A pandemonium of pundits, particularly on the left, has been calling for Joe Biden to step aside for being too old. Recently, among many others, the highly respected Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote, in effect, Joe Should Go. Democratic political ace James Carville agreed and said, in effect, It’s the biology, stupid. Soon the chorus will become a roar.
As a modest pundit myself, I’d like to weigh in. My qualifications? I’ve written a lot about getting older. (As a pundit, I’ve often punned it. That’s a granddad skill set.) My learned advice: Hell no, don’t go, Joe! Not yet. Several months ago, I wrote that old age would become the bubbling cauldron of politics in America. It was hard to tell, with all the “woke”-MAGA dogfights in the air, not to mention the high-flying gas prices. But I felt the light rays refracting, finding a focus, even before Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell froze, Sen. Dianne Feinstein blanked or an indicted Donald Trump went serially amok. Not to mention Biden, wandering uncertainly off a stage.
Here’s a truth: Old age scares Americans. It was the novelist Philip Roth who said, “Old age isn’t a battle; it’s a massacre.” At 78, I’ve avoided the massacre so far. I’ve mostly been dodging bullets. But certainly when I get my college alumni magazine, or see an email from an old friend, I automatically glance ahead to see if I should brace myself for a fatality or just a calamity. If it’s neither, I tell you, friends, it just makes my day.
♦ To start our age theme locally, Gov. Ron DeSantis, his campaign gasping for air, has declared 80 “too old” for either Trump or Biden to be president. DeSantis claims the Founders would have added age limits to politicians’ terms today. So much for 81-year-old Ben Franklin braving a 66-day transatlantic sea journey to negotiate an end to the War of Independence.
But even a stopped clock like DeSantis can be occasionally right. There are reasons to be afraid of aging leaders clinging to power. Admirers of the legendary Ruth Bader Ginsburg now consider that she extinguished her life’s work by making a fateful actuarial calculation … just one more term … with results that several generations will live with, including my granddaughters. I don’t know exactly what I feel about Nancy Pelosi returning to run again at 83. I assume she hasn’t lost a step, but running can cause falls.
The simplest fear, I feel, is that when it comes to aging and health, any damn thing can happen. I see it day in and day out, at an increasing pace. Our life script can be flipped by the merest break of a thread. One moment it’s regular travel to Tulum on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, volunteering to put up roofs and vigorous mountain treks. The next it’s hip replacements, bed rest and car keys in the fridge.
So it’s not surprising that just about every recent political dinner conversation I’ve heard of has turned to Joe Biden — his shuffle, his mumbles. He makes his supporters wince. Trump, just 3 years younger, gets away with it — as he has all his life, a step ahead of the cops. He seems younger, via sheer nonstop Energizer-bunny bluster and globs of spray tan. His speech, read as prose, is cognitively incomprehensible. But he is peerless at projectile-BS that doesn’t even draw reaction anymore — too much of it, too excrescent. His brute energy is there to see.
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Whispery, misspeaking Biden is catnip for a camera gotcha. On the plus side, his bicycle rides are a pleasant relief; you can’t imagine Trump on a bike. But there’s a camera lens always trained on Biden, unblinkingly, to catch his next word slur, his next bike fall, his closed-eye moment at a rubber chicken G-20 dinner. If anyone held me to that kind of scrutiny, I’d be a babbling wreck of self-conscious tics.
Uncle Joe is used to being watched. He shrugs it off and shuffles off to Buffalo, New York — or a 36-hour trip to Kiev, Ukraine, to rally Europe. (A fraction of time Ben Franklin’s trip took, but still.) God help Biden if he stifles a yawn at the news conference afterward. But appearances are everything, and the man does look hesitant and frail. Three quarters of the public thinks he’s too old, no matter how many bike rides he takes. According to Microsoft’s AI, when he’s 82, he’ll have just a 65.5% chance of making it to the end of a four-year term.
♦ Here’s the trending argument for Biden to pack it in. To moderates, Biden has been a resounding success, perhaps the most effective president in our lifetime. A return to normalcy, the infrastructure bill, his China moves, COVID, microchips, employment, inflation down, NATO and Ukraine — really peppy stuff for so-called Sleepy Joe. (Harry Truman was technically also in my lifetime — end days of World War II, the atomic bomb, the U.N, military desegregated, the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Airlift. Not too shabby, either. But the same miserable numbers. Truman left office — voluntarily — after one elected term with poll numbers like Biden’s. His reputation in history has soared since.) So, the Biden-out scenario continues, why not just leave now and preserve the legacy? His son Hunter’s indictment may get even worse. There may be even more nuts embedded in our fruitcake Congress. Second terms are almost always disastrous — filled with scandal, wars or rejection: Dwight D. Eisenhower (heart attack, vicuna coat), Ronald Reagan (Iran-Contra, fuzziness), Bill Clinton (Lewinsky), George W. Bush (Iraq), Barack Obama (lost both Houses). With Trump, just the attempt at a second term shook the republic.
The Leave-Now scenario makes all that disappear for Biden. While there’s (barely) time, the Democratic race gets thrown wide open, and the question of Kamala Harris’ electability is given a fair test. Better yet, the age issue switches to Big-Mac-chomping Trump and his MAGA picnickers. He may be spry now, but even Energizer batteries run down. His own mental state will get more scrutiny. Trump’s latest claim, repeated several times, is that he beat Obama, not Hillary Clinton, in 2016, and that supporting Ukraine may lead to World War II. As to physical fitness, Trump reported weighing 210 at his most recent felony booking. Look, with my med appointment schedule, I’m a master on the scales. I’m 218. If Trump is a pound less than 235, dangerously obese, I’ll eat that Big Mac.
And that’s the meat of the argument to retire Biden.
Why rehire Biden
Here’s my argument to rehire Biden.
As I see it, all calculations come back to one root. Who has the best proven shot at defeating Trump? Nothing else matters. Nothing. Trump, out of office, is just a shambling spectacle. But back in office? Apocalypse now. At his rallies, and in his splenetic screeds, he’s laid it out in plain sight. He promises a 100% revenge presidency. The Constitution will be bypassed as not necessary — and that’s pretty close to a direct quote. To combat that, yes, a younger, more vigorous Democratic candidate would be best. But at the cost of committing a cliché (which I avoid like the plague), may we agree that, for this election, perfection cannot be the enemy of the good?
For all the talk of younger candidates, how can we possibly know anyone would be stronger than Joe — the only person to have definitively defeated Trump? Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine Joe is persuaded to take one for the team and retire. (It may take an imaginative leap. There’s no absolute assurance even genial Joe is ready to give up Air Force One.) Bypass for now the problem of a lame-duck president. Who’s going to listen to him for the next 13 months, or 13 minutes, if he’s handed his power to someone else? The result: a government more inert than a Monty Python ex-parrot.
Follow the thought experiment with me. Let’s say Biden steps aside soon, and endorses Harris. Many think Harris just hasn’t got the electoral chops. So imagine that someone else swoops in — Gavin Newsom, Gretchen Whitmer, whoever. He or she hits it out of the park in the primaries and the debates. But then later in the campaign, the newcomer turns out to have a monster-sized liability, a deal-killer. Anything. A crazy ex-wife with secrets. A financial entanglement. Something worse, even, than the cross Joe bears — a surviving son afflicted by addiction and terrible judgment. Not many surprises left in old Joe Biden’s life.
But the world is full of other surprises. Many of you won’t recall the name Thomas Eagleton. In 1972, George McGovern, whom Bobby Kennedy called “the most decent man in the Senate,” chose the personable, handsome U.S. Sen. Eagleton from Missouri as his running mate at the Democratic Convention. Days later, a tip led to shattering news: Eagleton had been hospitalized three times for depression, and had undergone shock therapy. McGovern scrambled to replace him, but it was too late. Nixon, though he was secretly deep into Watergate criminality, took 49 states.
How can we take the chance on the unknown with so much at stake?
My secret plan
The beauty part of my plan is: We stop worrying about what kind of shape Joe will be in in five years. All he has to do is make it to November 2024. After that, if need be, hand it over to Kamala. Our risk is reduced from a wild card to just keeping him healthy till then. A single year. We can do that, easy. Woodrow Wilson was kept under wraps for two years, and his wife ran the country. FDR was never shown in a wheelchair. JFK kept both his paramours and his Addison’s disease quiet. Some pundits have called on Biden’s people to get him out there more. Nonsense. Preserve his energy. Swaddle him. Let social media go nuts. What are they going to do to Biden if he stays quiet? Cancel him?
Because we know Biden as well as we know anyone, we can take one acceptable risk: That he’s more decent than most, that he’ll tell us when it’s time. We know — as well as we can — that he won’t start fading out, and pull a Generalissimo Franco, dangling us on an endless deathwatch. He’ll know, we’ll know. Joe can pass the baton risk-free. Kamala Harris’ electability won’t be an issue. The power transfer is absolute, constitutional.
If the Republicans can justify their ruinous, disproportionate rule in Congress by citing the 12th Amendment (the Electoral College — live with it, big states!), Democrats can use the 25th Amendment (vice president succeeds on death or disablement — live with it, Idaho!). Dems can be tough, too, maybe.
So here’s the deal, Joe.
Tell the pundits to go blow. (Not this pundit. Give him a Medal of Freedom for timely punditry early in your second term.)
Keep running, Joe. But be careful. Use sunscreen. Remember to signal.
What about the Kamala Harris issue? Is she enough of a drag on Biden’s reelection to endanger my plan?
The rest of my secret plan
This next part is where I start sounding radical. Especially to guys. Especially to white guys. Especially to white guys my age. Hate to say it, but polling data shows older white guys are the voting group with the most hang-ups about women, and about color.
Well, guys, here goes. I don’t think Kamala Harris is a bad candidate at all. She is balanced, smart, has moderate-left views, was a tough prosecutor. She can debate. She embodies the single most important bloc of votes necessary to the preservation of the republic: Black women. I think she’s been criminally underused. Assigning her to solve immigration? Yeah right. Why the Biden people didn’t give her more to trumpet is one of their greatest failures. They coulda made her a contender. She’s progressive enough. Women in colleges cheer her. She’s centrist enough. Bad guys have feared her. It would be good to see her with her prosecutor’s hat on, support a few cops, denounce a few shoplifting gangs.
I know, older white men are tough to convince. Let me see. They say candidates’ wives traditionally help soften their men’s images. How about flipping that with a female candidate? Doug Emhoff, the first Second Gentleman, is accomplished on his own. Could he be a bridge to my doubting-Thomas male friends? Not because of compensatory macho, but because the guy seems like a Mensch.
Emhoff, a white-shoe, big-bucks lawyer at a big San Francisco firm, resigned his lucrative partnership when his wife Kamala was chosen as veep. He didn’t put it into blind trust, didn’t hand it over to a ne’er-do-well offspring. He gave up his career and income rather than risk even the appearance of conflict. God, I like that. It’s been so long. At a time when Supreme Court justices are out cruising on billionaire’s jets and yachts, when half of Congress is multi-millionaires, when the Clintons and even the Obamas have all cashed in … a couple gives up its wealth-making to serve the public interest. Hey, bros: If you still don’t like Kamala, maybe vote for her because she married a righteous dude. Whatever it takes. Love you, man.
Ah yes: Medicare
OK, the righteous-hubby argument doesn’t do it for you? Then, gentlemen, let me put the case in starker terms. More self-interested terms.
Medicare’s great, we’d all be sunk without it. But, Medicare mostly doesn’t pay for the bumpiest part of the ride — our final stretch. Who’ll still feed us, who’ll intercede for us, when we’re … 84? Who’ll sort our pillboxes? Our wives, most likely, since they outlive us by five or six years. But who’s going to do the heavy lifting after that? More important, if we’re good men, who’s going to be there for our surviving partners when we’re gone?
Most likely, home aides, that’s who. Health aides. After doctors and nurses, the single most crucial people in any older citizen’s future life. They’re going to be responsible for the very quality of our life. They’ll feed us, they’ll count our pills. They’ll listen to us rage, and be there, bedside, at the dying of the light. Yet they’re paid wretched wages, at the bottom of the scale. They get few benefits, less respect. They’ll probably have foreign accents. And they’d better have impeccable immigrant papers … or, by law, we’ll have to report them, right, Floridians?
Right now, there are 8.5 million unfilled job openings for home aides. Imagine that number in a few years. Biden, who’s old enough to think about this seriously, asked for $400 billion to pay for aides and job training. The GOP — that would be MAGA in modern parlance — cut it down to $150 billion. Then killed it totally. So to a lot of you guys who want to change horses in midstream, who think you’d be better off putting this one out to pasture, I suggest you think about your own future … in the most hard-headed way. I ask you, in my raspiest voice, eyes squinting: Do you feel lucky?
Too old to rock ‘n’ pol?
There’s one unaddressed scenario in this support-your-geezer manifesto. That is, what if we suddenly get what we wish for with Donald Trump? What if he finally cracks under the indictments and endless trials? What if the Energizer Big Bunny runs out of juice? Like the cops he’s eluded until now, the grim reaper on the golf cart may catch up with him, too. It’s strange to watch his latest criminal bookings on TV, and be ambivalent about seeing him go down. Or fear he’ll succumb. Because that would unleash … a young Republican against good old Joe Biden. Let’s wait on that. I have some expertise on that as well, living in Florida. Yet another benefit to a contemplative life down here among palm fronds. Leave it for another column. For now, let’s not hold out for a perfect solution. Just observe the prime directive: Thump Trump. Let’s settle for good enough. Let’s go with the best oldie on our playlist.
Speaking of playlists and oldies, let’s not forget another geezer. Mick Jagger. At 80, the rocker, and recent father, has written a new album with his almost-as-aged partner, that marvel of medical survival, Keith Richards. They’re going to tour again! But, sad news, too: I read that Mick just sold the Sarasota-area mansion he wintered in with his beautiful ballerina girlfriend. He’s leaving the region. I sure hope that isn’t a trend. We shouldn’t be driving away our energetic ‘60s creative trouble makers. Wonder what’s driving them away? As to risking the known for the unknown, the good for the perfect, Sir Mick’s got a few licks to share on that. Remember, Jagger is quite the philosopher, knows a bit about outcomes and probabilities. Before prancing onto the world’s arenas, he studied at the London School of Economics. Way back in 1969, he wrote the immortal words:
You can’t always get what you want /
You can’t always get what you want /
But if you try sometimes / You just might find
… You get what you need..
Guest columnist Barry Golson covers the Tampa Bay senior scene. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Playboy, Forbes and AARP. He is the author of “Gringos in Paradise” (Scribner). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.