Age is still a factor for those seeking high political office
Hillary Clinton’s health woes highlight the issue of age despite advances in medical care
Hillary Clinton cannot afford to add fuel to the relentless attack by Donald Trump on her credibility and honesty, including questions about her health. But that is what she did when her campaign organisation failed to disclose on Friday that she had been diagnosed with pneumonia. Her team revealed this on Sunday only after a video of an apparently unwell Clinton making a stumbling, assisted exit from a 9/11 memorial ceremony in New York appeared on social media. This has also opened up the sensitive question of candidates’ health and prompted both Clinton, 68, and Trump, 70, to promise to make more details of their medical records available to the media.
The takeaway from this incident, apart from transparency being the best policy, is that despite health advances that have lifted life expectancy, age is still seen to raise questions about the capacity of candidates for high political office to handle sustained stress. To be sure, medical risks do increase with age. More recently Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and Senator John McCain, all Republican presidential nominees in their 70s, faced questions about their health. In 2008 McCain, a navy veteran and former Vietnam POW with a huge medical file, released over 1,000 pages to reporters. There are calls for Trump, whose own trust rating among voters is unconvincing, and Clinton to be held to the same standard.
Such concern with physical and mental health does not cover the higher risk of the onset of dementia with increasing age. Indeed, at the age of 83 and within five years of leaving the White House after eight years in office, Reagan announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It could have happened earlier while still in office. Presumably it is only a matter of time before older candidates especially will be expected to pass clinical tests for early signs of dementia.
To be fair to Clinton, many healthy, younger people would feel the strain of months on a gruelling campaign trail. The head of Dole’s 1996 campaign, Scott Reed, says the physical demands of running for president are even more difficult than the mental demands. The campaign is therefore a good test of ability to work under stress. But assuming full recovery, pneumonia can hardly be seen as a fail. McCain shows it can be premature to rule someone out on the grounds of age. Now 80, he is seeking a sixth term as senator for Arizona and fellow lawmakers have elected him to the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee.