“If you’re not a socialist before you’re 25, you have no heart; if you are a socialist after 25, you have no head.”
Many educated people know this famous quip by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. And most decent people profess admiration for Churchill, the man who stood up to the Nazis and won, the man who would later become a leading figure in western conservative politics. He was sixty-six when he assumed the office of Prime Minster in 1940, seventy-seven when he was elected prime minister in 1951, and a ripe seventy-nine when awarded the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature for, in the words of the Swedish Academy, “brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” Not bad, then, for what the English often term “an old geezer.”
Of course, Churchill’s alleged culpability in the starvation of up to four million during the Bengal famine of 1943— along with his explicit intransigence regarding Indian independence[i]—diminishes his stature in certain ideological circles. But let us give credit where it is due.
Age is no limit where achievement and leadership are concerned. But how does age influence our political tendencies, either as expressed by principles we put into practice, or through leaders we trust?
One measure of the extent to which we believe age influences political beliefs is the extent to which we know Churchill’s phrase. Or believe we know it.
The more likely author, it turns out, is Francois Guizot (1787-1874), French Prime Minister and ambassador to London under “Citizen King” Louis Philippe. As Guizot put it, “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.”
As a leader of the 19th-century French “Doctrinaires,” Guizot turned a deaf ear to his era’s increasingly strident cries for representative government, believing there was still a third way between balancing the interests of absolutist monarchism and limited popular rule. So limited, in fact, that he never conceded granting the vote to anyone but land-owning men. Perhaps that inclination was understandable given his time in history. When your father is hanged by a mob during the Reign of Terror, as was Guizot’s, you too, might be suspicious of popular power. Guizot was smart enough to chair the department of modern history at the Sorbonne, and smart enough to translate Edward Gibbon and Shakespeare into French. Alas, he was never wise enough to grant women, let alone working men without property, the vote.
Guizot was sixty when he became the 22nd Prime Minister of France, a stint that lasted barely six months. But French politics was unusually tumultuous in those days, so perhaps we can cut him some slack.
Like Churchill, Guizot might not have authored this famous phrase, either. Benham’s Book of Quotations Proverbs and Household Words published in 1924, asserts that Guizot said this. But Benham’s book was published too long after Guizot’s death to count as a reliable source.
Quote hounds, and those who delight at the hidden margins of history, now prefer our nation’s own President John Adams as the coiner of this phrase. According to an entry in Thomas Jefferson’s journal, Adams pushed the age of political consciousness back yet another five years. “A boy of 15 who is not a Democrat is good for nothing, and he is not better who is a Democrat at 20,” Adams allegedly said. Young as the nation was during Adam’s time, he perhaps felt there was no room for error, no welcome space for the political novice.
Adams was sixty-one years old when he assumed office as our second president. Who knows how old he was when he allegedly coined arguably the most famous phrase regarding age and politics? Or did he? It seems unlikely that someone first heard Adams say it, then passed it on by conversational mutation to Guizot. The better bet is that assumptions about age and wisdom are simply part of the air most civilizations breathe. Yet given the sheer durability of this political maxim regarding age, the question of who said it is not nearly so interesting as whether it is true.
But like many statements obvious on their face, it pays to read between the lines.
Taking all three variations of the same phrase, it is reassuring to know that each new version takes into account improving life spans. Presumably, the next time it is recycled, the starting age will be at least thirty, perhaps thirty-five. And with seniors living longer, we can enjoy a longer grace period during which we can marinate in political naiveté prior to fossilizing into hard-nosed realists.
John F. Kennedy was a seemingly spry forty-three—biographies have revealed he was not as healthy as he appeared—when elected President, the second youngest President on record. By any standard, his first year in office was shaky at best, replete with the Bay of Pigs fiasco and bungling with Khrushchev in Berlin.
Dissecting the truth of this aphorism can be split into two competing, but also complementary, questions.
First, is it even true that older people skew more conservative?
According to the latest Pew Research Center survey, the short answer is, “No.” Older people tend to settle into, or even fortify their views and assumptions about the world.. That is, they become more confident of their opinions.
This has little to do with the left-right divide. According to its 2014 survey of 10,000 Americans, Pew found that 32 percent aged sixty-five and older identify as “steadfast or business conservative,” while 33 percent of the same age survey pool identify as “solid liberal or Faith and Family Left.” The closer we creep toward death, the more we cling to identities and beliefs less likely to shift. Age influences mostly the strength of convictions, not the ideals or beliefs of the convictions we hold. A person’s year of birth, however, can play a big role in shaping political views.
At age sixty-five and older, we are either confident in the experience amassed over the course of a lifetime to inform our political choices, or too tired to think of politics anymore. The intriguing thought, however, is that perhaps we have grown enough to learn a thing or two about the actual impacts our beliefs can have.
The second question is, jettisoning the competing agendas of either conservative or liberal politics (it is possible), is it true that older leaders give us better politics, and even public policy?
John F. Kennedy was a seemingly spry forty-three—biographies have revealed he was not as healthy as he appeared—when elected President, the second youngest President on record. By any standard, his first year in office was shaky at best, replete with the Bay of Pigs fiasco and bungling with Khrushchev in Berlin. The 1960s-era press, lucky for him, was uninterested in his affairs with Mary Pinchot Meyer, or any other woman. So bad was JFK’s first year, in fact, that he reportedly panicked upon learning that someone wanted to write a book on his first year in office.
Bernie Sanders, by contrast, would have been, if elected, our nation’s oldest-ever commander-in-chief at age seventy-five. That is an almost thirty-year distance from Republican presidential contender Ted Cruz, who would have been forty-six if he had made it past the nomination and on to the White House. This is yet more proof that the maxim of political idealism tends toward youth, while conservatives skew old, is more or less hokum.
The fact that younger voters adore Sanders, while older voters have flocked to mid-forties ex-candidates like Cruz and Marco Rubio, has also generated fascinating news and op-ed headlines. “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30, Except Bernie Sanders,” quipped a March 15 New York Times headline.
Sanders’ age has also resulted in laughs at his expense. “Bernie 2016? I don’t get it!” said Triumph The Insult Dog. “The man doesn’t look a day over 2000!” and “A Super Tuesday for Sanders means he only went to the bathroom once that night!”
Curiously, however, given the brief lifespan of our nation so far, there does seem to be a dynamic between the ages of presidential candidates and their vice presidential running mates, both in terms of tipping the odds toward victory and in the resulting quality of leadership. Is an older presidential candidate well served selecting a running mate who is significantly younger? Or are presidential candidates who appear young or inexperienced better served by having older running mates? Or should the candidates be close to the same age? Republican George W. Bush chose Wyoming conservative Dick Cheney as his running mate in 2000 because Cheney added gravitas and experience to the ticket even though Cheney was only five years older than Bush. Cheney seemed much older not only because of his fragile heart but also because Bush deferred to him a great deal in the early days of his presidency. On the other hand, Democrat Senator Lyndon Johnson was nine years older than John F. Kennedy, who felt no compunction about treating Johnson the way most presidents treat their vice presidents: as if they did not exist. Then again, there is the case of Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992 selecting Tennessee Senator Al Gore as his running mate, the men being only two years apart in age. They gave the impression of being a partnership of the new and the fresh. Perhaps how presidential candidates pick their running mates says something about how much contempt they hold for the office of the vice presidency. The age of the running mate may be an aspect of how much contempt the top dog feels about having to have company while running for the nation’s highest office. To be sure, few who have ever held the vice presidency had much regard for it. Similar to Churchill’s famous phrase, everyone knows the words of Texas Democrat and attorney John Nance Garner, who said the office of vice president was “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” The joke goes that, after moving through reactions of disgust or laughter, the nation’s political class at last admitted the truth of Garner’s statement. “Warm spit,” however, became the preferred euphemism.
“Piss” or “spit,” the age difference between candidate and running-mate makes an interesting study. Among the biggest age discrepancies were the 2012 Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan Republican ticket (twenty-three years) and the 2008 John McCain-Sarah Palin Republican ticket (twenty-eight years), both lost decisively. On the other hand, the 1952 Dwight Eisenhower-Richard Nixon Republican ticket and the 1988 George H. W. Bush-Dan Quayle Republican ticket won the election, although there was a twenty-three-year difference in age between the candidates. Both young vice presidential choices—Nixon forty-one years old and Quayle thirty-nine—proved troublesome for the presidents they served, and both came close to having to resign from the ticket. So much for the wisdom of the older men who picked them! When James Buchanan at the age of sixty-five won the presidency in 1856 on the Democratic ticket, he was thirty years older than his vice president, John Breckinridge, the biggest age disparity in American history. The Buchanan administration proved to be one that was not highly regarded by historians.
The fact that younger voters adore Sanders, while older voters have flocked to mid-40s ex-candidates like Cruz and Marco Rubio, has also generated fascinating news and op-ed headlines. “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30, Except Bernie Sanders,” quipped a March 15 New York Times headline.
This leads us at last to answer the question of whether a leader’s age results in better political management, the short answer is, “Not really.” Not unless, say, a difference of eighteen months is considered much of a difference at all.
A combination of consensus by scholars of U.S. presidents and simple math tells us this is not strictly true, at least over a short time span. Given more time, more presidents, and more historical judgments to draw from over time, it will be interesting to discover what mathematics’ Law of Large Numbers—which dictates that more data gives us more reliable information regarding probabilities—has to say. Until then, we can distill the relative ranking of the top five, or so, best and worst U.S. Presidents, along with the age they assumed office (whether by vote or chance, i.e., assassination of their predecessor) to find that age barely budges the needle either way when considering quality leadership, decision-making, or policy.
The average age of seven presidents ranked worst—the curious may find the full list of U.S. Presidents judged best here—includes mostly those who preceded and followed our nation’s civil war: John Tyler (1790-1862), Millard Fillmore (1800-1874), Franklin Pierce (1804-1869), James Buchanan (1791-1868), Andrew Johnson (1808-1875), Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), and Warren Harding (1865-1923). Altogether, they tally an average age of fifty-three. William Harrison, 1773-1841, cannot count, as he lived only one month in office. Grant was the youngest “bad” president to assume office, at age forty-six; Buchanan was oldest at age sixty-five. Harding served little more than two years in office, but his death by stroke while president is usually offered as evidence that the stresses of his own incompetence did him in. He made such a poor president, in effect, that the forces of nature knew when to take him out.
The average age of seven presidents ranked best, meanwhile, is fifty-four and a half. The “best” list starts with the usual suspects, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) and George Washington (1732-1799) at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, before working its way down to the more controversial choices: Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969). Theodore was not just the youngest “best” president at age forty-two, but our youngest president, so far, ever to assume office. Eisenhower clocks in as the oldest “best” president to assume office at age sixty-two.
Age, then, is no respecter of quality in political leadership. Quality political leadership, as well as its disastrous opposite, comes from both the young and the old.
The more urgent defect to look out for, it would seem, is political candidates who do not, or cannot, act their age.