On Jan. 8, 2008, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece by Gloria Steinem in which she attempted to parse the role of sexism and racism in the Democratic Primary race, which by that time had dwindled down to just two candidates — Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Although some disagreed with the analysis of the two candidates within the contemporary political arena, Steinem raised important new questions to the historical debate of which of the two identities was more salient with the American public — race or sex, stating,
“So why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one? The reasons are as pervasive as the air we breathe: because sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was; because anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects “only” the female half of the human race…”
However, given that the Republican Party seems to have finally settled on a candidate and will begin to garner the support and build the strength that they believe will be necessary to continue their foothold in the White House, a new factor must be brought into this equation; the issue of age — specifically of John McCain’s age — has only begun to get serious attention from the media. To date, the issue of McCain’s age has either been the butt of jokes on late night television or the focus in the conversation about his health. However, it seems that the issue of age is starting take on an entirely new character within a democratic contest that has honed in on change in the status quo, and will only become that much more prominent and pertinent as the country inches towards the November election.
In a piece yesterday by the ABCNews Polling Unit, it was evident that in a match-up with McCain vs. Clinton or McCain vs. Obama, both Clinton and Obama have an edge over McCain; each appeals to general electorate in his/her own ways. However, the piece offers that “Obama’s race still rates as a slight net positive for him, as does Clinton’s sex for her, compared with the net negative of McCain’s age. Americans by a 23-point margin are less enthusiastic about McCain given the fact that he’d be the oldest first-term president.” Whichever way the Democratic primary goes, the issue of age and how age relates to either sex or race will have to be given even more attention than in yesterday’s piece.
I tend to think that the age factor will be enormously important, particularly in the minds of newer and younger voters such as myself. In many ways, this era — with the Iraq war, the discontent with the established and current government, the failing economy and just the general lackluster and disillusioned feeling and morale of the American people — is analogous to the eras of the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights Movement. There is a certain hope and youthful vibrancy that is most clearly evident in Obama, semi-evident in Clinton and that seems entirely absent in McCain; even if McCain and the republican party were focusing on a campaign that promoted change (which they are not), his gray hair and overall aged appearance would entirely betray that message.
Although it may seem rather simple or small-minded, the only perceived benefit to McCain’s age is that he has an “old-timer appeal.” An appeal that might extend both to his fellow Vietnam Way veterans as well as senior citizens who may not only shy away from change but who may be entirely turned off by a candidate who not only would support policies that change the status quo of the government, but who by his or her very presence in the office would challenge the historical make up of our past presidents — white males with their white wives as first ladies.
Granted, my analysis of the age question may be viewed by many as being as off the mark as Steinem’s piece was. However, I think that in order to be informed, educated and active participants in this political arena, we must force ourselves to contextualize and problematize our candidates — both their politics and their demographic make-ups within our own historical and contemporary geography. Steinem forces her readers to consider the question, even if they do not agree with her conclusion; now I ask the same of you.
Thameka Thompson is a sophomore in Silliman College.