In light of this pattern, in the struggle for one of the most powerful positions in human history, can we really accept at face value the declarations of presidents and presidential hopefuls in their 70s that they’re up to the job? Should we uncritically accept the evaluations of their medical attendants? The answer is no. We should take such claims with a grain of salt, especially when we see videos of a 68-year-old Hillary Clinton collapsing and being bundled into a car, or watch as Joe Biden’s eye fills with blood during a town hall meeting last September. Stuart Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has observed that Biden hasn’t undergone any recent tests for cognitive functioning. But Olshansky claimed that being “on the campaign trail and meeting a rigorous travel and meeting schedule probably would suffice as a replacement” for formal cognitive tests. While Olshansky is a noted specialist in gerontology, his degree is in sociology, not medicine or politics, so this assessment isn’t exactly reassuring.
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As for Trump, he’s predictably dismissive of the possible consequences of his age. “I met with a man the other day who was 85 years old, the sharpest guy you’ll ever meet,” he said, when confronted with Jimmy Carter’s implied criticism. “I’ve dealt with people that were 92, 93, 94, and they were totally sharp.” Maybe he has; and maybe William Pitt the Younger had sufficiently mature judgment at age 24 to be prime minister. But, as in Pitt’s case, the odds are against it.
The basic question is simple: Should an age restriction exist for those seeking the presidency? There would certainly be downsides to such a restriction. First, while affording society a degree of protection, the restriction would doubtless exclude some meritorious individuals whose cognitive abilities have been happily preserved—who, in short, have beaten the odds. Next, when substantial supportive mechanisms exist they can reduce the burden on the aging brain somewhat, and the president likely has more staff and technical support than nearly anyone else imaginable. This assistance might allow easier navigation for those with only minor cognitive dysfunction. But given the responsibilities of the president, are we willing to take this gamble?
If not, we still face the question of how to set up the age limitation. The clearest way would be a constitutional amendment that imposes a bright-line upper age limit to bookend the current minimum age. Or instead of a bright line, the amendment could require cognitive tests—a more tailored, if somewhat more difficult to design, approach. We already have some such tests, and better ones than merely being on the campaign trail. Improved radiographic evidence and psychological testing will likely make objective assessment more possible in the future. The downside would be that the designing, choice, and interpretation of such tests might all be open to charges of partisan manipulation for tactical advantage in an election. After all, in the cases of Wilson and FDR, there did seem to be some collusion from the medical community to help a president hold on to power when perhaps he shouldn’t have. Could America trust that community not to play politics in presidential campaigns? In light of this almost-certain danger, a bright-line approach would probably be best.