deterioration. Every image of Senator Dianne Feinstein, 90, being wheeled through the Capitol hurts Biden. So does every second that Senator Mitch McConnell, 81, stands frozen and speechless before a group of journalists.
“I see people lumping every old person together and using the term ‘gerontocracy’,” Rosanne M. Leipzig, who specializes in geriatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, told me. But Biden isn’t McConnell, no more than McConnell is Feinstein. “There’s no group of people who are more different than older adults,” Leipzig said. “We even have a term for it — the heterogeneity of aging.”
Biden is also hurt, in a different way, by Representative Nancy Pelosi, 83, who seems amply vigorous but surrendered her position of House Democratic leadership last year with the proclamation that “the hour has come for a new generation.” If that’s true in the House, why not in the White House?
Bob Kerrey, a former senator and onetime governor who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, told me: “I would rather Joe did what Nancy did.” Kerrey turned 80 himself just two weeks ago, and he said that he’d never pursue the presidency at his age.
“It’s an offensive act if I were to do it,” he said. “I had my chance.” He added that there are “plenty of 40- and 60-year-olds who can step up and run.” But he’s cognitively up to the task, he said, and so is Biden. Believing in generational change doesn’t mean disbelieving Biden’s competence.
And judging competence can be a guessing game, given the partial and selective information that most older political candidates and their physicians divulge. To determine aging’s impact “through superficial means is not an accurate measure,” Bob Blancato, the national coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition, a bipartisan advocacy group, cautioned. “Aging is a profoundly personal journey.”
Similarly, our takes on it are subjective — and can be colored by irrelevant details. Leipzig noted that to some people, Biden’s cultural frame of reference, embrace of tradition and old-fashioned vocabulary (“God love ya’,” “c’mon man,” “malarkey”) read old, while Trump’s rebel pose reads young.
I happen to think that Democrats would be safer with a nominee who’s younger than Biden is and radiates more energy than he does. But I believe at least as strongly that if the unideal choice before Americans winds up being Biden, with his imperfections, or Trump, with his, rejecting Biden because of how old he has grown isn’t a grown-up decision.