The 80s Called—They’re on Their Way for You, Mr. President

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Lance Morrow headlined “The 80s Called. They’re on Their Way for You, Mr. President”:

Mr. President, if you’re sick of people talking about how old you are, think how I feel. You’re only 79. I’m 82—three years down the trail ahead of you. You’re still a kid, though it is true that, crossing the White House lawn, you walk like the Tin Woodman in need of a squirt of lubrication. Falling off the bike wasn’t a good look either. I wish you’d remember that after 75 the best hope is enigmatic dignity—elder statesman, grandfather knows best, Konrad Adenauer, that sort of thing. Think gravitas. By the way, you need a new tailor. The suits are too tight. You’re not 24.

I have prepared a scouting report on conditions you will find when you cross over the mystic border of 80, into serious old age. Your timing, I must say, could be better. I note that you will turn 80 just 12 days after November’s midterm elections. Neither the landmark birthday nor the election results, I predict, will put your party in a mood to celebrate.

You will have observed that old age is a surreal phenomenon, and that time passes with accelerating speed. A year is compressed to a month. Death becomes Zeno’s paradox. The End is always there, just up ahead in the mist and dark, though you do not know exactly when or how it will come upon you. You no longer luxuriate in the youthful sense that, as Thomas E. Dewey told voters in the presidential campaign of 1948, “The future lies before us!” Whatever lies before the person in his 80s, it is not exactly the future. Often what unfolds before him is precisely the reverse: the past, that interesting country, rich in its treasures and entertainments and regrets. Old age naturally prefers the past; it feels safer there.

Medical terrors lie in wait. If you have gotten this far, you know about those. The 80s don’t kid around. Your calendar will be overwhelmed by doctor appointments; the first half hour of dinner with friends will be spent in medical updates.

Think of old age in terms of “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” When John Bunyan wrote his allegory in the late 17th century, his full title was “The Pilgrim’s Progress From This World to That Which Is to Come, Delivered Under the Similitude of a Dream.” That’s not a bad description of life in one’s ninth decade, which at times seems to transpire “under the similitude of a dream” and most certainly looks like one’s gateway to the world which is to come. The doddering Pilgrim will wallow in the Slough of Despond, louse up his blood sugar while lunching in Vanity Fair, gasp up the Hills of Difficulty, suffer through the Valley of Humiliation, dream of the Delectable Mountains. Old age is like life, but more intense—and made weird by debilities.

Sleep acquires a metaphysical importance; if you can’t sleep (I never can between 2 and 4 a.m.), you find strategies: pray, read, think.

But you are not an aged monk like me. You are president of the United States. Teddy Roosevelt set an alarming standard for the office when he praised “the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” You still up for that?

It is well to remember that TR died at 60, thoroughly worn out. His cousin Franklin died at 63—wasted, spent. Lyndon B. Johnson, FDR’s onetime protégé, expired, exhausted, at 64. I remember that when Dwight Eisenhower, age 70, left the White House in 1961—riding down snowy Pennsylvania Avenue beside his successor, 43-year-old John F. Kennedy —he seemed the oldest man in the world.

That moment, when power passed from Eisenhower to Kennedy and the 1950s yielded to the 1960s, marked the empowerment of a fallacy that is still at work in American culture—an existential error Bob Dylan, now 81, summed up in his 1973 anthem, “Forever Young.”

That was the germ of the fatal national neoteny—a word defined as the retention of juvenile features in an adult animal. Old age became yucky—an attitude that, decades later, seemed hilarious as it was discovered, the hard way, that no one can be (or should be) forever young. In fact, life has about it a seemly, inevitable flow, a progression from birth to childhood to youth to adulthood to middle age to old age, and finally to death, with rules and roles appropriate to each stage. It is good to be old. It is good to be young. It is right to be a child and right, when the time comes, to be a mother or father, and right, further down the road, to be a grandfather and, by and by, a corpse. To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. Let’s leave it at that.

No doubt you, the octogenarian incumbent, being foxy, have your reasons for insisting you intend to run for re-election. But if I were you, mon vieux, I wouldn’t.

Lance Morrow is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His latest book is “God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money.”

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