When Dwight D. Eisenhower left the Presidency in January 1961 at age 70 and 3 months, he was the oldest person ever to have been President of the United States. He was succeeded by John F. Kennedy, the youngest elected President, at age 43 and 7 months, with only Theodore Roosevelt being nine months younger, 42 years and 11 months when he succeeded the assassinated William McKinley in 1901.
Eisenhower made the observation when leaving office that his age was the proper maximum age a President should be, but despite that wise advice, we have had two Presidents, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, who were older (much older).
Reagan was 69 when he started his presidency. He left office after two terms just weeks short of 78, with clear signs that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia. The signs were clear to his wife, and of concern to the White House staff in the last two years of his Presidency, possibly accelerated by the fact that he was shot and severely wounded in March 1981, ten weeks into his Presidency.
There are signs that Donald Trump might be facing the same issues, due to his poor use of language in his public utterances, and his reckless and often embarrassing behavior in public situations. His remarks on Twitter are often self-destructive.
It is certainly a reality that millions of Americans work in their 70s and 80s, but very few work full time, and very few have high stress jobs and responsibilities as an American President faces every day of his time in office. And even if one is a United States Senator or member of the US House of Representatives, or even a state governor or city mayor, the range of responsibility and stress and challenge is not on the same level as being President of the United States.
So there is an argument to make that a President should be elected no younger than 42/43, as with TR and JFK, because a certain level of experience and maturity is essential, and to expect that anyone between the ages 35-41 would be a gamble. But it is also clear that to elect a President after age 62, meaning their second term would end a few months past 70, is also unwise, as science tells us the average person experiences cognitive decline around that age. The record of Reagan and Trump is not encouraging.
Also consider that Ike had three serious illnesses in his time in office, including a major heart attack in 1955, along with other medical crises in 1956 and 1957. He knew as he retired that it was the time to leave, and that a younger man should take over. Additionally, when one looks at the record of other Presidents elected after age 62, it is not encouraging. There is William Henry Harrison, who was elected at age 68 and promptly died one month into his term. And there’s the case of Zachary Taylor, who was elected at age 64 and died 16 months later.
Then, there is the case of James Buchanan, elected just short of his 66th birthday. Was age perhaps a reason he seemed unable to cope with the impending Civil War? Presidential scholars generally rank him as the worst President in American history.
The only exception to this list of Presidents elected after age 62 is George Herbert Walker Bush, who was 64 when elected to his only term in 1988, and then defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992. Had Bush had a second term, he would have been 72 and 7 months at the end of that term, but it also must be pointed out that Bush had issues with Atrial Fibrillation, and threw up on the Japanese Prime Minister at an official dinner while in office.
To be sure limiting the presidency to people between the ages of 42 and 70 would have eliminated many people who might be seen as highly competent and often admired, including past nominees Bob Dole (age 73) in 1996; John McCain (age 72) in 2008; and Hillary Clinton (age 69) in 2016. It would also exclude such individuals as Joe Biden, who would be 78 in 2020; Bernie Sanders, who would be 79 in 2020; and Elizabeth Warren, who would be 71 in 2020.
But for the security and stability of Presidential leadership it would be wise if we had such an age limit – or at least established a norm that would discourage politicians outside the age parameters from running. It is simply common sense, based on history and the reality of the pressures of the job of being President of the United States.