TV & Showbiz

Age and the image of capacity

“Watch me,” President Biden likes to say when asked — and it happens quite often these days — whether he’s too old to serve a second term. He gets his way.

For the first three years of his administration, in contrast to the previous president’s chaotic omnipresence, Mr. Biden kept himself scarce. Now his smallest appearance brings a thousand remote diagnoses from armchair gerontologists. A major speech, like his State of the Union address in March, is judged not by its policies but by its fluency as a spoken word. A minor gaffe, like a single sentence botched at a rally in Philadelphia in April, is dissected as possible evidence of regression.

He’s struggling with an image problem that time imposes on everyone. Now the first presidential debate of 2024 is being held months earlier than normal, in part because Biden’s campaign is trying to overcome growing concern that the president, at 81, isn’t ready for four more years in office. “Old age is no battle; old age is a massacre” — or so roared Philip Roth’s “Everyman” in 2006. This year, electorally speaking, it could be both.

The president is indeed quite old, older than anyone who has held the office. When he first won his Senate seat in 1972, the current leaders of Britain, France and Italy had not yet been born. If Mr. Biden serves a full second term, he will retire in Delaware at age 86. After three and a half years in a job that sends everyone into retirement, he already seems a different man than in the days of the Covid campaign, his hair is thinner, his gait tighter. His age may be nothing more than a number. But the perception of his age has become desperately entwined with cultural connotations of old age, shaped over the centuries, passed down to us through religion, literature and art.

His predecessor and rival is also old and also has difficulty speaking clearly. But the same polls that show Biden trailing 78-year-old Donald J. Trump even after his conviction on 34 felony counts also show that only one of these men faces such widespread concerns about the way of all flesh. . The main roadblock to the incumbent president’s re-election, the polls show, is not policy. Younger Democrats, to his left and right, are surpassing him in the vote.

The Greek playwrights, who knew something about portraying democracy, liked to characterize old men with images of desiccation and disintegration. Kings become ‘dehydrated’, soldiers ‘wither’. The tragedies often contain choruses of elderly citizens (in Aeschylus’s ‘Agamemnon’, in Sophocles’s ‘Oedipus the King’), singing of themselves as ghosts, dreams, things only half-substantial. When Mr. Biden’s limbs seem unyielding, as when he stepped out of his car in Paris this month, or when his eyes seem to wander, as during a party on the South Lawn in June, the president is shrouded in these metaphors of age. like a kind of frailty. The perception of mortality – he has become thin, he has become weak – can be more dangerous than any actual disability. Travel as far as wartime Kiev and it will still haunt you.

But to the extent that a leader embodies or symbolizes the state, his age (or sometimes its age) can equally signify solidity, tradition, and conviction. Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first chancellor, held the top job until he was 87; his election posters exaggerated his cheeks and wrinkles, projecting a restored stability after the nightmare of 1933-45. Germans nicknamed their wily power broker the oldthe old man, and Biden entered into a similar marriage of old age and civil restoration during his 2020 campaign (he was also old then).

When he silences the shouters during the State of the Union, or argues in his flight suit with officials half his age, he leans on this leader archetype as senexlike Homer’s Nestor, Titian’s Farnese Pope or Alec Guinness’s Jedi. Wise, perhaps cunning. Full of life, if perhaps long-winded. But one day you can be seen as the father of the nation and the next as an evasive senior citizen. In politics, one searches in vain for honesty.

It’s not about the capacity, it’s about the image of capacity, and one could imagine a brutal struggle on those terms. “The younger rises when the old doth fall,” brags the treacherous Edmund in “King Lear.” But it bears repeating that there will be no intergenerational challenge to this week’s debate. Mr. Trump apparently dyes his hair while Mr. Biden leaves his white, but he, too, exhibits a physical stiffness and verbal distraction that — all things being equal — should not arouse envy in a rival just three and a half years his senior. (A few days ago, boasting that he had “passed” a cognitive test, Mr. Trump botched the name of his doctor, who is now a member of Congress.)

On your phone, the feed is constantly refreshing, but the content stays the same—and in a two-party system with an entrenched bias, this year’s presidential rematch is just the surface layer of a larger clash of old bodies and new media. Sen. Mitch McConnell, 82, the outgoing minority leader, twice stood in his seat during recent news conferences.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was 90 when she died in office last year, appeared uncertain about her whereabouts as the vote was being taken.

In this gerontocratic malaise, our political discourse has also been weakened, watered down to a pathetic salvo of real or imagined senior moments. So much of it now happens via selectively edited video clips, subtitled for a pre-sorted digital audience, each confirming that your least favorite leader is as crazy or sick as George III. When Mr. Biden appeared to stare into space at the G7 conference this month, at least in a 30-second clip distributed by a Republican campaign team and then by many news organizations, he was in fact congratulating paratroopers who had landed nearby. But the linear news report, the contextualized broadcast, are relics of Mr. Biden’s age. The out-of-context clip is the cheapest, deadliest campaign ad, and it doesn’t require deepfake software.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting your leaders to be vital, but do we judge a politician’s fitness only when we fret over their shortcomings and missteps? Or do we perhaps demand punishment because we predict in their aging national body the fate that awaits us all? In “Ran,” Akira Kurosawa’s grand 1985 epic of samurai aging, a Lear-like warlord believes he can bend the empire to his will one last time—but discovers too late that politics is moving faster than he can keep up. The succession plan goes awry. An all-out battle ensues. The warlord wanders through the tall grass, his white hair flying, and discovers that he is now just an old man. “I’m lost,” says the old ruler. “Such is the human condition,” says his fool.


Video production by Ang Li and Caroline Kim.

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