Age and the American presidency

Although this year's presidential campaign is replete with suggestions for constitutional amendments, absent are measures dealing with age and fitness requirements. These matters have been heightened by critical views of President Reagan's performance in office, in television debate, as well as by the Constitution's silence.

Article II of the Constitution stipulates that the chief executive must be 35 years of age but places no limitation on maximum age; the 22nd Amendment, without reference to age, limits the president to two terms; and the 25th Amendment, the only provision addressing the fitness issue, stresses the context of incapacity.

The Constitutional Convention sheds little light on the questions, except perhaps for delegate James Wilson's statement that the nation's highest officer should be illustrative of ''energy, dispatch, and responsibility.'' The historical record suggests age trends that bear slight relation to fitness. Most Presidents served during their 50s or early 60s.

The trend after Andrew Jackson's tenure was for younger men to hold office, with Martin Van Buren, James Polk, Franklin Pierce, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley elected or reelected mostly in their 50s. The three oldest Presidents at the time of their inauguration in the 19th century were William Henry Harrison (68), James Buchanan (65), and Zachary Taylor (64), two of whom died in office. Yet it was two of the youngest Presidents, Lincoln in his 50s and Pierce in his 40s, who suffered from such emotional disorders as melancholia that would plague their White House years. The corpulent Grover Cleveland appeared quite fit despite his size (the same could be said for the 350-pound William Howard Taft in the next century).

Youth was even more apparent in the 1900s but with no discernible relation to fitness, especially when those Presidents are compared with more senior officeholders such as Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. In fact, Ike took office at the age of 62 and sustained three major health problems, all of which he overcame. His syntax at some of his news conferences was garbled, but elocution levels and senility were not deemed to be necessarily related in this infant era of TV.

Recent social policy in the United States has encouraged the working capacity , not incapacity, of aging citizens. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), as amended in 1978, prohibits discrimination of job seekers between 40 and 70 years of age. Federal employees, however, may not be discriminated against on the basis of age even after reaching 70. Although the presidency and other executive, judicial, and congressional offices don't fall under the legislation, there is provision for exceptions based upon Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (BFOQ). Certain federal law-enforcement officers who may be involuntarily retired are cases in point. One might infer that the same principle could be used in a constitutional amendment limiting presidential service on the basis of age and fitness.

It is important to realize that BFOQ is difficult to apply among most civil servants wearing white collars and concealing their work tools - their intelligence. And it would be just as difficult to apply to the president. The Constitution should not be revised to provide for all conceivable exigencies. It has left many to legislation and judicial interpretation. Perhaps it has left the complex ones to individual choice and action, which should give us pause on the matter of amendments on the presidency as well as on other constitutional prescriptions suggested during this election year.

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