Friday, May 18, 2007

McCain's Age Raising Question of Fitness to Serve

A couple of posts back, I wrote on this week's GOP presidential debate, and I went on in some detail about John McCain's firm resolve on the Iraq deployment. One thing I thought about -- but did not mention -- was McCain's age (I wrote mostly about the questions surrounding his ideology). McCain will be 72 should he enter the presidency in 2009. Yesterday's Los Angeles Times had a front-page story on the questions surrounding McCain's physical fitness to serve:

As he exited the stairs of his "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus on a chilly March day in Iowa, Sen. John McCain carefully took one step at a time, his left hand gripping a rail and his right knee looking stiff.

A bum knee isn't surprising in a 70-year-old man — particularly one whose right leg was shattered about four decades ago when his jet fighter was shot down over North Vietnam.

But his wooden movements, along with his age and appearance, are creating an impression about McCain's health that could be a liability for the Arizona Republican as he tries to persuade Americans to elect him president.

McCain brings to the campaign a body and mind with some heavy wear and tear, including a couple of bouts of cancer and the effects of years of torture. If elected, he would be the oldest person in history to enter the White House, and if he served two terms he would leave office an octogenarian.

Other presidential contenders have health issues, including Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s two brain aneurysms in 1988, Rudolph W. Giuliani's prostate cancer in 2000 and former Sen. Fred Thompson's lymphoma. But they are all younger and haven't experienced McCain's physical and mental agonies.

Voters should not worry, the senator's staff says. He passed a recent health exam with flying colors, they say, the results of which will be publicly released in coming weeks."We all have trouble keeping up with him," said Eileen McMenamin, communications director in McCain's Senate office.

Indeed, when life spans are lengthening and people in their 80s are running companies and marathons, McCain's age in itself shouldn't be an issue, some experts say.

"Don't give me that age business," said Dr. James E. Birren, a prolific medical author known as the father of gerontology, who still lectures at USC at age 89. "If the task requires speed, then you want the younger person. But if it requires wisdom, you want somebody old."

But McCain's health, much like his politics, is a complex matter.

McCain has twice developed melanoma, a potentially deadly form of skin cancer. He had four surgeries between 1993 and 2002: two to remove melanomas, one to remove skin lesions and one to treat an enlarged prostate.

When doctors removed a melanoma from his left temple in 2000, they did exploratory surgery to look for cancer in his lymph nodes, leaving a buildup of scar tissue — a big lump — on his left jaw. So far, McCain has rejected his staff's suggestions to have it removed by cosmetic surgery. To prevent a recurrence of the melanoma, McCain slathers himself with sunscreen whenever he ventures out.

"John looks pale, but he has to stay out of the sun," said James McGovern, a longtime friend and a campaign fundraiser, who asserts McCain has more than enough stamina to be president.

McCain, whose staff did not make him available to be interviewed for this article, described his health as excellent Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Read the whole thing. The article has a truly agonizing analysis of McCain's emotional and physical trials during his years in captivity as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. The story also adds additional informtion about his health -- McCain's stiff, with all-around limited physical mobility. He looks old, and that could hurt his appeal. Apparently, a Roper poll found 30 percent of respondents indicating that McCain's age gave them "reservations" about his candidacy.

So, besides all the troubling ideological issues he's dealing with on the conservative side, he's got the issue of fitness to serve as an impediment to election. I'm not one to worry about it. McCain's recently demonstrated tough physical fitness with rigorous Grand Canyon hiking expeditions. As well, medically, his melanoma was probably treated early enough to be manageable as he ages.

Here's one point of political interest, though: If he does win the GOP nomination, the selection of a vice presidential running mate will be of even more importance than is usual. Plus, recent vice presidents have been particularly powerful -- notably Al Gore and Dick Cheney. And while John Nance Garner -- one of Franklin Roosevelt's vice presidents -- once characterized the office of the vice presidency as "not worth a pitcher of warm spit," a McCain administration's vice president could be particularly powerful, serving perhaps more truly than ever as just "a heartbeat away from the presidency."

Update: Blogger's new "auto-save" feature kicked-in when I was writing this post. Haloscan comments are not appearing for this entry, although so far Haloscan's comments are coming through on subsequent posts. If anyone would like to leave a comment regarding McCain's age, go to the previous post on McCain -- the link's up there in the body of the text here -- and I can respond there. To be specific, the earlier post is entitled "John McCain Remains Firm on U.S. Support for Iraq." Thanks in advance -- I greatly appreciate those who take the time to read and comment on my entries!