Ronald Reagan, the oldest man to serve in the presidency, had a marvelous facility for defusing doubts about his ability at an advanced age -- 69 when he was elected, 73 when he won a second term and 78 when he left office.
He liked to quote Thomas Jefferson, who, he maintained, "said that we should never judge a president by his age, only by his work. And ever since he told me that, I've stopped worrying. And just to show you how youthful I am, I intend to campaign in all 13 states."
Well, as Mr. Reagan would say, prepare for the question of a candidate's age to figure in presidential politics once again, this time in 2008. That's because John McCain, who is already running in earnest for the Republican nomination, turned 70 on Tuesday.
Were the Arizona senator to be elected president in two years, he would be three years older than Mr. Reagan was in 1980. As Mr. McCain finished a political foray last week, his aides were prepping the media for the inevitable comparisons. "His health is fine," political strategist John Weaver told a McClatchy Newspapers reporter, saying that Mr. McCain is cancer-free six years after treatment for malignant melanoma. "Just this month, he backpacked the Grand Canyon from rim to rim with his son, he went on a weeklong tour campaigning for people, and he's about to lead a delegation on a multi-nation tour of Eastern Europe."
To underscore the point, Mr. Weaver pointed out that the senator's mother, "at 95, just returned from Europe, where she keeps a car and drove herself across the continent. He comes from good stock."
The question remains whether Mr. McCain, known for his prickly disposition, will be able to deflect honest questions about his physical and mental faculties in the jovial, self-deprecating manner Mr. Reagan employed.
When age came up in a 1984 debate, for example, the 73-year-old incumbent instantly deflated Walter Mondale, who was only 56, by declaring, "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
Still, Mr. Reagan died, in 2004, of complications from Alzheimer's disease, and there were indications even before he left office that he was slipping mentally.
For Mr. McCain, his presidential ambition will fare better if he deals with the question of age and health in a straightforward, nondefensive manner. By comparison, though, Ronald Reagan will be a hard act to follow.