McCain's Age: Is It a Fair Issue?

Some of Sen. John McCain's strongest supporters are spending much of their time raising money for their pal, giving speeches for him, even accompanying the candidate on the campaign trail.

After all, the volunteers — many of them McCain classmates from the U.S. Naval Academy — have plenty of time on their hands. Almost all of them have been retired for years.

At an age when most Americans have taken up hobbies or mall walking, the 71-year-old presumptive GOP presidential nominee is hoping to become the nation's oldest newly elected president. If elected, McCain would be 76 at the end of his first term.

If there is any doubt that McCain's age is going to be an issue, just listen to the late night monologues.

"John McCain seems reinvigorated. He has a new campaign slogan: 'He'll lead you into the 21st century.' I like it better than the old slogan, which was 'He'll lead you into assisted living,'" riffed David Letterman, who likes to refer to McCain as the candidate who looks like "the old guy at the barber shop," "a Wal-Mart greeter" or "the guy at the supermarket who is confused by the automatic doors."

Most of the other candidates haven't raised the issue, leaving it to their surrogates.

Action star Chuck Norris, a Mike Huckabee supporter, tried to dent McCain's lead in the primary by estimating that the presidency triples the aging process. "If John [McCain] takes over the presidency at 72 and he ages 3-to-1, how old will he be in four years? Eighty-four years – and he can handle that kind of pressure in that job?" Norris reasoned.

McCain himself has tried to defuse the issue by joking that he's "older than dirt" and has "more scars than Frankenstein."

He has also hinted that he's not sure about a second term, saying "one term at a time."

If Republicans are laughing at the McCain jokes, it's a nervous laugh.

A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 27 percent of all voters were less enthusiastic about having McCain as the first 72-year-old president. While 67 percent said it didn't make a difference, that is still a big deficit for any candidate to overcome.

Along with his age, McCain's health has also become an issue since he had an operation in 2000 to remove melanoma from his left temple, as well as the surrounding lymph nodes and part of the parotid gland, which produces saliva.

"Everything's fine," McCain said Monday after one of his routine checkups. "Like most Americans, I go see my doctor fairly frequently." And he has vowed to release his medical records by next month.

McCain's presidency would be an exception to the trend in public service.

The average age at which federal employees retire is 59.5, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

At the FBI, agents face a mandatory retirement age of 57, although the director can extend that up to 2 years.

Frank Gamboa, 74, who was McCain's roommate for three years at the Naval Academy, retired 20 years ago.

But he doesn't think that his friend is too old for the job.

"There shouldn't be an age limit for the presidency. It all depends on intellectual capacity and health," he tells "I saw an article recently about world leaders and they mentioned Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Konrad Adenauer, Nelson Mandela who were all older than John and performed vigorously and capably in their jobs."

Yet other examples don't bode well. Ronald Reagan, although vigorous in his first term, started to slip in his second term and historians feel that he was suffering the early onset of Alzheimer's disease.

Other elderly presidents fared even worse.

"William Henry Harrison was 68 and his age was brought up during the presidential campaign," says Paul Bowler, presidential historian at Texas Christian University. "So, to prove his stamina, he exposed himself to cold weather and he walked a lot during the campaign. And he died a month after the inauguration. The ironic thing was that by exposing himself to the cold, he got sick and died."

And Bowler, who is 91 and retired from teaching in his 70s, notes that the presidency is a much more rigorous job now than it was in Harrison's time. "Back in the old days, they didn't have as much to do. Now it's an all-consuming job."

It's a legitimate concern to raise questions about McCain's health but not his age, says Dudley Panchot, the former chair of the Washington State Bar Senior Lawyers Section.

"I don't plan to vote for John McCain, might have voted for him eight years ago, but the reason has nothing to do with his age. Look, there's no age limit on the Supreme Court. If somebody becomes senile, you deal with it. The system works," Panchot said.

There are more elderly people in the work force and part of that is due to the aging population. The 85-and-older age group is the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. And the mandatory retirement age of 70 for federal workers was scrapped in 1979 and eliminated for college professors in 1993.

"As the baby boomers begin to get close to their 70s, they think of 70 as not being particularly old," says Mark Weaver, a Republican political strategist. "Voters don't care about age if they believe that you are physically and mentally sharp and John McCain is clearly both."