Published February 26, 2020
For nine months after Steve Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he reportedly refused the surgery that might have saved him. He is said to have given himself over to magic thinking and tried to treat his condition with acupuncture, dietary supplements and juices. He abandoned that course only after it was too late. It was Steve Jobs’s magic thinking that created the iPhone, and magic thinking may have ended up killing him in 2011. He was 56.
My theory is that under the spell of ubiquitous, miraculous electronics, the people of the early 21st century have become somewhat prone to magic thinking in their lives and politics. Such thinking has become a powerful tendency of an American people that once had a reputation for shrewdness and practicality. The effect may be magnified among millennials. The young are less aware of the limitations imposed, even on heroes, by age, disease, dementia.
As Jobs found, neither extreme optimism nor stubborn denial will prevail against mortality. Whatever remarkable medical advances now prolong human life, death, the old way of doing things, will have its dominion.
Voters may begin to suspect there is something risky and irresponsible in the idea of nominating a 78-year-old man who recently suffered a heart attack for the job of president of the United States. It’s a question to consider separately from the magic thinking of Bernie Sanders’s democratic-socialist agenda, his future in which the lemonade springs and the bluebird sings.
The average life expectancy of an American man in 2020 is 78. That means that, statistically speaking, Mr. Sanders is living on borrowed time from here on out. That is also true of 78-year-old Mike Bloomberg.Joe Biden is 77 and will cross over into the statistical twilight of 78 about two weeks after the November election. True, men who have reached 78 can expect to live another nine years on average—which leaves Mr. Sanders and his peers a roughly 50/50 chance of fading out before completing a second term.
If Mr. Sanders became president, he would be 79 when inaugurated and 83 at the end of his term. He would still be three years younger than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is today—and 45 years older than Pete Buttigieg is right now.
In the past, America has not exactly been Confucian in its reverence for age. Why then is the Democratic Party finding leaders at such geriatric altitudes? Is there a complex politics of the generations at work? Or coincidence? At the least, such politics will become manifest in the party’s choice of a vice presidential nominee. Someone much younger may be deemed necessary to provide generational balance and serve as reassuring actuarial backup.
Messrs. Sanders, Bloomberg and Biden are pre-baby-boomers—members, like me, of the Silent Generation, those born during World War II or even a little before (1939 in my case). My motto for some time has been “Don’t Trust Anyone Under 70.” But I am kidding.
Even the most alert and active members of AARP—my friend John Leo once had the idea of starting a magazine for them called Geezer & Crone—inhabit the past more than they imagine the future. Their minds tend to be retrospective. That may be either a good or a bad thing.
Americans have appealed to inspired magic thinking from time to time in their history: “All men are created equal,” for example. The nation started off under the influence of youth. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence at 33, in 1776, when John Hancock was 39. Alexander Hamilton was 21, and Gouverneur Morris was 24. Jefferson died a half-century later at 83, long after he had left the White House, and on the same mystical day as 90-year-old John Adams, July 4, 1826.
Presidents age in different ways, at different speeds. Woodrow Wilson was only 63 in 1919 when he suffered the stroke that left him a ghost in the White House. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the master illusionist who told Americans in 1933, against all evidence, that they had “nothing to fear but fear itself,” was entirely spent by the time he died in Warm Springs, Ga., at 63.
Presidential history is filled with ironies and counterfactuals. John F. Kennedy’s Addison’s disease almost killed him when he was in his 30s. Republican Wendell Willkie—a vigorous, 48-year-old bear of a man—ran against Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and lost. Willkie died of a heart attack at 52 in October 1944—some six months before FDR succumbed. But amazingly, Willkie’s 1940 running mate, Charles McNary of Oregon, died eight months earlier than Willkie at 70.
If Willkie and McNary had won the 1940 election, then, Willkie’s secretary of state, whoever that might have been, would have become president. (Under current law, the House speaker would accede to the presidency.) History would have set off in who knows what direction.
At what point should age become disqualifying? Only a fool does not think about it. At the very least, all the candidates’ medical records should be opened for inspection by the public.
Mr. Morrow is the Henry Grunwald Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.