Other 80-Somethings reflect on age and the presidency

Bill Murphy, an 80-year-old retired veterinarian in suburban Phoenix, sometimes drops names he once could easily recall, so he has empathy for 81-year-old President Biden. But he winced when he watched Mr. Biden defend his mental acuity at a news conference, only to confuse the presidents of Egypt and Mexico. Mr. Murphy, a Republican, believes Mr. Biden is not fit for another term.

Mary Meyer, an 83-year-old avid hiker and traveler who lives in the high desert north of Phoenix, argued report of the special prosecutor which characterized him as elderly and forgetful – a similar assumption that strangers in the supermarket sometimes make about her abilities.

“I look at him as a peer,” said Ms. Meyer, who plans to vote for Mr. Biden. “I know what he’s capable of. I know it’s not as bad as everyone thinks.”

For voters in their 70s and 80s, the renewed questions surrounding Mr. Biden’s age and fitness resonated in deeply personal ways. The special counsel’s report cleared him of criminal charges for handling classified documents, but described him as a “nice, well-meaning, elderly man with a failing memory.”

Some of Mr. Biden’s generational colleagues and supporters insisted that this characterization was nothing more than a calculated political ploy to undermine his campaign and play on a perceived weakness. Many have noted their lively and busy lives, filled with mental and physical activity.

Criticism of Mr. Biden as forgetful and unable to serve resonated with the belittling and discrimination they felt. Others reflected on their own struggles in their 80s and questioned the ability of any 80-year-old to lead a nation.

They said they know what it feels like to be exhausted after a two-hour drive, to struggle to remember names and facts that once came easily, to be careful climbing a ladder or climbing a bicycle. Both Republican and Democratic voters said they couldn’t help but sympathize with Biden’s verbal slips, as well as the gloom that followed them.

Despite efforts by the White House to discredit the portrait of Mr. Biden as forgettable, some voters worry how a president their age will continue to respond to the stress of wars in the Middle East and Ukraine, the drudgery of campaign rallies or grueling overnight flights to summits around the world in the years to come.

“What happens when he gets a call in the middle of the night that there’s been a bombing or another shooting?” asked Jan Kalheim, 83, a retired nurse from Mankato, Minn., who spends her winters in Arizona and describes herself as a conservative.

Polls show many voters share her concerns. In a New York Times/Sienna poll of six states last fall, more than 70 percent of voters agreed with the statement that Mr. Biden, 81, is too old to be an effective president, although voters over 65 were slightly less likely to do so. I rate it as too old. More than 60 percent of all voters polled did not think he had the mental acuity to be president. Voters aged 65 and over are evenly divided on this issue.

On Friday, The Times spoke to nearly two dozen older voters about their thoughts on age and the presidency, and received written responses on the subject from about 150 others. The responses, while unscientific, seemed to indicate that several of Mr. Biden’s supporters were moved by the special counsel’s report or his appearance at a White House press conference in response to it. Those worried about Mr. Biden’s age have already felt the worry.

Many older Democrats and independent voters who responded said they were more concerned about Mr. Trump’s temperament than Mr. Biden’s age.

On Friday, Ms. Kallheim and a group of golfing, mah-jongg-loving, mostly conservative Midwestern friends were finishing up dinner at a Panera in the Sun City area, a suburban Phoenix mecca for retirees and snowbirds. There, residents are wheeled in golf carts from the putting green to the woodworking range to the swimming pool.

Friends saw the upcoming election as an unnerving choice between what they called “grandpa and crazy.” They said they would rather write Republicans Nikki Haley or Liz Cheney than vote for Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump.

When asked if they wanted younger alternatives, they all answered yes.

“You can’t go back,” said Ms. Kalheim, who tends to vote Republican but said she would never vote for Mr. Trump. “I don’t care how physically active you are, whether you take pills or not – your acuity at 80 is not as good as at 60. There is deterioration.”

“I don’t think like I did when I was younger,” said Lorene Bleess, 85, who recently had to give up sauerkraut after an illness.

But other voters in their 70s and 80s said they still felt as mentally agile as they did in their 50s and 60s, and were little worried about Mr. Biden’s age. They pointed out that politicians of all ages – including Mr Trump – make verbal turns and forget names and dates.

“I’ve been in a situation where I’ve been asked something on the spot and I’ve found myself here and there,” said Beverly Edmond, 74, a Democrat and retired university administrator in Lithonia, Georgia. “It happens, but it’s not a reflection of intellect or ability. This is excessive.”

To drive home the point, after the special counsel’s unflattering description of Mr. Biden, Democrats circulated videos showing Mr. Trump, confusing Ms. Haley with Nancy Pelosi, and Mike Johnson, 52, the speaker of the House of Representatives. mixing Israel and Iran.

Some older voters said it was unfair to judge Mr. Biden solely on his age. But in an angrily polarized youth-obsessed culture, they were not surprised to see commentators dismiss Mr. Biden as “doddering” and “Went out for lunch”, or many voters consider him “too old” in public opinion polls.

Ann Marie Cunningham, 86, a retired teacher and social worker in Chicago, said some criticism of Mr. Biden’s age stems from a widespread bias against older people. When she worked at a nursing home in her early 70s, she said the new manager fired many older workers, including herself.

“Being older is a responsibility,” Ms. Cunningham said.

She uses a walker to get around her high course, but says her mind is as clear as ever. Ms. Cunningham, a registered Democrat who considers herself an independent, admired Mr. Biden’s physical prowess well into his 80s.

“He rides a bicycle!” she said. “I couldn’t ride a bike if my life depended on it.”

Still, she noticed his verbal lapses. When Ms. Cunningham was a Catholic school teacher in Chicago for 35 years, she had students who stuttered, like Mr. Biden.

“Sometimes he’ll forget a word or get things wrong,” she said, which she believes has to do with his early speech difficulties. “It’s not easy.”

Mr. Biden was not Ms. Cunningham’s first choice for president. She voted for him, with some reluctance, but was pleased with his accomplishments in office, especially reducing prescription costs for the elderly, and said she would vote for him again.

But Harry W. Hepburn III, an 82-year-old clock repairman in Harrison, Maine, sees Mr. Biden’s age as a risk that threatens the country. Mr. Hepburn has empathy for the mistakes that come with age and is bothered when he occasionally forgets his name, “when things came to me so fast, like boom-boom-boom.”

A registered Republican, Mr. Hepburn voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and 2020 and plans to vote for him again in November because of his efforts to limit immigration and his business acumen, he said. He doesn’t think age has affected Mr. Trump yet.

Mr. Hepburn stays active by throwing a soccer ball to his grandchildren and still shovels snow off his porch roof. He said he felt remarkable for 82 years, but he did not believe the same was true for Mr. Biden.

“I think he’s lost the ability to think on his feet,” Mr Hepburn said, as he continued to tinker with the clock in his workshop on Friday afternoon. “He scares me. Watch how he walks – he walks like a guy who doesn’t have it anymore.” (White House report on Mr. Biden’s 2023 physical described him as a “healthy, energetic 80-year-old.”)

Even some Democratic supporters, such as Sarah Shankman, an 80-year-old novelist from Santa Rosa, California, say they would like Mr. Biden to leave the stage. Ms. Shankman compared Biden’s re-election bid to how Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg resisted calls to retire from the Supreme Court during the Obama administration, only to die and be replaced by Trump’s nominee.

“I think his heart is in the right place, but I think his ego got in the way,” she said. “I think it’s very difficult for Biden to face the inevitable.”

Public opinion polls suggest that Mr. Biden’s older supporters have stuck with him even as he has lost support among young voters troubled by issues such as the war in Gaza.

“We all have deficits as young people and deficits as we get older,” said Linda Georgeson, a 74-year-old retiree and Democrat from Bayfield, Wis.

As a court administrator, Ms. Georgeson decided cases involving competency and elder abuse, and came away with the belief that age does not necessarily determine mental acuity. After reading the special prosecutor’s report, she said, she felt offended “on behalf of all older people.”

“I think it’s time for us in this country to realize that everybody is going to get old,” she said.

Halina Bennett contributed reporting.

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