One of the philosophers of Rising Sun (CRS – LA Jonas Foundation) observed that it is impossible to be both young and brave, and old and wise. Age of our leaders often equates to experience. Age becomes an issue in election campaigns — Ronald Reagan, the previous record holder of the oldest person ever to run for a first term as president of the United States before John McCain, headed off arguments that he was “too old” with a zinger in a debate with Walter Mondale in Reagan’s campaign for reelection in 1984.
It was the second debate in 1984, from Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium (To confuse our foreign readers, we should note that this is in Kansas City, Missouri; Kansas City, Kansas, is on the western side of the river, and is a city of less consequence than Kansas City, Missouri, in population, and in most discussions. We confuse our foreign readers in revenge for English politics, which pertains to the Quote of the Moment, but cannot be explained by or to a person who is not intoxicated). The debate focused on foreign policy and the future of the world. Among the panel of journalists doing the questioning in this deformed type of debate, was the late Henry Trewhitt, then diplomatic correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, one of America’s historically great newspapers, and still great.
About 20 minutes into the debate, Trewhitt asked this question:
REPORTER: Mr. President, I want to raise an issue that I think has been lurking out there for two or three weeks, and cast it specifically in national security terms. You already are the oldest President in history, and some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall, yes, that President Kennedy, who had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuba missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?
Reagan sealed his reputation for wit, and probably sealed the election, with this previously-scripted (we know now) zinger:
REAGAN: Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience. If I still have time, I might add, Mr. Trewhitt, I might add that it was Seneca or it was Cicero, I don’t know which, that said if it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale, a great statesman in his own right, and no youth at the time, had a solid response, but not an election-winning response: It won no laughter. (It’s interesting, in 2008, to remember that Mondale was criticizing Reagan for his failure to act to prevent a terrorist attack on U.S. forces in Lebanon, that killed more than 200 Marines.):
REPORTER [Henry Trewhitt]: Mr. Mondale, I’m going to hang in there. Should the President’s age and stamina be an issue in the political campaign?
MONDALE: No. And I have not made it an issue nor should it be. What’s at issue here is the President’s application of his authority to understand what a President must know to lead this nation, secure our defense and make the decisions and judgments that are necessary. A minute ago, the President quoted Cicero, I believe. I want to quote somebody a little closer home, Harry Truman. He said the buck stops here. We just heard the President’s answer for the problems at the barracks in Lebanon where 241 Marines were killed. What happened? First, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with the President, said don’t put those troops there. They did it. And then five days before the troops were killed, they went back to the President, through the Secretary of Defense, and said please, Mr. President, take those troops out of there because we can’t defend them. They didn’t do it. And we know what’s – what happened. After that, once again our embassy was exploded. This is the fourth time this has happened – an identical attack in the same region, despite warnings even public warnings from the terrorists. Who’s in charge? Who’s handling this matter. That’s my main point.
Which brings us to William Pitt’s remarks.
William Pitt, later Earl of Chatham, was 32 years old, and already a powerful member of the Whig opposition to England’s de facto first, and longest-serving Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, (who also was a Whig — see what I mean about English politics?). Though leading the opposition to Walpole, Pitt and a few of his colleagues were known as the Patriot Boys (Kansas City residing mostly in Missouri pales in comparison to these complexities of British politics).
Walpole, 32 years older than Pitt, leader of the House of Commons, complained at some point about Pitt’s youth. Walpole played dirty against Pitt, getting Pitt’s commission in the military cancelled. The two would dispute for a few years yet — finally, Pitt’s side prevailed, and Walpole lost a vote of confidence.
But on March 6, 1741, Pitt rose in the House of Commons and responded to Walpole’s charges:
“The atrocious crime of being a young man, which the honorable gentleman [Walpole] has with such spirit and decency charged upon me, I shall neither attempt to palliate nor deny; but content myself with wishing that I may be one of those whose follies may cease with their youth, and not of that number who are ignorant in spite of experience.”*
Walpole, Massachusetts, founded in 1724, is named after Robert Walpole. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is named after William Pitt (the elder), as are Pittsfield County, Virginia, Chatham County, North Carolina (remember, Pitt was later Earl of Chatham), Pittsburg, New Hampshire, Chatham, New Jersey, and Chatham University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
William Pitt, later Earl of Chatham
* Did Pitt ever actually utter these words? There was no official reporting service for debates in the House of Commons in 1741. Some speeches were written out before hand, some were carefully noted. This speech, alas, comes to us reported by the essayist and literature critic Samuel Johnson, who was famous for writing great speeches for members of the House of Commons, after the fact. Of this particular speech, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 17th ed. carries this footnote: “This was the composition of Johnson, founded on some note or statement of the actual speech. Johnson said, ‘That speech I wrote in a garret, in Exeter Street’” – Boswell, Life of Johnson . If only Walter Mondale had Samuel Johnson whispering in his ear. Barack Obama may need the whisperings of Johnson in the current campaign.