BOB DOLE went home to the comforting embrace of Russell, Kansas, last night to celebrate (if that is the right word) his 73rd birthday. Throughout the long campaigning day, which started with a visit to a Washington senior center where he could play the role of the young geezer, he was confronting the inevitable if understated key issue of the election race -- his age.
Politically incorrect though it may be, the nation cannot and should not ignore the 23-year age difference between the prospective Republican presidential nominee and Democratic incumbent Bill Clinton. A CBS News-New York Times poll reported that 34 percent of 979 respondents -- and 40 percent of those over age 65 -- thought age would be an obstacle to a Dole presidency. Nevertheless, two-thirds of senior citizens voted for the former Senate majority leader in the GOP primaries.
Mr. Dole's doctors report the candidate is in good health. His cholesterol count of 154 would be the envy of many persons much younger. His weight is steady, his blood pressure 110 over 74. Yet he almost died of World War II combat injuries and is the nation's most famous prostate cancer survivor. Less measurable: his extraordinary drive, discipline and determination.
The federal Center for Health Statistics calculated in 1992 that a white male 73 years old would live an average of 10.7 more years. Thus, a healthy septuagenarian in the White House could have a reasonable expectation of being able to serve at least one and even two terms.
Mr. Dole has vowed to choose a vice presidential running mate who is not only younger than he but in excellent health -- a factor that might eliminate some of those prominently mentioned in pre-convention speculation. What he has not done, and rightly so, is to pledge to be a one-term president. Although that would free him from the perpetual election campaign that plagues modern politics, it would cost him too much leverage in Congress.
In seeking to put the age issue behind him, Mr. Dole has pledged to set up an independent medical review commission to monitor his physical and mental condition. But whether and how his presidential powers could be transferred temporarily to the vice president in event of his disability remains a matter of conjecture, the 25th amendment to the Constitution notwithstanding.
Meantime, let all Americans put aside partisanship to wish a happy birthday to Bob Dole, a man who has survived physical setbacks and political defeats in daring to be the oldest man ever inaugurated president for the first time.
Pub Date: 7/23/96