Biden Is Showing He’s In on the Jokes About His Age

From a Washington Post story by Matt Viser and Adriana Usero headlined “On his age, Biden is now trying to show he’s in on the joke”:

Joe Biden once joked that, when he knocked on doors while running for senate as a 29-year-old, people would mistake him for a newspaper delivery boy, or perhaps someone wanting to cut their lawn.

The crowd laughed.

As a 44-year-old running for president for the first time, he was introduced as the “young fella” — someone who could speak without cue cards and teleprompters — and then stood before his audience and declared: “My generation is poised to respond to this challenge.”

The crowd cheered.

And now, as the 80-year-old incumbent president begins his fourth and final presidential campaign, he once again is turning toward questions of his age. But where he once was defensive, now he tries to be good-humored. Where he once rebuffed questions about being the oldest president and any accompanying suggestions of frailty, now he embraces them and argues that with age comes wisdom.

To follow the arc of Biden is to follow a man talking about his age in different ways as he enters the different stations of life. As he begins his eighth decade — when he is already the oldest president in history, with many voters voicing concern about a president who would be 86 at the end of a second term — Biden has increasingly attempted to suggest that he is not the butt of the joke — he is in on it.

He repeatedly invokes his old age at fundraisers, White House events, dinners, sermons — even when speaking to astronauts preparing for a mission to the moon.

He has jokingly listed his age as “a little under 103” or “198 years old” or — apparently when feeling spry — “34 years old.” He claims he graduated high school “300 years ago,” or to have had a “career of 280 years.” He’s been buddies with the Founding Fathers.

“I believe in the First Amendment — not just because my good friend Jimmy Madison wrote it,” he said at the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents’ Association in April.

The lightheartedness is a new approach for Biden, who during his 2020 campaign could grow prickly over questions about his age.

When reporters asked him if he would release his medical records, he brusquely rebuffed the question. “Why, you want to wrestle?” he demanded.

During an event in Iowa, a farmer bluntly questioned his age, telling the then-77-year-old candidate, “I’m 83, and I know damn well I don’t have the mental faculties I did 30 years ago.”

“I’m not sedentary,” Biden said, growing angry. “You want to check my shape, man, let’s do push-ups together here, man. Let’s run. Let’s do whatever you want to do. Let’s take an IQ test. Okay?”

Eventually he settled on a consistent answer to the question, saying that it was legitimate to ask about his age but imploring voters, “Watch me.”

While they were watching, though, sometimes he has stumbled, quite literally. He fell off his bike last year, slipped on the steps of Air Force One, and last month tripped over a sandbag. To be sure, each incident could easily have befallen someone decades younger; but just as easily, they were cast by skeptics as further evidence of frailty.

Biden’s aides contend that Biden’s age is an asset, not a liability. “No president has ever come to the job with more experience, and President Biden has leveraged that experience into a record of accomplishments that few presidents have matched,” said Ben LaBolt, the White House communications director.

Biden in some ways is taking a lesson from Ronald Reagan who, until Biden’s tenure, had been the nation’s oldest president. When Reagan turned 70 during his first term, it became a spectacle at the White House, with parties and cakes, as Reagan joked, “I want to thank you for starting out the celebration of my 31st anniversary of my 39th birthday.”

At 73, Reagan was challenged about his age in a 1984 presidential debate, famously shooting back, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The riposte did not answer the question, but in the eyes of many political analysts, it was the moment that sealed his advantage over the 56-year-old Walter Mondale.

Biden, for his part, reacted almost with disbelief as he marked his 80th birthday. “Somebody said my birthday is coming up,” he said as the event approached last November. “And I said, ‘No, that must be somebody else.’”

When he was asked separately during a radio interview what an 80-year-old Biden would tell a 50-year-old Biden, he immediately responded, “That I’m still 50!”

“I can’t even say that number, 80,” he added. “I’m serious. I no more feel that than I’d get out from behind this desk and fly.”

Other candidates have also faced challenges on questions of age. In the 2008 campaign, John McCain, who was 72, tried to make light of it, especially given the 25-year gap between him and Barack Obama. “He had a line that he was ‘older than dirt.’ Or he’d say, ‘Back in the Stone Age …,” said Mark Salter, a longtime McCain adviser. “But that was just McCain. We never said, ‘Today, somewhere, we want you to start poking fun at your age.’ ”

Because Biden’s potential 2024 rival, former president Donald Trump, is himself 77, some comedians and cartoonists have focused on both of their ages, evoking images of walkers bearing campaign signs or Biden in an electric wheelchair.

“He’s sort of been an old soul all along. His campaign last time had the ‘No Malarkey Tour.’ I think the last president to use ‘malarkey’ was Calvin Coolidge,” said Rob Rogers, a cartoonist and Pulitzer Prize finalist who tends to draw Biden with aviator sunglasses, white-capped teeth, and occasionally hair plugs. “But he has a good sense of humor about it. We all know the best way to take the sting out of something is to embrace it in terms of comedy and in terms of ridicule.”

Biden has often told a story about Satchel Paige, the baseball player who pitched a winning game at age 47 and was approached by reporters afterward.

“They come in and said, ‘Satch, no one’s ever pitched a win at age 47. How do you feel about pitching a win on your birthday?’” Biden told Pope Francis last year, according to video of the event. “And he looked at them and he said, ‘Boys, that’s not how I look at age. I look at it this way: How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’”

Biden then looked at the Pope, who at 86 is nearly six years older Biden. “You’re 65, I’m 60,” he said. “God love ya.”

Throughout much of his career, Biden has turned his eyes to the start of his political life — the moment when he was a young star with a limitless horizon, one of the youngest senators in American history after his election at age 29.

“I know I look like I’m only still 29,” he said recently. “But I’ve been around a long time. And as one of my friends said, “Just try — try to connect age and wisdom.’”

Increasingly, that is his more serious answer to the relentless questions about age. Sometimes he grows reflective, musing that his longevity is an asset, providing experience, steadiness and even sagacity as an unstable political landscape rages around him.

“The only thing I bring to this career after my aged — as you can see how old I am — but is a little bit of wisdom,” he told the Irish parliament in April. “I come to the job with more experience than any president in American history. It doesn’t make me better or worse, but it gives me few excuses.”

At times, he has also grown a bit wistful, reflecting on how the onetime “young fella” has become the nation’s oldest president.

“There have been good parts of being the youngest and good parts of being the oldest,” he said at a fundraiser in May. “And I hope what I’ve been able to bring to this job, and will continue to bring, is a little bit of wisdom. A little bit of wisdom.”

Matt Viser is a White House reporter for The Washington Post. He joined The Post in October 2018, covering the midterms and the 2020 presidential election before moving over to the White House to cover President Biden’s administration. He was previously deputy chief of the Washington bureau for the Boston Globe.

Adriana Usero has been a video editor on The Fact Checker since 2020. Adriana was part of a team of journalists that won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2021. She was previously embedded with the General Assignment desk and Opinions section. She joined The Post in 2016 and was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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