No graveyards, no ice cream shops. Some experienced advice on how Biden should handle the age issue

Agraveyard is not the best place for a presidential candidate facing questions about his age.

But there was Bob Dole, slightly stooped as he regarded a tombstone during his 1996 White House bid. Nearby, in the window of an antique store, a handwritten sign urged the 73-year-old Republican nominee to show his younger rival, President Bill Clinton, that he was no antique.


Joe Biden is just the latest presidential candidate to face doubts about his mental and physical capabilities. Before Dole, there was Ronald Reagan, a relative sapling in 1980 when, at 69, he faced the age question in his third presidential run.

But the issue is particularly acute for Biden, who, at 81, is the oldest president in history — as special counsel Robert Hur flagrantly reminded voters last week in his pseudo-diagnosis of the chief executive as “a well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory.”

Veterans of those earlier presidential campaigns have some advice on how Biden should handle the age issue, which is not going away and, they insisted, cannot be ignored.

“He walks across the White House lawn and he looks like an old man,” said Stu Spencer, who served as Reagan’s top political advisor and turns 97 next week. “He’s got to show more energy. Like he did in last year’s State of the Union message.”

“You have to take it straight on,” said Scott Reed, who managed Dole’s presidential campaign. (To be clear, Dole’s cemetery stop wasn’t something his strategists cooked up. The candidate wanted to lay flowers on the grave of a relative.)

But, Reed said, Biden shouldn’t confront the issue the way he did Thursday night at a cantankerous news conference.

Biden summoned reporters on short notice after Hur cleared him of criminal wrongdoing for mishandling classified documents — and painted him as a moth-eaten, doddering geriatric. “He looks startled,” Reed said of the president’s peevish performance. “He looks off his game and he looks terrible.”

Of course, Biden is just a few years older than his almost-certain November opponent, former President Trump.

Trump, who turns 78 in June, is the second-oldest candidate ever to seek the White House and suffers his share of memory lapses and discombobulated moments, like confusing Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi. But the age issue hasn’t plagued him the way it has Biden, in part because Trump is more boisterous and forceful, even as he threatens to suspend the Constitution and surrender our allies to Russia. Life’s not fair, to quote one of the nation’s youngest presidents, John F. Kennedy.

So how else can Biden surmount what is arguably the biggest hurdle standing between himself and a second term? Some of the advice is obvious.

“I wouldn’t go to a nursing home or senior center,” said Don Sipple, who produced Dole’s presidential ads. “Ever.”

And, Reed suggested, no more “ice-cream stop-bys” — a staple Biden photo opportunity. “Going to get ice cream reminds everybody of going with their grandparents.”

Better, Reed said, to put Biden in settings where he’s doing his job. “More pictures in the Oval Office,” Reed suggested, “or meeting with his Cabinet.”

Sipple agreed. He’s spent decades peering at candidates — George W. Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jerry Brown among them — through a camera lens.

“What would be really interesting to me would be a fly-on-the-wall treatment of a day in the life of a president. Where you just see a candid, real, not contrived, almost documentary-style depiction,” Sipple said. “Does he swim laps in the pool? Does he get on a treadmill? You really need to get a day in the life where you’re implicitly attacking the precept that this guy isn’t up to the job.

“It’s something you’ve never seen before,” Sipple said, “and I think it could get some attention.”

There’s no end of free advice out there.

In December, I sat down with a group of Biden’s generational peers at a 55-and-older community in the East Bay hills outside San Francisco. They ranged in age up to 92 and had plenty of suggestions for the president. Among them, raise and project your voice and quit jogging to the podium.

But getting through to a candidate set in his ways isn’t easy, as Dole’s graveyard stop in rural Ohio suggests. (He didn’t just step on the campaign’s intended message of the day, on the virtues of agriculture, but offered a case study in how not to handle a nettlesome issue.)

The late senator was grievously wounded in World War II and spent years undergoing painful physical therapy. For that reason, one former advisor recalled, Dole wasn’t happy being told what to do.

Biden can be the same way. At his ripe age, there are few peers with his longevity and fewer still with his 50-plus years of political experience, which is to say the standing to order him around.

Another longtime Washington veteran, George H.W. Bush, used to shut down conversations by saying, “If you’re so smart, why am I president and you’re not?”

To get through to Biden, Sipple offered one further bit of advice. “You’ve got to speak truth to power,” he said.

“You can’t hide something like this from the American people. You just have to say, ‘Mr President, if you want to continue in your job and you want to earn a second term and serve a second term, you’re going to have to turn over something of a new leaf.’ Because the polling data couldn’t be more clear on ‘He’s too old, he doesn’t act like a vibrant human being.’”

Call it an appeal to ego, vanity or stark political reality. Biden is standing with one foot in his political grave. He doesn’t want to be buried come November.

Mark Z. Barabak is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, focusing on politics in California and the West.