For two weeks, the pundits of 1984 spoke of little else but whether Ronald Reagan, at nearly 74, was too old to be president.
They did so primarily because of his performance in the first presidential debate with former Vice President Walter Mondale. What little traction Mondale did get following that debate was more or less halted a few days later when Vice President George H.W. Bush and Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro spent 90 minutes debating each other, and then neither was perceived to be the winner.
That meant that, to beat the already longshot odds against him, Mondale would have to beat Reagan decisively in the second debate, held 30 years ago tonight in Kansas City.
The debate was intended to be about foreign policy, and it started out that way with questions about Central America, the Soviet Union and regions that were crucial to American interests. The age issue didn't come up right away. It was the elephant in the room, though, that Henry Trewhitt of the Baltimore Sun finally confronted.
It was kind of hard to work in. Trewhitt tried to "cast it specifically in national security terms." Nice try. It served only as a straight line for Reagan.
"You already are the oldest president in history," Trewhitt said to Reagan. "And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?"
It took maybe 25 or 30 minutes to get to it, but, when it did, Reagan had a disarming response that he obviously had been holding for just the right moment.
"I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign," Reagan asserted. "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
Everyone laughed, including Mondale, who must have realized that his last opportunity to seize the momentum was gone. Trewhitt gave Mondale an opportunity to speak about Reagan's age, and he did so, prefacing his remarks with his insistence that Reagan's age had not been made into an issue — which, of course, it had.
"What's at issue here," Mondale said, "is the president's application of his authority to understand what a president must know to lead this nation, secure our defense and make the decisions and the judgments that are necessary."
His argument wasn't terribly persuasive. I got the impression he knew that as he was giving his response.
To his credit, Reagan was more on top of things when he gave his closing statement than he had been when he made his closing statement in the first debate. It wasn't a meandering mess like the last one; it was the folksy kind of anecdote for which Reagan was famous. He told a story of how he was asked to write a letter that would be placed in a time capsule that would not be opened for 100 years.
Reagan spoke of driving along the California coastline, trying to organize his thoughts. It was made more complex, he said, by the fact that those who read the letter would know all about Reagan's time and whether the people of that time had met the many challenges they faced. He transitioned into a plea for another four years "to complete the new beginning that we charted four years ago."
Reagan ran out of time and was cut off before finishing his closing statement, but it was a huge improvement over the statement he made at the end of the first debate.
When the debate was over, both sides claimed victory. But both sides knew the truth. In the first Gallup Poll following the debate, Reagan's approval rating stood at 58% — precisely the share of the vote he would receive on Election Day, Nov. 6, 1984.