Friday, May 11, 2007

Obama face-off with McCain: Does age matter?

Revised on Sunday at 3:00 pm [CST]. Revised and video links added on Saturday night at 11:50 pm [CST}.
John McCain, at 70, can tout two careers: more than two decades of military experience followed by twenty-five years in Congress. McCain, if he can show the energy ...
Perhaps Team Obama needs to let Obama be Obama [even as Reagan's handlers ultimately had to let Reagan be Reagan]...
Age, to date, has been a relatively neglected factor in the Presidential derby. This may make sense. Certainly in modern times other factors have dominated the Presidential general election. Did you hear much about age when Bush won the general election in 2000 and 2004? Not so much.

Perhaps it is because the age differential among the candidates in those two elections was insubstantial. Indeed, we heard more about Kerry's second wife [Teresa Heinz Kerry] being five years older and much richer than her spouse than we heard about any Kerry-Bush age differential.

Even when the age differential was much greater-- with Bill Clinton's youthful vigor providing quite a contrast to the aging George Herbert Walker Bush in '92 and the aging Dole in '96-- nobody really thinks age was the decisive factor. In both cases, putting aside philosphical preferences, Mr. Bill was clearly the stronger candidate: he seemed brighter than either of his Republican opponents, caught the mood of the times and connected with the electorate in oh so many ways.

In '80 and '84, Ronald Reagan clearly was the people's choice, notwithstanding the sense that his age might be catching up with him in '84. Questioned at a debate in '84 about his age, Reagan made a joke about not making an issue of the youth and inexperience of Walter Mondale, and that was it. Mondale laughed graciously with the rest of the country, and the race was over, with Reagan winning all but one state. Reagan's thematic goals for the government, past performance, style and strength of character matched the political preferences of the country, making his age seem inconsequential.

The above point about the relative unimportance of age in recent presidential elections is made here, albeit the author gets there in another way, quoting from yours truly:

'Nixon just looked older,' said Jeff Berkowitz, Chicago-based political reporter and host of the local "Public Affairs" cable talk show. 'JFK had that youthful look.'

As Fox's ace political writer Kelley Vlahos noted, "Nixon was only four years older than Kennedy," but they really were light years apart. Nixon would sweat the debate, literally and figureatively--no make-up and a 5:00 pm shadow-- and those scoring the debate on substance gave Nixon a win. But, JFK and his handlers understood the world was changing. This was TV, a cool medium in which make-up counts. The voters, looking at the candidates in their totality, gave the debate and the election to JFK. Of course, JFK's willingness to put LBJ on the ticket didn't hurt either, with LBJ winning [or stealing] Texas for JFK.

For almost the last half century, political handlers have been instructing their candidates to emulate the JFK look, telling candidates to walk along the beach, with a sport coat slung over their shoulder, trying to capture the youthful, Camelot Kennedy era, short as it was. Hell, forget the political candidates. Half the college age generation of the 60s and 70s tried to impress their dates with that windswept look of JFK on the beach. Some still try it, with varying success.

Scroll forward to the present. Along comes Barack Obama, the closest thing to the JFK look, excluding RFK, in almost fifty years. Joe Biden got in trouble for trying to say it and saying it in a clumsy way, but the truth of the matter is that Obama has the clean cut looks of JFK. What Senator Biden missed, in part, is that Obama also has the charm, winning style, intelligence, wit and speaking ability of JFK.

Moreover, to the extent that Biden made the point of Obama being articulate-- this is not a racist statement, as some would suggest. Senator Biden surely was not trying to say that his colleague, Senator Obama, is "articulate for a black guy," which would be a racist statement. Instead, Biden was trying to say what anyone, on speaking with or listening to Obama, says, "Obama is articulate for anyone- Black, White, Green, Jewish, Protestant whatever." Indeed, anybody who watched Obama in his long, U.S. Senate Democratic Primary contest could tell you that. His general election Senate contest against Alan Keyes was a non-event against "a not so real candidate," so that portion of Obama's political career was less revealing as to Barack's strengths.

The strong speaking and thinking ability displayed by Obama in the two years preceding and then following his election to the Senate in 2004 is why Obama's poor performance in the South Carolina Presidential Primary debate was so puzzling to pundits. [See here]. Obama is someone who impresses when speaking, and he doesn't need a script to do it. Indeed, one wonders if his handlers were the problem, especially those new to Team Obama. They took somebody who naturally handles that kind of thing well and somehow helped him screw it up.

Perhaps Team Obama needs to let Obama be Obama [even as Reagan's handlers ultimately had to let Reagan be Reagan] and make sure the right people are in the room for the next debate prep. Anybody can make a mistake, but winners in Presidential contests seldom make the same mistake twice.

If Obama does make it out of the primary, he very well could be up against Senator McCain, who spots Obama a quarter century of youth. Obama, on the other hand, spots McCain a quarter century, or so, of experience.

John McCain, at 70, can tout two careers: more than two decades of military experience followed by twenty five years in Congress. McCain, if he can show the energy needed to be President, could offset the youthful appearance of the 45 year old Obama with the judgment and wisdom of a seasoned veteran of the military and congress. Further, Maverick McCain should be able to win back the respect of independents [who have left him, for the moment] , as "independence from Party," is perhaps McCain's middle name. Also, if anybody can work across an aisle, it is John McCain. These are traits that voters in 2006 are said to have valued.

Obama, if the Obama that got him here shows up, might be able to persuade the country that it is time "to pass the torch to a new generation." That's using the age issue without perhaps offending seniors. He could argue that the country can be tough and fight terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere, without taking on "dumb wars." Unlike Hillary and Edwards, Obama can tell the voters that he did note vote to authorize military action in Iraq. Moreover, he would argue that he showed strong leadership skills and good, consistent judgment by speaking out against the War from the Fall of 2002 to the present.

Obama can argue that eight years in the Illinois Senate, four years in the U. S. Senate
and a decade of working with grassroots in communities better prepares him than McCain for the current challenges.

That could be quite a race. And, if handled right, by both candidates, it won't be about age or experience. It will be about judgment, wisdom, toughness and sensitivity. Who can better provide peace, security and prosperity?

To do your own McCain-Obama compare and contrast, go to the July 22, 2006 "Public Affairs," show with Obama and McCain at

To read a partial transcript of the McCain-Obama show, go here . To read a partial transcript of the interview with Obama that aired separately, go here.

Obama v. McCain. An uplifting race. Just what the doctor called for.
Jeff Berkowitz, Show Host/Producer of "Public Affairs," and Executive Legal Recruiter doing legal search can be reached at