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CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Seniors weigh in on young McCain

Is the 71-year-old too old to be president? By and large, his elders seem to think he could handle the job.

February 24, 2008|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

DOYLESTOWN, PA. — Frankie La Rosa likes everything about John McCain's politics. He likes his moderation. He likes his integrity. He even read one of his books. But when the primary rolls around here April 22, he plans to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Why? Because McCain, 71, would be the oldest president ever elected to a first term, and in La Rosa's book, that's just too old. La Rosa knows this because he's old, too -- 78. And if he had any doubt in his mind, the pain he woke up with this morning in his bum ankle only served to underscore the point.

"I've got my brain, but physically, you're kidding yourself," La Rosa says.

He has just finished a carton of red Jell-O and a banana at the back table of the Bagel Barrel, where some locals have gathered to talk politics. La Rosa is a retired financial advisor from Merrill Lynch, and his mind is as sharp as a Dow Jones spike. But he discovered after his second bypass surgery three months ago that you cross 75 and -- wham! -- you never know what's going to hit you.

"I had no symptoms. I was great. But I had a heart murmur nobody knew about and I had to have a new valve put in . . . ," he says. "The body just can't take it. I like McCain, I really do. But I am concerned about his age."

McCain's maturity hasn't stopped his march toward the GOP nomination. And most voters didn't have any pause electing Ronald Reagan at 69 and again at 73.

In this season of identity politics -- with women leaning toward Sen. Clinton (D-N.Y.) and African Americans toward Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) -- older voters do tilt toward McCain. He has held his own with the 60-plus set in most early primary states, though not by enormous margins. But many seniors seem drawn to the Arizona senator in spite of his age, not because of it.

So here in Pennsylvania -- where the retiree population is second only to Florida's in size, pensions aren't taxed and seniors zoom through the aisles of Acme supermarket on motorized carts -- we set out to ask older people, who are arguably best positioned to know: Is John McCain too old to be president?

"Hell no!" John Farrell, 83, said, on his way into Acme to buy food for his cat, Angel. He has just parked in a lot filled with Buicks and Chevrolets the size of battleships, this being the strip mall closest to two senior apartment complexes.

Farrell spent 21 years in the Navy. Military service, not age, is what he identifies with in McCain -- a former Navy fighter pilot who spent 5 1/2 years in a POW camp in Vietnam.

"Just because you're a little older doesn't mean you're senile," Farrell says, as a man on a little scooter with a big orange flag roars by.

At town hall meetings around the country, it's typical for at least one voter to ask McCain about his age. "I'm older than dirt, have more scars than Frankenstein," he likes to joke, but insists his memory is fine "except for hiding my own Easter eggs."

Still, his campaign takes pains to stress his vigor, asserting that the Arizona senator's breakneck schedule wears out his younger aides. McCain boasts that he can "outcampaign" candidates decades younger and that he hiked the Grand Canyon only two summers ago with his son Jack, "29 miles rim to rim in 130-degree heat." Periodically, he sandwiches himself between his 53-year-old second wife, Cindy, and his sprightly 96-year-old mother, Roberta, who, we are reminded, was once refused a rental car in Paris so she went out and bought one.

George Fisk, 85, a retired business administration professor, takes in this information, unimpressed. At 71 he was "going gangbusters," too. What puzzles him is not whether McCain can do the world's hardest job but why he'd want to.

"He ought to have his head examined," Fisk suggests.

Fisk lives at Pennswood Village in charming Bucks County, the Ivy League of retirement communities, filled with Princeton and Wellesley alums who glue themselves to C-SPAN. He and his friend Topper, aka Norman Cook, 84, a former television news director, have turned up this afternoon to discuss the age question.

"I could go out and work right now, if I could take a nap every afternoon," Fisk announces.

So what that McCain's face is lumpy from skin cancer surgery, or that bones broken during years of torture prevent him from raising his arms to comb his hair?

"I can't comb my hair either, but for a different reason," Fisk says, removing his black cap from his bald head for emphasis.

Being older than 70 doesn't mean you're washed up, these men agree, but the ominous weight of the presidency does give them pause, the more they think about it. What if he's called to action at 3 in the morning?

"He wouldn't have the acuity to handle it, that would be my fear," Fisk decides. "I mean at 70 I was still driving, but I had already totaled a couple of cars."

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