What Does “Too Old” Look Like?

[I posted some of this over at Mano’s]

You’ve probably heard the parable (which is wrong, by the way) about boiling a frog in water, if you raise the temperature slowly. Allegedly, the frog keeps adjusting its notion of ‘acceptable’ as it gets hotter and hotter, until finally it dies. You’ve probably also heard of the “Overton Window” – the acceptable range of political discourse, which can be manipulated toward one side or another by normalizing new extremes or closing off others. This is all part of the parcel of “vague concepts” – concepts in which there is no clearly specified decision-point, e.g.: is there a specific number of hairs one needs to lose in order to be “balding”? Or is there one grain of sand more or less that constitutes “a pile of sand”? Is there a specific age or amount of physical or cognitive impairment that makes a president “too old”?

The philosophical gears are grinding pretty loudly over this topic, since the media is (finally!) starting to face the fact of Donald Trump’s cognitive decline. But that raises the equally grim spectre of Biden’s cognitive decline. In some democrat-heavy locales, just pairing those words together can get you flagged for “right wing talking points.” But, hey, in my opinion talking points are for the goose as well as the gander, and one of the essential techniques of philosophy is to ask, “if the situation were reversed, what would I think of it?” That’s an essential technique for evading some cognitive biases. So, consider the following:

[I do not expect you to watch the whole thing, just enough to get a feeling for how they speak today versus then]

That is Joe Biden 37 years ago.

That is Joe Biden recently. He’s clearly struggling just to read the teleprompter. His rhythm is not fluid – perhaps because he doesn’t see so well anymore, perhaps because he’s just not able to lieread as fast anymore. We don’t know. But the difference is pretty profound, isn’t it? Of course he can still perform on a national stage, but he’s got to depend more carefully on his handlers helping him over the bumps and keeping him on track.

We do have a problem with authenticity if we want a leader to be able to speak extemporaneously, think on their feet, not fall down, spit their dentures, whatever. I did a series of posts on this topic back when I started out blogging here [stderr] and I haven’t changed my mind, much – although my mind has changed as a result of various brain injuries and whatnot that have reduced my memory and cognitive abilities. Am I more or less authentic still? Perhaps. There’s a gradation, isn’t there, between speaking extemporaneously, using PowerPoint, and using a teleprompter and a professional speechwriter. I really don’t like to think this but I’m afraid that Trump’s whirl-a-gabble speaking style is perhaps more authentic than Biden’s. Perhaps that tells me that my whole concept is wrong – or perhaps I’m engaging in a cognitive bias called “the sunk cost fallacy.” It really starts to hurt when you compare Trump and Biden to Barack Obama.

In my world-view, Biden was “presidential” 37 years ago and now he’s too old. At a point when you’ve got so much prep and handling, you’re more of a team effort or a special effect than anything else. I don’t believe that, as the big decision-maker, a president should be so checked out, mentally, that they need their handlers to intercept everything that is inbound. I know that was a problem with Ronald Reagan, republican superman. And every president has been surrounded by assistants and handlers to some degree, but “too old” is a vague concept but I think it also has teeth. I’m going to go a step further and say that if your reaction to the old Biden versus the current Biden was “he’s still capable of doing the job” you may have ceded my point: the fact that we’re asking the question is a form of answer to the question. It may not be “yes” but we’re discussing where a person is on the scale between “mature and in the prime of life” and “somewhat addled.”

Now, in the interest of bothsidesism: set the time machine for -37 years

As one of the commentariat(tm)(R) said, “he used to lie much more fluently.” And that is a point. Watching Trump’s speech mannerisms has become fascinating to me. Somewhere around 2016/17 he began speaking in “evangelical cant” – the tones and rhythms of evangelical preachers. Was that an accident, or deliberate? I have a theory based on no science at all that someone told him that if he sounded a bit more like a preacher, it would be more subconsciously acceptable to his fundamentalist base, who are used to listening to that kind of tones. Seriously.

I guess he’s not making fun of politicians that use teleprompters any more. I don’t want to start posting a lot of Trump stuff, but it’s interesting – I have spent considerable time around people with dementia (basically, everyone in my family tree has it to some degree, or died of it) and a lot of his speech mannerisms and other behaviors seem to telegraph dementia. Pretty advanced dementia, at that. For example, his puzzling reaction to the “boxes of secrets” crime is easily explainable as the well-rehearsed behaviors of a fraying mind trying to cling to a sense of normalcy and importance. [Also, consider Ronald Reagan, a professional actor, who fell back on his stage persona as the Alzheimers’ began to destroy him] In fact, if we’re talking about dementia, then long-term support for Israel might also be an irrational ingrained behavior.

In my opinion, both of these guys are too old to be president. I was OK with Biden’s first run (though I would have preferred a progressive who was less interested in reaching consensus with republicans) because I took him at his word that he wasn’t interested in 2 terms. I thought that he had done a good thing setting up a black woman (though I would have preferred a progressive) vice president, and that he’d give lots of camera-time to his heir apparent, setting her up for a 2024 run. Apparently, the democrats see Biden as “safe” and are going to run him again. Which is probably a good thing, because the alternative is horrible, but I still would prefer someone progressive who was interested in going to the mat with the republicans. That’s another disqualification for the “old fart” brigade – Trump and Biden ought to be out on some golf course arguing about who’s cheating at golf, not fighting over who has control of the nuclear “football.”

I am also unquestionably sick of American anti-semitic politicians who want Israel to succeed in order to trigger the end of days and other weird-ass christian genocidal shit. I realize that most of them don’t believe anything of that sort and that it’s more pro forma christian mouth-noises, but it’s still disturbing and makes me either a) doubt their sanity or b) assume they’re liars – either way, it’s bad. I am also unquestionably sick of American politicians who do not care a whit about what the Palestinians are subjected to. There is a term I encountered recently “Progressive except for Palestine” and, wow, have recent events made a lot of those folks haul aloft their banners and come charging out into the harsh light of day. Like the politicians, I’m stuck either doubting their sanity, their education, or their honesty. You know what I’ve learned in the last month? I’ve learned that American schools should teach a few semesters of philosophy. Because it’s a shit-show out there.


  1. Dunc says

    How do we control for the general degradation of political discourse here? I try and avoid watching political speechifying these days, partly because so much of it is so dreadful – and that’s not because the people making the speeches are cognitively impaired, it’s because that’s just what people expect politicians to sound like these days.

  2. says

    it’s because that’s just what people expect politicians to sound like these days.

    I think we need comparative alternatives. Imagine Barack Obama running against Trump – he’s so much more polished and articulate and intelligent, the comparison just beggars Trump. Of course, the racist right would still vote against him, but they’d know they were choosing from the bottom of the bucket.

    Remember when republicans started referring to “nukular” so as not to make it obvious that Bush couldn’t pronounce the word? Part of the problem is that partisanship just pulls people down to the lowest common denominator, because that’s what they offer. For damn sure if there was a decent speaker/orator in 2024, suddenly everyone would be talking about who was articulate and authentic. Maybe the “authenticity gap” is all in my head because I favor intelligence and education. But I think that American anti-intellectualism has to have hit bottom with Trump. Other than Herschel Walker (who everyone admits has brain injuries) it’d be hard to find someone worse than Trump, and more obviously suffering from cognitive damage.

    I refuse to pretend to be impressed by Biden, though. He would have been a good candidate when he was 50. Now, not so much. [BTW, Bernie is a bit high on the ‘old fart’ spectrum] Part of the problem is that the gerontocrats want rule by their fellow gerontocrats so they don’t feel cut out of power.

    Some day a young populist who is brilliant and articulate will come along. Hopefully they’re not a sociopathic nihilist, but that’s what we tend to elect here.

  3. rwiess says

    I’m 75. I was a lawyer, now retired. No dementia in relatives at this age, although clear decline in my mother starting about 85 until she died at 95. I now find my brain changing – as compared to 40 years ago, I forget stuff, don’t juggle a head full of immediate details as well, would not speak as dynamically. But i also have perspective and long range vision that I did not have at that earlier age. I think Biden is in about the same place, and my question becomes whether you want dynamism or perspective in a president. (Forget Trump, never had perspective, except as related to self-promotion without honesty.)

  4. Dunc says

    Marcus, @ #2: To be clear, I’m absolutely not saying you’re wrong here, I’m just saying we have to watch for potential confounding factors. And yeah, Obama was in a different league in that respect – and look how that went down. Sure, a great deal of that is plain and simple racism, but again, there are confounding factors… A lot of people just don’t like being reminded that they’re not that polished or articulate.

    But I think that American anti-intellectualism has to have hit bottom with Trump.

    Well, we can hope… But I wouldn’t bet on it.

  5. JM says

    @1 Dunc: One thing that needs to be done is force some real debates on the candidates. The moderator gets to cut their mike if they run over time, too far off topic or just resort to insults. Neither side gets to see the questions ahead of time. Some of the questions are hard to answer and/or entirely unexpected.
    One of the things reducing political discourse is that the debates have been reduced to pageant shows. The questions are entirely predictable or made available ahead of time so the answers are scripted responses. Nobody polices the candidates if they run off topic. The whole thing reduces to how the candidates look and who can slip in some good one liners. It’s been a long time since the debates were actually debates but the traditional style required some thinking on the feet instead of just memorizing responses.

  6. ardipithecus says

    Heads of state and heads of government do very little in the sense that you and I do things’ at least the good ones don’t. Their talent is in building a team of people who, in turn, build their own teams (ieg. ministries) who get things done.

    Secondly, they are the public face of government. They take a great deal of heat from their team members so their team can do its job.

    The leader is too old when they can no longer build teams, or can’t take heat off them effectively. Cognitive decline may produce that result, but it can also lead people to believe that that result is imminent. It doesn’t have to, though. Roosevelt led from a wheelchair.

    Being decreasingly dynamic as an orator does not necessarily indicate a decrease in ability to build a good team, nor does loss of agility.

    Trump’s age is not a factor because he has never been a leader of anything more than a gang of grifters who luckily (for them) latched on to a cult following.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    We do have a problem with authenticity …

    Also, arguably, due to the influence of entertainment on politics, though going back at least to the era of live oratory serving as a major pastime. Lots of Nazis felt quite sincerely that The Leader offered real solutions to real problems; 90 years later, many Republicans do the same.

    But who could feel comfortable supporting any politician who visibly faked it?

    As for the current gerontocracy, that derives from the size of the boomer generation, a problem self-correcting one obituary at a time. The whippersnappers, lacking such an overwhelming cohort, may well start lamenting a too-high turnover in political leadership as this chaotic century wends it way.

  8. dangerousbeans says

    Old people as a demographic have an outsized influence, more so now than 40 years ago. so of course the “important” people are going to be old. both of the examples above are also white men, same reason
    People will tolerate a lot of incompetence if it means they find those in power relatable

    no offense intended to our host

  9. lanir says

    Everyone seems to look at the age thing as if the health of the president is super important. I mean, sure, it matters some what mental state he (or at some future time she) is in. But as everyone who admits to living in the fact-based world seems to agree, Biden doesn’t show any large signs of being badly out of touch. Not now at any rate. So if he’s just a bit slower to parse a complex bill or isn’t a powerhouse dynamic speaker then I’m not so sure that matters a lot. I would imagine he’s got people telling him what’s in most bills and how they’ll work anyway, and I don’t think that’s got anything to do with his age.

    The biggest concern I have over his age is that literally any fool can tell he’s unlikely to live so long he’ll see the worst of climate change. At most he’ll get a peek at it and then maybe it’ll kill him a year or two early. But he’s got money and healthcare so that’s unlikely. So is he going to do anything about climate change or will he pretend he “fixed” it with that flimsy effort we needed 10 years ago? I’m pretty sure we all have a good idea which one it’s going to be.

    Side note: The only time everyone in the US really cares about how quickly the president can make a decision has to do with the nuclear football. And personally, I don’t see much point in actually using it. If the president can’t make a quick decision and we err on the side of “maybe it’s a software error” that’s probably for the best. Nobody wins in a launch scenario whether the target launches their own nukes or not. Nuclear deterence is only a thing because we let greedy idiots run the planet. If that wasn’t the case we could probably use trade and sanctions as deterents. But the way things are now, the greedy assholes would sabotage it. It’s like a board game I played in the mid 90’s, I think it was Supremacy. It looks like the game was about war between superpowers. But the lesson it taught us was that the only way to win was not to get sucked into a war to begin with.

  10. marner says


    Biden doesn’t show any large signs of being badly out of touch. Not now at any rate. So if he’s just a bit slower to parse a complex bill or isn’t a powerhouse dynamic speaker then I’m not so sure that matters a lot.

    What a hearty endorsement!

  11. Reginald Selkirk says

    @5: One thing that needs to be done is force some real debates on the candidates. The moderator gets to cut their mike if they run over time, too far off topic or just resort to insults…

    There is no point in having a debate with Donald Trump. If he is not allowed to lie or hurl insults, he wouldn’t last more than 5 seconds.

  12. says

    Everyone seems to look at the age thing as if the health of the president is super important

    I think it shouldn’t be, but for me it comes back to authenticity – if we are going to pretend the president matters, then selecting of the president also matters. I actually would love it if someone ran a ticket of “I’m the chairman of this 7 person collective” but I doubt that will ever happen. Is it humans are invested in a notion of “leader”? Or is it leaders invested in a notion of “I am the leader”? I think humans make horrible choices in this regard. One example of how is we’re forced to choose between two demented old men. Surely there are about 800,000 people with the wisdom and ability to do the job. Our notion of “leadership” was established by milennia of leaders.

  13. JM says

    @10 Reginald Selkirk: That would be part of the point. One of the reasons people like Trump can thrive in our current politically environment is that they never have to face a difficult crowd. 2016 Trump would look like an idiot over and over when hit with questions he didn’t know anything about and wasn’t prepped for. 2023 Trump would denounce the whole thing and walk out after a question or two he couldn’t steamroll. Either way he would look honestly bad in a way that candidates are not now.

  14. StonedRanger says

    Too old is what you look like when they find you dead. As long as I keep waking up, I’m not too old.

  15. StevoR says

    @ ^ StonedRanger : Only when they find you dead not when you actually die? So if you’r ebody is never found you’ll still not be too old?

  16. StevoR says

    To answer the title question – wrinkly? Very, very wrinkly and with lots of grey hair coming out of the ears and nose?

  17. felixd says

    When Biden was 50, he was confirming Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Presidential? Don’t make me laugh.

Leave a Reply