Reagan biographer Craig Shirley has advice for how Hillary can handle the age issue

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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My latest column for The Week is a response to Jonathan Martin’s New York Times piece on Republican attempts to make Hillary Clinton “old news.”

Martin, of course, notes that Reagan overcame similar concerns. This is true. And while everyone remembers Ronald Reagan defusing the “age issue” with humor in that famous 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, what fewer remember is that the age issue had been around a lot longer than that.

I asked Reagan biographer Craig Shirley to shed some light on how the age issue really impacted Reagan’s candidacy — and what lessons Republicans might learn as it pertains to Hillary.

“Reagan’s age was a big issue in 1979 and early 1980,” he told me in an email this morning. “Bringing up Hillary’s age would not be a ‘double standard’ as [Martin] alleged.”

“Everybody pummeled Reagan over his age at the time,” he recalled, before adding that “bringing up her age would be at best pointless.” As Shirley recalls,

“Between 1976 and 1979, GOP operatives including those from the Bush campaign conspired with some liberals in the media to destroy Reagan’s last candidacy by making the case—repeatedly—that Reagan would be too old to serve as president. What did not help was that because he was the frontrunner for the nomination, his manager, John Sears, took Reagan off the road for almost all of 1979, which only played into the Republicans rumor mongering game who charged that he dyed his hair, that he got a face lift, that he had wrinkles, on an on it went.


 As a consequence, it became the only thing everyone was talking about in politics in 1979 and early 1980. Every story about Reagan mentioned his age. By the end of 1979, in polling, when asked if they could support Reagan knowing he’d be 70 years old, a vast majority said no. It became known as ‘The Age Issue.’


 But it really wasn’t about his age. It was about the fact that he was not doing or saying anything so that only left his age for his enemies and the media and voters to focus on.


 It was only after Reagan took control of his own campaign and went out on the road, endlessly campaigning, saying interesting and compelling things, taking it to George H. W. Bush in the primaries and then to Carter in the summer and fall, was it banished.”

The lesson here is that Hillary can push back on the age issue by running a visibly vigorous campaign. She should eschew the “inevitability” argument in the primary, and demonstrate her energy via her dogged campaign style.

Shirley had some additional thoughts on how messaging can help reinforce a youthful image:

“The question is why JFK and Reagan were so successful with young voters? It was not because of JFK’s youth or because of Reagan’s age but because both spoke to young Americans about the future, about their futures, about responsibility, yes, but also about freedom and opportunity.


JFK’s slogan in 1960 was ‘Let’s get this country moving again’ and Reagan’s in 1980 was “The Time is Now.” Both suggest immediate action, both suggest a rejection of the status quo, which young voters tend to like anyway.”

Make sure to read my column at The Week on Hillary and the age issue here.

Matt K. Lewis