The three Democratic front-runners in the quest for the presidency in 2020 are all in their 70s: Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is 76, Senator Elizabeth Warren is 70 and Senator Bernie Sanders is 77. And President Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate, is 73.
Former president Jimmy Carter, who is eligible to run for the highest office again but has no plans for doing so, is about to turn 95 next month. And he has an opinion about age and that office.
In an appearance last week with former first lady Rosalynn Carter at the Carter Center in Atlanta, he was asked about whether he might consider becoming a candidate for the Democratic nomination.
“I hope there’s an age limit,” Mr. Carter responded, eliciting laughter from the crowd. “[Even] if I were just 80 years old, if I was 15 years younger,” Mr. Carter continued, “I don’t believe I could undertake the duties that I experienced when I was president.”
He went on to explain his reasoning. “One thing,” he said, “is you have to be very flexible with your mind. You have to be able to go from one subject to another and concentrate on each one adequately and then put them all together in a comprehensive way.”
There is no doubt that he is right about that requirement, but his dismissal of the possibility that it can be met by someone with white hair and less-than-smooth skin is unwarranted.
As Bernie Sanders said back in April, “At the end of the day, it’s not whether you’re young or whether you’re old — it’s what you believe in.” Leaving aside the merits of the particulars of Senator Sanders’ beliefs, the sentiment is entirely reasonable.
And, in fact, Mr. Carter admitted to having supported Mr. Sanders’ candidacy for the Democratic nomination in 2016, and that he plans to vote for him or Mr. Biden should one of them become the Democratic candidate for the 2020 election.
Our mesorah, it needn’t be said, rejects Mr. Carter’s concerns.
The lashon kodesh word for one who is elderly is zaken, characterized by Chazal as implying that zeh kanah chochmah — this person has obtained wisdom. There is a reason that the English world “elder” has come to imply “superior.” We are commanded to respect the aged, and are informed, in Avos (5:21), that 80 years of age is a time of gevurah, strength. Not necessarily physical power but strength of a more meaningful sort.
To be sure, the passage of time can, chalilah, take a toll on a mind, and there obviously should be a concern with any candidate exhibiting evidence of mental decline. But age itself should not disqualify anyone from any office. In fact, as Chazal teach, advanced age can be a boon to making wise decisions.
On a simple level, greater life experience provides more fertile ground for weighing options and understanding their implications.
But, as the Maharal explains (Derech Chaim, on Avos 5;21), with age, physicality exerts less influence on a person. He is less vulnerable to a variety of urges and impulses. As those forces wane, the influence of mind and spirit becomes dominant, yielding superior ability to contemplate issues and make proper decisions.
Mr. Carter has taught Sunday school religious studies. At some point he may have taught the text of Melachim Alef, specifically, the narrative about Rechavam, Shlomo Hamelech’s son. As Rechavam prepared to ascend the throne, he made a decision to shun the economic advice of the elders of his father’s court and heed instead the advice of younger advisors (Melachim Alef, 12).
That decision led to a rebellion and terrible schism, the splitting of the malchus. The Gemara sees a lesson in the event: “[What might seem] constructive on the part of the young [can in fact be] destructive; and [what might seem] destructive on the part of elders [can in fact be] constructive” (Nedarim, 40a).
So, the Torah is clear about what has come to be known as “ageism” — the tendency to regard older people as inherently debilitated or incapable. It rejects ageism entirely and guides us to recognize that the opposite stance — appreciation of the experience and equanimity born of many years of life — is the proper one.
We are not endorsing any candidate for the Democratic nomination. But an endorsement we can offer in good faith and without hesitation is of the proposition that, when weighing the many factors in deciding on the best candidate for any public office, advanced age should not be seen as a shortcoming.