The importance of the age and health of presidential candidates has changed in recent years from Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy and now to John McCain.
The collective health of the president and vice president is important because, arguably, the president is the most powerful person on the planet, said Mack Shelley, Iowa State University professor of political science and statistics.
Shelley pointed out that Kennedy had the endocrine disorder Addisons disease, a bad back and wounds from World War II.
John F. Kennedy came into office with really terrible physical conditions, Shelley said. He was pretty much a walking emergency room.
Kennedy had health problems that the public may not have paid attention to because on the outside he looked healthy, Shelly said.
The champion of being able to hide a serious medical condition was Franklin Roosevelt, Shelley said, who was unable to walk on his own due to polio. The press worked with the White House staff to keep the seriousness of his polio-induced infirmity a secret.
Roosevelt would have to use special protected elevators so no one would see him enter or exit, Shelly said. He would use a limousine and park it in strategic locations to avoid being seen.
Referencing public appearances during which Roosevelt was standing up, Shelley said:
If you look at it carefully, you could tell that someone was propping him up.
However, Shelley said Roosevelts polio didnt affect his performance as a president.
He arguably was one of the greatest presidents, he said.
He cited the fact that Roosevelt was able to get through the Great Depression and war, even with his serious health condition.
Both Kennedy and Roosevelt had one thing in common: Their health problems were hidden from the public. Shelley said this has changed more recently with the current presidential election.
I dont think presidents now have the kind of protective cocoon that Franklin Roosevelt had, Shelley said. The media are a whole lot more inclined to focus on things such as candidates health than they were before because everybody is being videotaped.
Shelley said its been more a matter of candidates ages, not their health.
He said the media has been fair in reporting on the ages of both Obama and McCain, although Obamas smoking history is not being covered the same way McCains cancer history is.
I dont think its been out of line, Shelley said. The media has done a pretty good job of sensitizing the public to health-related issues of Obama and McCain.
Shelley said media bias in terms of presidential health depends of what media sources and outlets you depend on. He said if one watches programs like those with Keith Olbermann, then McCains health will be emphasized with talk about the implications of Gov. Sarah Palin succeeding him. On the other hand, he said, if one watches Fox News, the commentators will downplay McCains health problems and put a positive spin on them by saying McCain has survived so much that he must be in good health.
McCains health could be a serious concern in the minds of some voters because he is 72 and a cancer survivor. Shelley said. He just looks plain old to many viewers, and its common for people to draw an association between greater age and being more likely to be ill.
Shelley said Obama is more physically active than McCain because he plays basketball and jogs.
McCain isnt going to have the stamina that Obama has, given that Obama is a quarter of a century younger, Shelley said.
Despite this, Shelley said bothObama and McCain have really superb healthcare plans as members of the U.S. Senate.
People probably would be a little bit more likely to look for growth and vigor in a presidential candidate if the economy goes into a depression, he said.
This could work against John McCain, Shelley said.
Its likely that being from the very unpopular George Bushs party could interact with the impression that he is too old, Shelley said.
Many people hold the misconception that everyone becomes senile when they are old. That is not true, said Jennifer Margrett, assistant professor in human development and family studies. Chronological age is a proxy for other things. It doesnt tell you what you need to know about a candidate.
McCains age is considered young old age in gerontology, or the study of adult development and aging, Margrett said, and McCain shouldnt have any health problems if he were elected president.
He has a stimulating job, social support, money and access to health care, Margrett said. Senator McCain can also draw upon his past experiences and utilize the coping skills he developed earlier in life.
Margrett said if one looks at two 25-year-olds and two 80-year-olds, the 25-year-olds are more likely to have similar health patterns, while the 80-year-olds are more likely to differ in their health and functional patterns. Health and functioning in later life depend on many individual differences, based on the person and his or her environment.
There is much more diversity in later life than people anticipate, Margrett said. You cannot necessarily predict if any additional concerns will arise.
Margrett and Shelley said problems with age and health shouldnt be the deciding factor when choosing a candidate.
The worst thing people can do is to vote or not vote for a person solely based on age, Margrett said. Today, in industrialized countries, we are living longer and maintaining a higher quality of life well into older age.
Ultimately, age and health dont interfere with a persons ability to serve as president, Shelley said.
The simple fact that someone is in really bad health doesnt mean he cant perform. Shelley said. You can have a candidate with superb health die the next year, or you could have a candidate with terrible health survive through one or even two terms in office.