Steve Chapman

You often hear the complaint that modern political campaigns are too nasty, which is often true. But it's also often true that they are too polite. So we're fortunate when someone violates the prevailing etiquette, forcing candidates and voters to confront matters we'd rather not but should.

One of those moments came the other day when Sen. John McCain visited a New Hampshire high school and took questions. One brave youngster asked him, as courteously as possible, if at 71, he might be too old for the job he's seeking. McCain scoffed, saying, "I work 24/7, I'm very active, I enjoy life," and bragging that he's always outcampaigned his opponents. He closed by joking, "Thanks for the question, you little jerk. You're drafted."

But the student raised an important question that many of his elders have been strangely unwilling to pursue. It may seem rude and even cruel to say that someone is simply too old to be entrusted with the presidency. But in McCain's case, by any sensible standard, it's also true.

If elected, he would be the oldest person ever to enter the office. Ronald Reagan was 69 when he was inaugurated, nearly two and a half years younger than McCain will be on Jan. 20, 2009. If he served two full terms, McCain would leave the White House at the age of 80.

Yes, he appears to be an active man who doesn't tire easily. You don't get to the top of the political heap by working bankers' hours. But to claim that because he's energetic at 71, he will suffer no slowdown in the next five years is like saying that because he's still breathing, he won't ever stop. A car could run fine for 200,000 miles, but if you're driving across Death Valley in July, that vehicle might not be the best choice.

The only certainty in life is that age catches up with all of us eventually. In the case of a man McCain's age, the odds are it will happen sooner rather than later. Each additional year increases the likelihood of physical infirmity and mental deterioration, not to mention death. A report last year by the Mayo Clinic found that one out of every 11 people it studied between the ages of 70 and 79 had some cognitive impairment, often a precursor to Alzheimer's disease.

McCain thinks he's the exception to the normal rules of aging because he has a 95-year-old mother who, by his account, is still sharp. What he neglects to mention is that he's already outlived his father and grandfather.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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