A Brief History of Old-Ass Presidents
Some grey, wrinkled, historical context
How old-ass is Joe Biden? He is 80 years and 162 days — old-ass by any objective measure. But how old is he according to dodgy, unscientific measures developed for entertainment purposes? Let’s dig into that a bit…
In 1820, the median American was 16.7 years old. Yes: The median American back then was some sullen little snot who thought her parents were SO LAME because they didn't use new technology like the precision lathe or the miner's lamp. Except that 16 year-olds back then could probably fix a wagon and skin a moose and also had three kids of their own. At any rate: America was a different country back when someone the age of Finn Wolfhard — 20 — was presumably eligible for free coffee at Mac-Donald’s Meat Dispensary and Hasty Brothel (as McDonald’s was known back then).
Health, generally, was different in those days. We didn't have dieticians and MRIs and magical copper socks; we had doctor-slash-lumberjacks who would chop off appendages that showed signs of gangrene. If — through some miracle — you managed to dodge the viruses, wild beasts, and Englishmen that made life so perilous and lived to, say, 70, then it probably wasn't a good 70. There's an excellent chance that at that age, you were a half-sentient bag of arthritis sitting in a corner with one of those big, funnel-looking horns affixed to your ear.
This context seems relevant when we ponder the fact that Joe Biden, if reelected, would be the oldest president to ever take office. In fact, he’s already the oldest president to ever take office — a win would push the record into Michael Phelps-ish “it might be a century before anyone touches this" territory. Biden may run against 76 year-old Donald Trump, who would also set a new record for oldest president ever inaugurated. What should we make of this, other than the fact that we're an ossified society missing a generation of leadership due to technology that poisoned our brains with groupthink? Set that aside. What else should we think?
It seems like we should note that 80 years old in 2023 is usually not the same as 80 in 1820. An 80 year-old today is likely to be experiencing some mental decline; an 80 year-old in 1820 is likely to be experiencing their 15th year as a corpse. Yes, Biden is nominally the oldest president, but how old is he relative to his time? What if I came up with a goofy, for-entertainment-purposes-only metric to measure that?
Here is how old each president was when inaugurated (and counting each term for two-termers). I’ve also added hypothetical Biden and Trump second terms in 2025.
For me, there are two major takeaways here: 1) There’s no major trend towards electing older presidents, and 2) LBJ was only 55 when he took office. Can you fucking believe that? I always thought he was in his late 60s. Nope: He was one year older than Paul Rudd is right now. But I guess that's what happens when you spend your whole life subsisting on Fresca and bar-b-que: You end up looking like a Shar Pei that's been cross-bred with a butternut squash.
LBJ's withered ballsack of a face aside, what of my assumption that the ravages of age used to strike much earlier in life? That question leads me to ask a different question: How old was each president compared to the people of his day? Below, I've compared each president’s age to the median US age in the year they were inaugurated (starting in 1820 because that's the first year the Census Bureau started keeping that data). This calculation is each president's age as a percentage of the median age, so if a president was 50 when he was inaugurated, and the median age that year was 25, then he was 200 percent of the median.
The downward slope of that chart is mostly caused by major changes in the median age over time. The median age was 16 in 1820, 22 in 1900, and is 38 now. That makes it very easy to be an “old for his time” president in the 1800s; the fifteen “oldest for his time” presidents are from the 19th century. Old Grey Joe and Donny Manboobs aren't even in the top half of old-for-their-time presidents; Biden’s second term would make him the 31st OFHT president, a Trump second term would put him 33rd. I don’t know if this tells us much about the relative mental and physical fitness of presidents, but it certainly shows how dramatically the nation's geezer-to-twerp ratio (GTR) has change over time.
One thing suggesting that this metric might not be completely useless is the fact that the oldest OFHT president was William Henry Harrison. And William Henry Harrison was initially famous for being old, and soon after famous for being dead. I'm sure WH2 hates it when people tell this story, but: Harrison was the oldest president ever elected, and to prove his virility, he gave a two hour inauguration speech on a cold, rainy day with no jacket. Then, in one of history’s most extreme cases of being publicly proven wrong, Harrison’s “I’m virile” argument was convincingly countered by Mother Nature, who gave him pneumonia and then killed him. D’oh! They didn’t write headlines like MOTHER NATURE TOTALLY DESTROYS WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON’S VIRILITY ARGUMENT back then, but it would have been apt.
Is an OFHT president more likely to have major health problems? Well, what counts as a “major health problem” is subjective; Willy Hank Harry’s health problem was so major that he died of it, so that’s an easy call, but things like the after-effects of George W. Bush pretzel attack are in a grey area. Nonetheless, I count ten post-1820 presidents as having serious health problems: Jackson (multiple conditions), William Henry Harrison (hilarious pneumonia leading to less-hilarious death), Taylor (died), Cleveland (cancer), Wilson (stroke), Harding (died), FDR (polio), Eisenhower (multiple conditions), Kennedy (Addison’s disease), and Reagan (Alzheimer’s). I’m not counting Lincoln’s suspected Marfan syndrome because that has never been proven, and I’m not counting President Bartlet’s MS because that was Martin Sheen on a TV show. Here are the presidents sorted by OFHT age, with the Teetering-On-Death-Ten highlighted in red.1
That’s not a big trend, though the health problems would be more tilted towards the right end of the chart if not for FDR’s four terms. My belief that it was bad to be very old in the 19th century appears to be supported.
What am I getting at? Well, I'm mostly futzing around with history and statistics because I find those things interesting, and I'm including a bunch of jokes about old people because they're one of the last groups you're allowed to joke about (it's really just them, goths, and the French at this point). But I'm also arguing that “he would be the oldest president ever" is not quite as dramatic of a statement as it sounds. Yes, Biden's age is a cause for concern; I'm on record saying that I wish he would have handed the reins to, say, Buttigieg. And I think it's fair to question a president's mental and physical fitness. But I'm not sure a second Biden (or Trump) term would put us in uncharted territory. After all: We've had presidents who were on the dicey end of their era's actuarial tables before, including one who was quite literally done in by a stiff breeze.
I have opposite concerns about Biden’s health and Trump's: I worry that Biden will die in office, and I worry that Trump won't. Both are showing mental decline, and Trump had a frighteningly low starting point; saying “Trump has mentally lost a step” is like saying “Mister Rogers isn't as much of a sex machine as he used to be”. Trump seems destined to be one of those awful political figures whose long life defies all medical logic, like Castro, who finally died when he peed on an electric fence at age 190. Biden thinks he'll be fine through 2029; I wish I shared his confidence. Because “he's the oldest president ever” might not be quite as big of a statement as it sounds, but it’s less than ideal at any day in age.
If a president served two terms, but his health problems only surfaced in his second term, then I only highlighted his second term. Reagan’s Alzheimer’s was a tough call; I only highlighted his second term.