“I have been humiliated by my own decay.” Thus spoke Winston Churchill in 1953 during his second stint as Britain’s prime minister. Churchill, perhaps the greatest democratic figure of the 20th century, had been sworn in 18 months earlier — just a few weeks shy of his 77th birthday.
Joe Biden was sworn in as president two months after his 77th birthday.
The humiliation for Churchill came from an argument he lost with the American secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, who was shockingly dismissive of his concerns. Churchill’s “decay” was a serious concern.
Joe Biden turns 79 in November — exactly the age Churchill was when he complained of his own decay. And his age is unnerving his fellow Democrats.
Two weeks ago, a New York Times/Sienna College poll found that 64% of Democrats do not want Biden to run for a second term.
This is a staggering number. Consider this comparison: In 1982, at the nadir of the Reagan presidency just six weeks before the Republicans would take a major hit in the midterms, The Washington Post ran a story entitled “Reagan Should Not Seek Second Term, Majority Believes.” Unemployment was at 10.1%. Interest rates were at 12.25%. Things were bad.
But in Reagan’s case, only 35% of those who had voted for him in 1980 said they didn’t want him to run again. Right now, nearly two-thirds of Democrats — 95% of whom voted for Biden in 2020 — want the president to stand down.
Thirty-three percent of those Democrats said his age was the key reason, while 3% said they were concerned about his “mental acuity.” So you can bring the general age and infirmity number up to 36%.
Another 27% cited his job performance, and I think some of that could be implicitly assigned to fears that Biden’s age has compromised his ability to do his job well.
This week, a poll of New Hampshireans finds Biden trailing his own Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg, among Democrats asked whom they would prefer to vote for in 2024. Mayor Pete got 17%, Biden 16%.
This too must be an age-based result. The president is closing in on 80; Mayor Pete is 40. Biden is querulous and short-tempered with the press in a Grandpa Simpson kind of way; Buttigieg’s most notable quality is his Ned Flanders-like unflappability.
Now, Biden is certainly far more physically fit than Churchill. Though Churchill’s peerless biographer Andrew Roberts says his “general health was good for a man of his age” at the time, the great man could no longer hear well. He had to take Benzedrine to find the energy and focus he needed to deliver major speeches. Four months into his tenure, he suffered an arterial spasm and was felled for months by a major stroke after a year in office.
But Churchill did publish the sixth volume of his monumental history of World War II on his 79th birthday — a book he somehow managed to complete even as he was serving as prime minister.
So while his near-octogenarian mind may not have had, as Tennyson put it of the late-in-life Ulysses, “that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven,” it was still an enviable organ. But when it came to exercising his authority as a world leader, Churchill himself was far from certain he remained up to the task.
As for Biden, let’s face it, we all breathe a sigh of relief when he completes a sentence coherently.
Churchill was not forced from office by his age, because his specific infirmities were largely unknown to the British public. But his decline was visible to them and to everyone who knew him. Dwight Eisenhower said in 1953 that Churchill was “as charming and interesting as ever, but he is quite definitely showing the effects of the passing years.” He eventually bowed to the inevitable and resigned three years and five months into his second premiership.
Churchill was 80 then.
Biden will be two weeks shy of 82 on Election Day 2024.
Democrats are not turning on Biden because of inflation, or Afghanistan, or a failure to pass Build Back Better. They know he’s probably too old to be president now, and that he will unquestionably be too old to be president in 2025.
Biden was able to win office because America did not want Donald Trump to be president for a second term — and Trump’s own status as a septuagenarian made it difficult for him to argue in any convincing way that Biden was simply too old to be president. But he was.
And so will Trump be in 2024, by the way. He’ll be 78 on Election Day. He shouldn’t run, and Republicans shouldn’t vote for him if he does — and for this reason alone, by the way.
For, as Huck Finn might have said, “we been there before.”