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After America’s birthday, it’s time to assess Biden’s and Trump’s

Professor advises focus on capability, not simply age

Spectators watch as fireworks erupt over the Washington Monument during the Independence Day fireworks display along the National Mall on July 4.
Spectators watch as fireworks erupt over the Washington Monument during the Independence Day fireworks display along the National Mall on July 4. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

The United States celebrated its 247th birthday this week. It needs to settle on a way to talk about two very important birthdays that will be here soon enough.

President Joe Biden will turn 81 on Nov. 20. His most likely 2024 general election foe, Donald Trump, will turn 78 next June 14.

So far, the right pounces on any and all verbal stumbles or outright gaffes by Biden by diagnosing him from afar with dementia. The left did the same during Trump’s term when he, for instance, put a second hand on a water glass or when walking slowly down a ramp.

Neither president’s physicians, at corresponding points in their terms, had released any documentation stating they saw worrisome cognitive decline in either man. But that is part of the problem for the rest of us — especially those oh-so important swing voters in those oh-so important swing states.

It is hard to truly pinpoint mental decline without a) a medical degree; or b) up-close-and-personal interaction with the subject.

That makes it too easy for the right to claim Biden has deteriorated into a minor league mind in a Major League Baseball world. The same goes for the left’s claims that Trump’s aging brain has been overcome by vendetta, paranoia and rage.

Caught in the middle? A mainstream media that clearly is uncomfortable with the topic of politicians’ age — especially that of the sitting president. Just last week, he brought up the long-ended 2003 Iraq war — twice — unprompted by reporters who long ago moved on from that mismanaged conflict-of-choice. He also wandered off a live television set after a rare in-studio appearance by an Oval Office incumbent before the host could throw it to commercial.

Biden’s less-than-sharp moments and Trump’s most incoherent ones raise big questions about how the media should observe, assess, gather experts’ opinions and then report about the age of the two 2024 front-runners.

‘Skillful dance around the issue’

Biden is still savvy enough at 80 to give newsrooms some wiggle room, offering up relatively easy-to-execute stories by joking about his own age. He has referred to America’s fourth president as “my good buddy Jimmy Madison.” The quip is funny because of Biden’s bright white hair and the fact Madison left office way back in 1817.

Additionally, Biden has joked that his critics say he is “ancient.” During a January appearance at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. was once the co-pastor, Biden quipped that some say to him, “‘You’ve been around for 136 years.’ I know I look like it, but I haven’t.”

Tobe Berkovitz, a longtime political strategist and now a communications professor at Boston University, said this week that “the mainstream media has performed a skillful dance around the issue of President Biden’s age.

“Avoidance is the key tactic practiced by the media. But as a result of the frequent Biden missteps, physical or oratorical, the press then goes into minimization mode, playing down the fall or verbal gaff, and excusing it as a minor ‘oopsie,’” he added.

The president’s self-deprecating lines allow the media to put out headlines about Biden’s age, and allow outlets to contend they are covering it. But as the campaign really reaches a full roar next year, and if Biden’s verbal and other gaffes continue happening more frequently, the media will have no choice but to begin focusing on the uncomfortable. Right?

“So far,” Berkovitz said, “it is kid gloves coverage for President Biden.”

Jeffery McCall, a communications professor and media critic at Indiana’s DePauw University, said “establishment media outlets have seemed quite hesitant to do stories about Biden’s age, and news consumers should be questioning why the news industry has generally shied away from such coverage.

“Journalists just have to be willing to report on any aspect of a president that could possibly affect their ability to function, and it is certainly fair to consider age in that equation,” he added. “That’s true for Biden now, of course, but would also be true if Trump were back in office — and was certainly an issue when Ronald Reagan was in his second term.”

Majorities of Americans worry about Biden’s and Trump’s ages, health and overall physical and mental abilities to perform perhaps the most stressful job in the world. The problem for Biden is that significantly more voters are worried about him. A June NBC News survey found 55 percent of voters have “major concerns” about his health, compared with 44 percent about Trump.

Notably, the incumbent narrows that gap — likely due, in large part, to Trump’s many legal problems: 46 percent in the same poll said they have “major concerns” about another Biden term, while 51 percent reported the same about a second Trump term.

‘Cognitive difficulties’

Trump’s age and health these days are discussed less because his legal problems, unprecedented for a presidential candidate, soak up so much ink and airtime — but that has not always been the case and likely would not last if Trump wins again, experts said. “The media had no reticence discussing questions about the age and cognitive state of President Ronald Reagan or the potentially age-related behavior of President Donald Trump,” said Berkovitz.

Just this week, the 45th president wrote on social media, without providing evidence, that Biden and son Hunter Biden snort cocaine in the White House and called special counsel Jack Smith, who indicted him over his handling of classified documents, a “crackhead.” That led Rick Wilson, a former GOP strategist now with the anti-Trump Lincoln Project to tweet: “Trump is not well.”

But such punditry is not based on any medical metric. For that, McCall offers media outlets a model for how to talk about the front-runners’ ages, health and abilities to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution — around the clock, 365 days a year.

“When you get right down to it, it’s not the president’s age that is so much a factor, but rather whether he has the physical and mental capacity for the demands of the job,” McCall said. “The press should make capability the focus of news coverage, not simply age. There are plenty of 80-year-old people who are leading active and robust lives.

“The president has responded to concerns about his capability by saying, ‘Watch me,’” he added. “ The problem is that the public is, indeed, watching, and has seen numerous examples of his physical and cognitive difficulties.”

Then there’s Trump, who this week continued his eyebrow-raising diatribes on his social media platform after recently appearing unable, at times, to communicate complete thoughts during a Fox News interview. Now that voters have recovered from their July Fourth festivities, the country needs to take the professor’s advice and focus on the capabilities of the front-runners. That includes newsrooms.

“The news industry owes it to the public to report fully on the capabilities of anybody seeking high public office — and that includes whether age is a factor,” McCall said. “Reporters shouldn’t be running interference to protect any public figure, or be worried about being charged with ageism. This is an issue, of course, for both Biden and Trump … and both should be scrutinized.”

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett, a former White House correspondent, writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which often first appear in the subscription-based CQ Senate newsletter.

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