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Acting our age, or not l Chuck’s World


Last updated 12/12/2018 at Noon

I didn’t watch the George H.W. Bush funeral last week, although I engaged with it in a 21st century sort of way. I saw video clips and photos, countless memes, and too many GIFs to keep track of. I read live tweets of people watching. It was like being there.

And I saw the extraordinary photos of the row of presidents and their spouses. Seeing ex-presidents together is always an extraordinary thing, given that they live extraordinary lives, but it’s also unusual just in a demographic sense.

During Franklin Roosevelt’s time in office, from 1933 until 1945, the only living ex-president was his immediate predecessor, Herbert Hoover. He lived until 1964, to age 90, and was for a while our longest-lived president, Calvin Coolidge having passed away just a few months before FDR’s inauguration.

And following the back-to-back deaths of Truman and Lyndon Johnson at the end of 1972/beginning of 1973, there were no ex-presidents alive until Nixon resigned in August 1974. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Hoover went in 1964, and Eisenhower passed away at age 78 in 1969.

By the time I was old enough to start paying attention to such things, there was no club of former presidents to form a backdrop for the current White House resident.

Then we started collecting them. By 1993, when Bill Clinton took office, there were five living ex-presidents hanging around, just waiting for a funeral and hoping it wasn’t theirs.

Nixon died a year and change later, at age 81, but we’ve had a remarkable run since then. Ford and Reagan would bust Hoover’s longevity numbers, and then Carter and Bush took over. In four months, Jimmy Carter will have had the longest life of any American president, supplanting the late Mr. Bush.

I don’t see it stopping, either. Anything can happen, but Clinton, Bush and Trump are all essentially the same age (72), and I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least one make it into his 90s, and maybe all three. Obama is only 57.

And it shouldn’t be a surprise.

When I was a kid, it seemed as though at least half the country smoked, something our long-lived presidents avoided (Johnson was the last president who smoked cigarettes, not counting Obama’s dalliances, or Clinton’s fondness for cigars).

Our national obsession with exercise (as we get more obese, anyway) was also reflected in our presidents. Carter was the first president we saw jogging, something both Bush 41 and Clinton continued.

Reagan was remarkably active and always seemed younger and healthier than his chronological age. Gerald Ford is usually considered the most athletic president, having played in two national championship football games while at Michigan and being a lifelong runner, swimmer, tennis player and golfer.

George W. Bush and Barack Obama were both relentless exercisers while in office.

And again, we’re talking about remarkable lives. Ex-presidents have access to the world’s finest health care, for one thing.

The idea that we seem to be living longer seems counterintuitive, since our lifespans (in the U.S.) have been slightly decreasing (the latest drop is attributed to the opioid epidemic), but also pretty obvious. We’ve had accelerated relativity, which just looks like Baby Boomer nonsense (“40 is the new 30” and so on), but turns out to be pretty tangible when we look around.

It’s not just former presidents, either, and it’s not just about longer lives. There’s a quality of life aspect to aging that’s changed just in my lifetime, and the culture can’t be ignored.

I watched a little bit of “On Golden Pond” a few weeks ago. If you remember this 1981 film, the plot begins with a celebration of Norman Thayer’s (played by Henry Fonda) 80th birthday. Norman is frail. He’s having memory issues. He’s never had a sparkling personality, and his crankiness is exacerbated by the indignities of being so damn old.

Now Jane Fonda, who costarred with her famous father in the film, is older than he was at the time they made it (he died the next year at age 77; she’s about to turn 81). Jane Fonda is definitely not frail, whatever you think of her. She doesn’t seem to be afraid of her age (or anything, apparently) and mentions it often, but it feels irrelevant, as if 80 now is nothing.

Well, not nothing, but not what it was.

I know quite a few people in their 80s. They’re different than people in their 60s, of course, but the differences are getting smaller. This is what I mean by accelerated relativity – I think we’ve added a decade to our cultural lifespans in the past 40 years. Ninety is the new 80.

Three show business legends – Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Dick Van Dyke –whose careers began right about the time those baby boomers were beginning to boom, are now nonagenarians and all over the place, writing books, writing plays, giving interviews, as if old age were an annoyance only, something to be shrugged off.

It happens to all of us. The show must go on.

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old,” said George Bernard Shaw, who lived to be 94. “We grow old because we stop playing.”

This may be the secret, in the end. None of us can avoid aging, or death. We may be able to postpone getting old, though, as long as we can put off growing up.

It seems to be working for Mel Brooks, anyway.


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