CONCORD, N.H. -- Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander was asked whether, as a result of Sen. Bob Dole's much-criticized television response to President Clinton's State of the Union address, he thought the Senate Republican leader was too old to be president.
The question was an obvious one in light of many comments, even among fellow Republicans, that Senator Dole had indeed appeared old and haggard.
It also was a question long hanging over the candidacy of the 72-year-old Dole, who would be the nation's oldest president when elected. Ronald Reagan was 69 when he entered the White House in 1981. It was a question that Mr. Dole's opponents never raised themselves and seldom answered directly. Mr. Alexander didn't, either.
What he did say was that Mr. Dole's age was a question "for voters to decide for themselves." He contended that "it's not Senator Dole's time," adding he was only observing "what a lot of Republicans are privately thinking" after seeing the senator's somewhat strident harangue on Mr. Clinton as "the last defender of a discredited status quo." Senator Dole made that observation despite the president's proclaiming that "the era of big government is over."
Mr. Alexander was certainly correct in reporting what Republicans were saying privately after Mr. Dole's response. Mr. Alexander himself for weeks had been alluding indirectly to the senator's age by suggesting he was generationally out of step and recommending that the Republican Party tell him: "We appreciate your long service in the Senate but you're not the man to debate Bill Clinton in the fall."
Now Mr. Alexander was able to point to the unfavorable juxtaposition of the forceful and youthful President Clinton with the stiff and old-looking Senator Dole to make his point. Candidates Phil Gramm and Pat Buchanan were quick to do the same, without mentioning Mr. Dole's age specifically. Mr. Buchanan even dismissed age as a factor in his rap, pointing out that President Reagan "was of Dole's generation" and had no trouble effectively projecting his vision of the future.
Mr. Buchanan argued that the senator's shortcoming was not his age but his weakness as a television communicator. But one prominent Republican political consultant put it this way: "The reality is that [Mr. Dole's response] will start the age talk." And so it has.
At the same time, Mr. Dole's somewhat testy reaction to his critics is likely to resurrect concerns about his short fuse, which got him in considerable trouble in his race for vice president in 1976 -- his blast at "Democrat wars" in debate with Walter Mondale. It happened again in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988 -- his charge to George Bush to "stop lying about my record."
Senator Dole has been well aware this time around of the imperative of keeping his acid tongue in check, and he has done a pretty good job of it so far. But there isn't much he can do about his age except to demonstrate his energy and mental sharpness. This too he has done well, using the challenge of the rigorous budget battle in Washington to show he is fit for the larger challenges of the presidency.
But whether it was fatigue, poor lighting in a bad setting, or
insufficient time to prepare a better and less cranky reply to the president's speech, Mr. Dole's performance and appearance gave his opponents and critics an opening to raise public concerns about whether he is too old to tackle the bigger job.
Shades of Reagan
This is not the first time that speculation over a presidential candidate's age has been a factor in a national campaign. It haunted Mr. Reagan in 1980, when he was 69, but he overcame it with his appearance and his talent as a television communicator.
Again in 1984, when a poor performance in debate against Mr. Mondale resurrected questions of Mr. Reagan's age, then 73, he demolished them with a flash of wit. Asked in a subsequent debate whether he could function under the kind of pressure President John Kennedy had faced in the Cuban missile crisis, Mr. Reagan made the mock-serious pledge that "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." That took care of the age issue.
Senator Dole doesn't need to take a back seat to anybody when it comes to the snappy, comic retort. At the same time, as Mr. Buchanan notes, the senator is not the television communicator Mr. Reagan was. If he looks and sounds old in subsequent spotlight appearances, he will have a harder time tossing off the age issue with a clever quip or two.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.