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Reagan Challenged Notions He Was Too Old to be President - 2004-06-11


When Ronald Reagan was inaugurated President in 1981, he was just a month shy of his 70th birthday, the oldest man in U.S. history ever to hold that office. But he was also one of the nation's most dynamic leaders. Mr. Reagan, who died June 5th at the age of 93, is credited with revitalizing the American economy and initiating policies that defeated Soviet communism. Still, some people said he was too old for the job. VOA's Andrew Baroch takes a look at the impact of age on Mr. Reagan's legacy.

The question of Ronald Reagan's age and his ability to shoulder the physical and mental burdens of the nation's highest office, were an issue from the start of his presidential career, but Ronald Reagan never really seemed as old as he was. Donna Wagner is a gerontologist, someone who studies the impact of aging on individuals and society. She studied Ronald Reagan when he was president.

"Reagan was challenged on his age, and people were saying, 'How could you do a good job at your age, that kind of thing," she notes.

Ms. Wagner recalls the nationally-televised presidential campaign debate in 1984 between President Reagan and his Democratic Party rival, the 56-year-old former vice president, Walter Mondale. Mr. Reagan, then 73, appeared to many to be more youthful than his opponent. And Mr. Reagan offered a clever response to a reporter who called on the President to "put to rest" concerns that he was getting too old for the office.

"I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I'm not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience," he said. "As far as his functioning as an older person, we're seeing today that he wasn't doing anything out of the ordinary or different from what we see today," Ms. Wagner says. "At the time, he was a pioneer. Reagan was one of the first leaders of our country who defied age stereotypes in a really positive way. I think he set a good role model. Today, we don't even think about 70 [as old]. He was showing that if you have a healthy life style and activity level, you're not going to have a problem."

Mr. Reagan rode horses and worked outdoors on his California ranch and Edwin Meese, a close friend and former U.S. Attorney General, says that at the White House, he exercised regularly.

Meese: He would usually finish work around five to six, go back to the quarters and work out for 45 minutes to an hour," he recalls. "He had a treadmill and a weight-lifting machine while he watched the evening news. We used to accuse him of taking out his aggressions while watching the evening news on his exercise machine. He was quite proud that during the seven and a half years of his presidency, he had added a half an inch [over a centimeter] to his biceps and an inch [2.5 centimeters] to his chest muscles.

Baroch: You were on the campaign with him in the 1980's. Did you ever see him flagging at all?

Meese: No, not really. I think one of the things was, when he got up in front of an audience, he was on. That stimulated him.

Baroch: Was there anything he did for his emotional and mental health?

Meese: He had a great religious faith, and I think that was a stabilizing factor in his life.

Mr. Meese adds President Reagan's vigor was also apparent on the international stage.

"In 1985, in Geneva [for arms talks], when he greeted Gorbachev, Gorbachev came with a hat, overcoat, muffler," he adds. "Ronald Reagan came out in a suitcoat and greeted him. Gorbachev was one or two decades younger. Reagan looked like the younger of the two."

President Reagan was seriously wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt, in which a gunman's bullet lodged in his lung just centimeters from his heart. It took surgeons two hours to remove the bullet. Mr. Reagan's quick return to work surprised many people. Then in 1985, he developed colon and skin cancers, which doctors removed. Gerontologist Donna Wagner says his ability to recover was amazing.

"On the horse, riding the horse after he had the surgery for colon cancer, against the advice of his personal physician, his wife, he said, 'I'm not slowing down. Nothing is going to slow me down.' So it was an interesting image of what you can do if you have a good mindset. Most people in the field of aging, regardless of their political and personal belief systems, felt good about the fact that he was the embodiment of a healthy, aging person," she recalls.

Mr. Reagan, unlike many politicians of his day, had lived through much of the 20th century, including the Depression of the 1930s and two world wars. Donna Wagner believes this wealth of experience, coupled with his rugged constitution and fabled optimism helped Mr. Reagan remain vigorous as he led America through historic change and set a new standard for graceful aging.

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