Profound Questions: Seriously, 35?
Originally published Decebmer 10, 2010
Back in 2009, McSweeneys.net started a competition searching for "columnists." I was among the first batch of winners. "Chris White Answers Profound Questions About the Presidents" ran for a year, with a few additional installments added afterward.
You can vote at 18, drink at 21, get reduced car insurance rates at 25, and start complaining about popular dance music at 30. After that, only one more horizon opens before your tragic death in a hot dog eating contest at 44: you're eligible to lead the free world at 35. The Constitution says so, and after only 27 amendments, the Constitution is now never wrong.
John Jay explains the wisdom of the Framers in Federalist 64: The age limit "confines the electors to men of whom the people have had time to form a judgment, and with respect to whom they will not be liable to be deceived by those brilliant appearances of genius and patriotism, which, like transient meteors, sometimes mislead as well as dazzle." In plain American: The concern is not the candidates, but the voters; 35 years is long enough for a statistically significant portion of the population to figure out if you're full of crap.
It hasn't worked out exactly that way. As there were no high schools, the Framers could not anticipate that the American people would sometimes act like high school girls. Sometimes, we ignore our chubby loyal friend and date the community college guy with the IROC convertible, even though we know in our hearts that he's skeevy. These days, the age limit seems more for the benefit of the candidates, who can use that time to prepare for the job -- only, that logic has aged even worse.
In 1789, by age 35 you'd probably have at least one dead spouse under your belt. It built character. You would have had a few brushes with death yourself, from infected blisters or scurvy or flint tomahawks. Your schooling would be done with, since there was a lot less to learn in the 18th century, and three decades or so of on-the-job training would have given you a taste of the working life. You either had kids or had been rendered sterile in a hilarious farming accident. You had some intestinal fortitude.
In 2010, by age 35 you probably have five years of student loans left as you contemplate that Ph.D. that will finally make your resume pop. Your furniture comes from Ikea and will not survive the move from your parents' house. Many waking hours are spent contemplating the work of J.J. Abrams, and if you have kids they aren't learning valuable horticultural skills. Every few years another magazine runs a cover story about the extension of adolescence, so that Social Security now kicks in before adulthood.
Is 35 years really long enough to become presidential? At 33, the estimable Harry Truman considered himself a failure; he was unmarried, had given up his dream of being a concert pianist and was stuck working on the family farm. The Great War was a career opportunity, and after two years of highly distinguished service his life was starting to turn around. He opened a haberdashery in Kansas City. It bombed, and he was paying off debts into his 40s. Mushroom clouds were but a gleam in his eye. Tip your hat to him, disparaging 30somethings, as you update your resume.
Forty-five years might not be enough. Kennedy (43 at inauguration) was a transient meteor if ever there was one. Outside of the Army, Grant (46) was a bad farmer who worked in his dad's leather shop; selling chaps to reluctant customers didn't translate to political success. Clinton (46) probably should have gotten a few more things out of his system, maybe while working in a leather shop.
Strict constructionists will point to Teddy Roosevelt. By the magical birthday, he was a widower, a civil servant, a state legislator, a cattle rancher, a widely published author, a world traveler and an international moustache model. He had signature experiences ahead (e.g. shooting Spaniards) before becoming the youngest president at age 42, but the legends of his energy and intelligence make you think he could have handled the job at the age of eligibility. You can't stress enough, however, that Teddy Roosevelt was a borderline psychopath on whom no standard should be based. Ever.
There's no airtight example on the roster of a guy who was totally ready at 35. And yet it's hard to say that the limit must be raised. For one, we already have an unofficial fuzzy line: 35 presidents started on the north side of 50. It's an age when you either know what you're all about, or the universe has beaten you down so much that you no longer care. You've had to handle both success and failure. If you have a drug habit, you've either kicked it or figured out ways to be discreet. We're comfortable with 50.
Plus, a 35-year-old who seriously wanted the job would likely be enough of a resume-building twerp that America would hate them. The same high school sensibility that got America groped in the back seat of the IROC recoils against the naked ambition of an aspiring class president.
With those safeguards in place, do we need to take youth entirely off the table? You can argue it's for the good of the nation; you might be right in the short term. But what about in 20 years, when the country breaks into generational warfare? We're going to want a 35-year-old at the helm when it's an economic necessity to end Medicare and force all the elderly into salt mines. We'll wish for youth when the only chance at detente with North Korea is a friendly president-vs.-supreme-leader game of Call of Duty 34.
Our exceptional nation sometimes turns to exceptional people, so we might as well leave the limit alone. It maximizes our options. But until that exceptional day, America, be ever vigilant against the seduction of callow youth. Vote not for a newly eligible Chris White in 2012, no matter how many soda machines he vows to put in the cafeteria. That guy can barely assemble a Linnarp bookcase.