Woodrow Wilson and the 1918 Flu Pandemic

By Kaleena Fraga

These days, all anyone can talk about is coronavirus. Our conversations are consumed with social-distancing, quarantine measures, and questions about testing. Many have drawn similarities between the pandemic of today to the 1918 influenza pandemic.

So how did Woodrow Wilson respond to the Spanish flu?

The 1918 Influenza Pandemic

The 1918 influenza had competition when it came to the world’s attention span: the first wave hit during WWI. Military camps throughout Europe reported cases, but European governments chose to keep reports of the illness secret.

Spain, however, had no stake in the conflict. The country had chosen to remain neutral. Having no reason to suppress reports of the flu, Spanish newspapers reported the spread of a new illness.

For this reason, the world dubbed it the “Spanish influenza.”

The illness seemed to run its course. But a more powerful, second wave of the Spanish flu hit that summer. This time, it was so deadly that it could kill a healthy person within 24 hours.

The U.S. Government and the Spanish Flu

When the second wave of the flu hit, the U.S. government sought to downplay the crisis. They aimed to maintain morale in wartime by avoiding negative news stories. In Europe, governments censored any mention of a flu pandemic.

Wilson never made a statement about the Spanish flu. Even when, in the month of October 1918, 195,000 Americans died.

Because of the wartime circumstances, negative reports were severely discouraged. Wilson had created the Committee of Public Information a week after declaring war, which sought to downplay any negative news.

The Committee believed that: “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms. The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

In Philadelphia, where one of the worst outbreaks occurred, the Philadelphia Inquirer shrugged off increasing panic. “Do not even discuss influenza,” the paper suggested. “Worry is useless. Talk of cheerful things instead of disease.”

Across the country, as the flu spread, public health leaders toed the line. They stated that the Spanish flu was nothing more than a common form of influenza.  Surgeon General Rupert Blue said, “There is no cause for alarm if proper precautions are observed.”

Woodrow Wilson and the Flu

Wilson in Paris | The Atlantic

Behind the scenes, Wilson did worry about the flu. Ships full of troops arrived daily from the battlefields of Europe, and Wilson wondered if such crossing should be halted. Generals reassured him that there was no need.

“The shipment of troops should not be stopped for any cause,” Gen. Peyton C. March told the president.

In April of 1919, the president traveled to Europe himself. The war had ended in November. But the spread of the flu continued. And Wilson got sick. The president’s condition deteriorated so quickly and drastically that his personal doctor, Cary T. Grayson, worried that Wilson had been poisoned.

Even as Grayson told reporters that Wilson had a cold, he fretted about the president’s condition. ” I was able to control the spasms of coughing,” Grayson wrote, “but his condition looked very serious.” The president couldn’t even sit up in bed.

Worse, in the midst of fragile negotiations, the president began to act strangely. He acquiesced to French demands that had once seemed impossible; Wilson believed he was surrounded by spies; one colonel noted that the president had lost “his quickness of grasp, and tired easily.”

Wilson did recover. But he suffered a stroke months later that crippled his administration, and set up his wife as a de facto president.

Wilson chose to ignore the spread of the Spanish flu. Today, the Trump administration has been critiqued for its slow response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Important differences exist between the two presidents and the two diseases. Wilson lived in an era where presidents weren’t expected to offer a personal response to crises. In addition, Wilson was a wartime president. President Trump exists in the Twitter age—an immediate, personal response is expected.

Presidencies are defined by crises in any era. Just as Wilson is judged for his actions during WWI, it’s certain that history will measure the success of the Trump administration by the president’s response to this pandemic.

Mudslinging in the South: The 2000 Smear Campaign

As voters in South carolina turn out to cast their ballots in the 2020 primary, we look back at the much dirtier contest in 2000

By Kaleena Fraga

Democrats slung mud during last week’s debate. It wasn’t pretty—two hours of arm waving, raised voices, and crosstalk. But the candidates largely stuck to the issues. They attacked each other on health care, tax returns, foreign policy, and gun control. The barbs rarely became personal.

Twenty years ago, political attacks in South Carolina meant to mortally wound—and would, in fact, spell the end of John McCain’s 2000 bid for the presidency.

Smears in South Carolina: The 2000 Primary

Bush and McCain | New York Times

John McCain arrived in South Carolina in 2000 with a spring in his step. His campaign had surged to victory in New Hampshire, snatching a 19-point win over George W. Bush. Bush had won in Iowa (McCain skipped the caucus there) but political commentators noted that: “[Bush] got a good victory, but not a blowout.”

In other words, Bush’s nomination was far from certain. McCain’s strong performance in New Hampshire threatened to upset the whole thing.

As the two candidates began to campaign in South Carolina, a trickle of attacks began. They claimed that McCain had not accomplished much in the Senate and that his values did not match up with conservatives in South Carolina. (A perception not helped by McCain’s statement that the Confederate flag was “offensive” and “a symbol of racism.”)

Protester in South Carolina 2000 | KGOU

It didn’t take long for the trickle to become a tidal wave. Soon, South Carolinians were getting calls asking if they “would be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if… he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” People began to find leaflets on their cars with the same accusation.

The McCains did have a nine year old daughter with darker skin than their other children—a girl they had adopted from Bangladesh.

The attacks continued. They declared that John McCain had committed treason while a POW in Vietnam. Or that his time there had made him mentally unfit for office. They sneered that he was a homosexual—and that his wife was a drug addict.

At a town hall in Spartanburg, SC, a woman stood up and said that her 13 year old son had taken a call from a pollster, who told him that McCain was a liar and a cheat. “‘My son had admired you, and now he doesn’t know what to believe.”

McCain left the town hall visibly shaken. He told his campaign to pull all negative ads. Not that his attempts to fight back had worked—Republicans in South Carolina became enraged when McCain dared to compare Bush to Clinton, grouping them together as dishonest men.

His campaign felt powerless to stop the attacks. Any response risked putting a spotlight on a smear. And—in any case—it was impossible to tie the Bush campaign to the mudslinging.

***

In the end, McCain lost in South Carolina.

He dropped out of the race less than a month later, citing weak performances in the subsequent contests.

Today’s campaign has remained civil by comparison. Attacks are more likely to be about tax returns or NDAs than illegitimate children or treason.

But South Carolina still has the potential to bury a candidate. A victory in the first contest of the South retains its significance. And with Super Tuesday around the corner, we could see certain campaigns end tonight—or in the next few days.

No dirty tricks required.

Heartbreak and Triumph in New Hampshire

Three stories of campaign-changing moments in the New Hampshire primary

By Kaleena Fraga

New Hampshire, the second state on the primary circuit, is a dangerous place for presidential campaigns. After clearing the threshold of Iowa, it’s here that many campaigns seem to falter or break down—and create room for challengers to surge ahead.

We look at three stories of heartbreak (and triumph) in New Hampshire, from Ed Muskie’s tears in 1972 to Bill Clinton’s comeback in 1992.

The Tears of Ed Muskie (1972)

Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME) arrived in New Hampshire with something to prove. He had won the Iowa Caucus—but the media had found George McGovern’s surprising show of strength a more compelling narrative. To cement his place as the front-runner, Muskie needed New Hampshire to go well. It didn’t.

Two weeks before the New Hampshire Primary, the Manchester Union Leader published a letter to the editor, which alleged that Muskie had laughed when someone referred to Americans of French-Canadian descent as “Canucks.” In New Hampshire, Americans of French-Canadian descent made up 40%-50% of Democratic voters.

Muskie stood before a crowd in a snowstorm to defend himself, calling the conservative publisher of the Manchester Union Leader “a gutless coward,” and claiming that the letter “was a lie.” Muskie, relating to the crowd his own pain at being called a “Polack” as a boy, and protesting a separate article published by the Manchester Union Leader which had targeted his wife, seemed to begin to cry. The New York Times wrote: “The Senator broke into tears minutes later, his speech halting…” The Washington Post described Muskie as having “tears streaming down his face.”

Muskie, to the end of his life, denied crying. He said that snow, falling on his face and melting, only gave the impression of tears.

But in presidential politics, sometimes an impression is all that matters. Muskie’s status as the front-runner began to crumble. Although he won the New Hampshire primary, his campaign faltered. Muskie performed poorly in the contests that followed, and dropped out of the race.

As for the infamous “Canuck Letter”? Ken W. Clawson, deputy direction of communications in the Nixon White House, told a reporter: “I wrote that letter.”

Bush, Reagan, and the Microphone (1980)

Like Muskie, George H.W. Bush arrived in New Hampshire with an Iowa victory and hoped to cement his front-runner status. But Bush—like Muskie—would find that a single moment in New Hampshire could crater a candidacy.

The Nashua Telegraph wanted to sponsor a debate between Bush and Ronald Reagan. Reagan had narrowly lost to Bush in Iowa (31.6% to 29.5%). But the Federal Election Committee said that in order to sponsor the debate, the newspaper would have to invite all candidates. Reagan stepped in to finance a one-on-one debate—but secretly invited the others.

Bush didn’t want to muddy the field with other candidates. He wanted to take on Reagan himself, and the moderators of the debate (still from the Nashua Telegraph) agreed. Unsurprisingly, chaos erupted when Reagan, Bush, and four other candidates showed up on stage.

Reagan made his case for an inclusive debate. The newspaper editor and debate moderator, Jon Breen, didn’t want to hear it. He snapped: “Would the sound man please turn Mr. Reagan’s mic off for the moment?”

As the Reagan supporters in the crowd began to boo and jeer, Reagan leaned forward towards his (still functioning) microphone, and uttered a line which quickly became a star of presidential campaign history: “”I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!”

(Yes, Reagan got the name wrong!)

Ronald Reagan won the New Hampshire primary, which propelled him into front runner status—and to the nomination, and to the White House. Bush, who would lose 29 out of 33 contests to Reagan, went on to serve as his vice president.

Bill Clinton, The Comeback Kid (1992)

Bill Clinton arrived in New Hampshire in 1992 as a man in trouble. The governor of Arkansas had stumbled to fourth place in the Iowa caucus, earning only 2.8% of the vote. Rumors of Clinton’s draft-dodging and extramarital affairs also dogged the candidate, threatening to sink an already faltering campaign.

So New Hampshire mattered. Top Clinton advisors arrived in the state on February 10th, acknowledging that the campaign was “in meltdown” and that their polls “had really tanked.” They knew that they needed to “fight like hell” and have a “perfect eight days” in order to turn things around.

The campaign decided they’d work to control the narrative, by limiting press conferences and putting the candidate in front of crowds, where he could connect with New Hampshire voters on a personal level. “The strategy really was, be everywhere,” said Clinton advisor James Carville. “Shake every hand.” Clinton hit the trail, hard, meeting voters in person and participating in televised town halls.

It worked—Clinton outperformed expectations and zoomed to second place on February 18th. This led to Clinton’s famous moniker: “The Comeback Kid.”

Clinton went on to beat the incumbent president, George H.W. Bush, in the November election.

Does Winning in New Hampshire Matter?

The Answer is (surprise!) Complicated

In our last post, we asked if an Iowa victory had any significance in terms of winning the presidency. The answer is complicated—and certainly, this year, grows even more complicated when you throw in a messy and confused caucus, and two candidates in a virtual dead heat.

In New Hampshire, Iowa’s narrative can be reinforced—see Jimmy Carter in 1972. (Carter won Iowa and New Hampshire.) It can be thrown into doubt—see Hillary Clinton’s victory over Obama in 2008, after she lost in Iowa. Or, it can be torn up entirely in favor of a new one—see Bill Clinton’s resilient comeback in 1992.

In 2020, a win in New Hampshire for Bernie Sanders or Pete Buttigieg would cement their front-runner status. But the campaign is young—and anything could happen.

Bonus Note: A Win in new hampshire is better for the GOP

New Hampshire’s significance is also amplified depending on if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. No Republican who won the Iowa Caucus has gone onto be win the presidency—by contrast, it was Democrats (Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama) whose Iowa wins led them to the White House. (Bill Clinton also won in Iowa in 1996, but as the incumbent.)

For Republicans, winning New Hampshire has historically meant more than Iowa. This won’t matter in 2020—unless there’s a surprise dark horse about to jump in the race—but in the last 44 years, Republicans who win New Hampshire—even if they lost in Iowa—are more likely to reach the White House. This trend is especially strong in the election cycles between 2008 and today. In 2008 Mike Huckabee won Iowa; John McCain won New Hampshire. In 2012 Rick Santorum won Iowa; Mitt Romney won New Hampshire. And in 2016, Ted Cruz won in Iowa—Donald Trump won in New Hampshire.

A History of the First Iowa Caucus (and why winning in Iowa may not matter)

By Kaleena Fraga

And they’re off! After years (years) of political posturing by the Democrats, the campaign of 2020 will begin in earnest today, in Iowa.

What did the first Iowa caucus look like? And does winning in Iowa even matter in the general election?

Iowa Caucus of 1972: The Players

Participating in primaries became newly important after the chaotic campaign of 1968. In 1972 the Democrats gathered in Iowa to give this form of politicking a serious try.

Their goal? To excise the ghosts of 1968 and to make Richard Nixon a one-term president. (They would fail—Nixon’s sweeping reelection victory gave him every state but Massachusetts.)

And in fact the election of 1972 contained significant echoes of 1968. Three of the ’68 candidates, Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern, had decided to run again. “Run” is a tricky word here. Of the three, only Eugene McCarthy had participated in the ’68 primaries. Humphrey joined the race in April, too late to participate, and McGovern didn’t join the campaign until after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

(This time, there would be no Kennedy in the race. In July of 1969, Ted Kennedy had driven his car off a bridge, killing his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne. ‎Kennedy would run for president in 1980, unsuccessfully.)

Humphrey had won the nomination in 1968. It was a tough victory, marred by Kennedy’s assassination in June, the riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention, and Humphrey’s association with an unpopular president, Lyndon Johnson. Still, he’d lost the general election by less than 1% of the vote and wanted another go.

In 1972, the alums of the 1968 election were joined by Edmund Muskie, a Senator from Maine.

Who won the Iowa caucus in 1972?

As to who would win the day in Iowa? Drumroll, please—

No one.

Technically, Muskie won with 35.5% of the vote. But 35.8% of Iowa voters signaled that they were uncommitted.

Muskie had a healthy lead over the runner up, George McGovern, who earned 22.6% of the vote. Fascinatingly, Muskie fell into a common pitfall of Iowa victors: The win wasn’t enough. In fact, it was a bad sign. The New York Times noted:

But the victory of the Maine Democrat, widely considered the front‐runner for his party’s Presidential nomination, was clouded by the unexpectedly strong showing of Senator George McGovern of South Dakota.

The real victory, wrote the Times belonged to McGovern:

For Mr. McGovern, who has struggled since January, 1970, to convince the press and the public that he is something more than a fringe candidate, the Iowa results provided a lift in the final weeks before the New Hampshire primary on March 7.

McGovern’s campaign manager, Gary Hart, called McGovern’s victory a “moral” one.

All of this goes to show how tricky Iowa can be. A victory is not a victory; a defeat is not a defeat. Beating expectations is often more powerful than an outright win.

Of course, losing can be tricky, too. Just ask Howard Dean.

What does a victory in Iowa mean? Not much

In fact, many candidates who win in Iowa find defeat further down the trail. Muskie’s campaign would fall apart in New Hampshire, when he was accused of crying in front of the press. (Muskie blamed snow on his face.)

Gerald Ford won the Republican’s first Iowa caucus in 1976, but lost in the general election to Jimmy Carter. The trend started by Ford and Muskie, of winning in Iowa only to lose later on, was continued by Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Walter Mondale, Dick Gephardt, Bob Dole, Tom Harkin (the eventual nominee, Bill Clinton, got less than 3% of the vote), Al Gore, John Kerry, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Hillary Clinton, and Ted Cruz. In Iowa, victory is often-short lived.

Those who won Iowa and then the presidency are a smaller group: Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama won both in Iowa and in the general election.

So what does the Iowa caucus really mean? Nothing—and everything. Since 1972, we’ve certainly seen that anything can happen. And anything can mean anything, depending on how you can spin your results.

What Did the World Look Like in 1920?

2020 is already off to a dynamic start. What was the state of the world 100 years ago, as it rolled into a new decade?

By Kaleena Fraga

The new year has certainly gotten off to an eventful start. In the first month of 2020, we’ve seen massive fires, sabre rattling, an impeachment trial in the United States, and the end (or the beginning?) of the Brexit saga in the EU. Whew. So what did the world look like 100 years ago? Did people at the time feel that the 1920s started on a similarly chaotic foot?

Obviously (obviously) we’re all about the presidential side of things. So what was the White House situation in January of 1920?

The presidency in January 1920

In 1920, Woodrow Wilson was completing his second term in office. Or, was he? While rallying support for his League of Nations plan in October 1919, the president suffered a debilitating stroke. His wife, Edith effectively took control.

Without the 25th amendment, which would not be ratified for another half-century, there was no way to remove Wilson from office. Not that many people knew about his stroke—in the pre-social media age, Edith Wilson was effectively able to keep her husband’s condition under wraps.

The president’s wife later denied that she’d ever served as president herself, but she did acknowledge her “stewardship” of Wilson’s last year in office.

The average American had no idea. They weren’t habitually checking Twitter like some of us do today.

Presidential campaigns in 1920

As in 2020, 1920 was an election year. Wilson, a Democrat, had broken up a reign of Republicans that had existed since the Civil War. (Wilson and Grover Cleveland were the only Democrats to be elected president between 1860 and 1932.)

Americans wondered who their candidates would be—especially because Theodore Roosevelt, who had energetically barnstormed for a third term in 1912, had died one year earlier, in January 1919. (A Roosevelt would be on the ticket in 1920—Theodore’s fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as the vice presidential candidate for the Democrats.) In January 1920, it seemed that the country might see William Jennings Bryan run—again.

Despite his health, Wilson hoped for a third term. It wouldn’t be. He received little support from the party and died four years later. In any case, Wilson believed that campaigns required vigorous time on the stump. As Jeffrey Normand Bourdon so eloquently describes in his book From Garfield to Harding: The Success of Midwest Porch Campaigns working the stump resulted in victory for Wilson 3/4 times. But in 1920, the ill president could hardly pick up the reins of his old campaign technique.

Which resulted in a fascinating twist. Although the campaign would not start in earnest until the summer (reminder: the 2020 campaign has been dragging on for two years), the Republican nominee and eventual victor, Warren G. Harding, resorted to front-porch campaigning. This technique, as Bourdon describes, had served as a happy medium between seeking the presidency and letting “the office choose the man”—i.e., displaying none of the presidential ambition that was considered fatal in the 19th century.

Popular in the late 19th century, front porch campaigning had lost its shine as great orators like Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan made their mark on American presidential campaigns. But it had proven effective for James Garfield and William McKinley, and Harding went this direction as well.

Harding campaigned on a “Return to Normalcy” and “America First” following the end of WWI. His campaign marketed him as a patriotic family man. Waving to crowds from his front-porch, this was easy for voters to accept. His opponent, James Cox, was divorced. This made Harding’s front-porch persona all the more appetizing.

Harding’s status as a married man gave him a special boost in 1920, the first year American women could vote. The divorced Cox, at a disadvantaged, was portrayed as desperate for women’s votes. A judge involved with Cox’s case told the Los Angeles Times he believed the candidate’s divorce would cost Mr. Cox “a million votes.”

In the end, Harding carried the day by about seven million votes. The victory would be short lived. Harding died of a heart attack in 1923, elevating his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, to the White House.

The state of the world in 1920

But what did the world look like in 1920? Did the year burst into being with the same cascade of events that we’ve seen in 2020?

The new year picked up to a brisk start. Billy Joel could write a song about it. In January alone, an earthquake hit Mexico; the Treaty of Versailles was ratified (without the United States); Babe Ruth was traded to the New York Yankees, Prohibition began, launching an era of bootlegs and speakeasies—the list goes on and on. The war had ended in November of 1918, but the world was still untangling the results. We all know how that turned out.

In summary, life continued to charge forward. In 1920, as in 2020, each day brought an avalanche of something different. But maybe it felt slower. After all, people in 1920 couldn’t spend all day watching events unfold across their phone screen.

America’s Oldest Third Party: The Prohibitionists

By Kaleena Fraga

While researching another topic—New Yorkers who became president—we stumbled across a delicious (or perhaps dry) factoid to share.

The Prohibition Party may seem like a throwback to the days of speakeasies and Jay Gatsby, but it’s actually the oldest third party in the United States. The Party has run a candidate in every election since 1872, and they already have a nominee for 2020—which, in some ways, makes them more prepared for the upcoming election than the Democrats.

So what does the Prohibition Party stand for?

As expected, the Prohibition Party’s platform emphasizes a disapproval of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, and all “hard” drugs. It goes as far as to pledge support to farmers who switch from growing tobacco and grapes for wine to other crops.

But that’s not all. The party believes in climate change and promises, “[cooperation] with other nations in mitigating its possible effects.” The party also notes that it “will not surrender our sovereignty in this, or any other regard.” It is strongly pro-life, supports a constitutional amendment that would give power of marriage to religious bodies only, endorses the NRA, and advocates for abolishing the Federal Reserve System.

In 2016, the Prohibition Party received more than 5,000 votes, out of about 138 million ballots cast. Not a great year, but a vast improvement over the 2012 election—the party received 518 votes then. Since the party received only 208 votes in 2000, you could say they’re enjoying a new wave of support.

Since it first ran a presidential candidate in 1872, the Prohibition Party has enjoyed peaks in popularity. Some are expected—as the Prohibition movement began to gain steam in the 1880s and into the turn of the century, the party received more than 200,000 votes (in 1888, 1892, 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1916). The year prohibition became law (1920) the party’s vote count dipped—to about 188,000—perhaps because prohibition passed in January, and the election did not take place until November.

Since then, the Prohibition Party never reached the same heights of popularity. However, it it has seen swells of support at other times throughout history. It drew over 100,000 votes in 1948—the first time since 1920 that it hit six digits—and saw a slight increase in support between 1956 (41,937 votes) and 1960 (46, 2013 votes). Since then, support for the Prohibition Party saw a steep drop.

In our black-and-white (or perhaps red-and-blue) political world of donkeys and elephants, the Prohibition Party stands out with their own symbol—the camel. Why a camel? On their site, they explain their mascot shares its origins with the Republicans and Democrats—a political cartoonist named Thomas Nast. He assigned the donkey to the Dems, the elephant to the GOP, and the camel to the Prohibitionists. Why?

“Nast chose the camel to represent the Prohibition Party because, like Prohibitionists generally, camels don’t drink very often, and, when they do drink, they drink only water. Originally a dromedary, the symbol was later changed to the Bactrian camel in order not to be associated with the camel logo on Camel Cigarettes.”

The Prohibition Party

As certain echelons of society askew drinking—with the rise of non-alcoholic cocktails —and as many Americans grow tired of the two main parties, perhaps the Prohibition Party is due for another swell in support.

Just a Number: Kennedy, Reagan, and the “Age Question” in 2020

The youngest candidate running for president in 2020 is 37. The oldest is 77. Whether or not voters will make age an issue has yet to be seen, so how has it played out in past presidential campaigns?

By Kaleena Fraga

(to listen to this piece in podcast form click here)

The candidates running for president in 2020 are incredibly diverse. There are men and women, white and black candidates, and candidates with different sexual orientations. There is also a diversity when it comes to age. On the younger side of the spectrum are Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg (46 and 37, respectively). On the other side there is Bernie Sanders, who is 77, and, if he were to run, Joe Biden, who is 76.

So what role has age played in past presidential campaigns?

It’s certainly come up in the past. The two most famous examples of candidates who wrestled with the “age question” were John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

John F. Kennedy

Kennedy, when he ran for president in 1960, was 43 years old. Although his opponent, Richard Nixon, was just four years older, Kennedy faced a barrage of criticism and doubt when it came to the question of his youth. (Of course, by 1960 Richard Nixon had been vice president for eight years, in addition to his service in the House and the Senate, experience which Kennedy shared).

Criticism came from both sides of the aisle. Harry Truman, the last Democratic president, spoke out against Kennedy, saying:

“I am deeply concerned and troubled about the situation we are up against in the world now…That is why I hope someone with the greatest possible maturity and experience would be available at this time. May I urge you to be patient?”

Once Kennedy became the nominee, Truman changed his tune—sort of. He wrote to a former aide:

“[We] are stuck with the necessity of taking the worst of two evils or none at all. So–I’m taking the immature Democrat as the best of the two. Nixon is impossible. So, there we are.”

Experience was definitely a question in the election. Nixon ran ads stressing his 7 1/2 years experience in the White House as Eisenhower’s vice president. The ad ended with a line touting the experience of Nixon and his running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge: “They understand what peace demands” implying, of course, that Kennedy (with his youth and inexperience) did not.

The Democrats fought back. When Eisenhower infamously stated during a press conference that he’d need a week to think of an important contribution or decision made by his vice president, Democrats turned the fumble into an attack ad against Nixon.

Kennedy, for his part, turned his youth into an asset. When he accepted the nomination Kennedy said:

“The Republican nominee-to-be, of course, is also a young man. But his approach is as old as McKinley. His party is the party of the past. His speeches are generalities from Poor Richard’s Almanac. Their platform, made up of left-over Democratic planks, has the courage of our old convictions. Their pledge is a pledge to the status quo–and today there can be no status quo.”

The country, Kennedy said, needed young blood, new ideas, a fresh start. Using rhetoric that will be familiar to anyone who has lived through an American election, Kennedy pressed for change after eight years of Republican power.

It worked—but barely. The election of 1960 was one of the closest in American history.

Ronald Reagan

Reagan, like Kennedy, faced criticism concerning his age, but it came from the other direction. As he prepared to run for reelection, many wondered if the president had grown too old to serve his duties. At 73, he would be the oldest president ever sworn in.

Age had been a question for Reagan ever since he ran for president in 1980. In a debate that year with his future vice president, George H.W. Bush, the moderator asked Bush if he thought Reagan, then 69, was too old to hold office.

“No, I don’t,” said Bush.

“I agree with George Bush,” said Reagan.

Four years later, the question arose again, amplified, this time, by Reagan’s poor performance in the first debate against Walter Mondale. The New York Times wrote that “Mr. Reagan appears less confident than he customarily does on television.”

Reagan hit back against criticism over his performance, and against the line of questioning that he’d lost stamina in the last four years. “I wasn’t tired,” Reagan told the Times. “And with regard to the age issue and everything, if I had as much makeup on as he did, I’d have looked younger, too.”

But Reagan knew he’d had a bad night. As soon as Reagan walked off the debate stage that night he told an aide that he “had flopped.” Mondale, for his part, told an aide, “that guy is gone.” After the debate, Reagan dropped seven points in the polls. Fifty-four percent of Americans gave the debate victory to Mondale; just thirty-four percent thought Reagan had won.

So it was crucial for Reagan to perform well in the 2nd debate. Not only that, he needed to definitively put the “age” question to rest.

He got his chance.

“Mr. President,” said the moderator. “I want to raise an issue that has been lurking out there for two or three weeks…you are already the oldest president in history. And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?”

Reagan responded: “Not at all…I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Even Mondale laughed (although he must have sensed, then, the power of Reagan’s line). It quickly became one of the most iconic of American presidential debates. Lost is what Reagan said next: “I might add that it was Seneca, or it was Cicero, I don’t know which, that said, ‘If it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state.'”

Reagan won the election in a landslide. Although he would not be officially diagnosed with Alzheimers until 1994, speculation was rife that he suffered from the disease while in office. During the Iran-Contra affair, much of Reagan’s defense rested on the fact that he could not remember certain facts.

***

So how will age play out in 2020? Sanders, who would be 79 on inauguration day were he to win, acknowledged but dismissed the age issue. “I would ask people to look at the totality of who I am,” Sanders said, “[age is] part of a discussion, but it has to be part of an overall view of what somebody is and what somebody has accomplished.”

Although Joe Biden has not yet officially announced his own candidacy (he would be 78 on January 20th 2021) he and his team are reportedly considering measures that would help allay the question. Among them: choosing a running mate early (Stacey Abrams is rumored) and promising to serve only one term.

Pete Buttigieg, who is enjoying a bump in the polls, frames his youth (Buttigieg is 37) as an asset. “We’re the generation with the most at stake,” Buttigieg said, referencing climate change and the increasing issue of economic disparity. “[We] were out there in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I think we’ve earned place in this conversation.”

Age will definitely be a question on the Democratic side—and certainly it will come up as the election progresses. Donald Trump, after all, is 72.