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STEVE SEBELIUS: Age only one factor for presidential candidates

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older myself, but I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and his recent health scare.

Sanders came to Las Vegas Oct. 1 to attend a forum on ending gun violence when he experienced chest discomfort. He ended up spending a few days at Desert Springs Hospital, where doctors diagnosed him with a heart attack and inserted two stents to open a blocked artery.

The procedure immediately sparked speculation about whether Sanders — the oldest candidate in the race at age 78 — would continue his campaign.

I met and interviewed Sanders several times during the 2016 campaign, and I can report this: He’s got more heart than almost anyone who’s ever served in the U.S. Senate. Whether you agree or disagree with him on the issues, no one can dispute he’s a dogged, relentless and passionate advocate for the things he cares about. And he’s been that way for decades.

Sanders pursued a grueling campaign schedule, holding multiple rallies in a single day, attending town halls, debates and other campaign events. He outworks and out-hustles people decades younger. When he started feeling more fatigued in recent months, his instinct wasn’t to slow down. “I should have listened to those symptoms,” Sanders told The Associated Press.

The Brooklyn-born senator can’t abide the thought of slowing down, even now. After telling the AP that he might “change the nature of the campaign a bit,” he roared back in an interview with NBC News saying he “misspoke” and would be campaigning just as vigorously as ever.

“We are going to get back into the groove of a very vigorous campaign. I love doing rallies and I love doing town meetings,” he told NBC.

He very clearly does love it: Sanders is never more happy than when he’s in front of a crowd of people explaining his plans to make sure every American enjoys health care through the Medicare program or how public college and university education should be free or how a tiny fraction of rich people in America own as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.

But even Sanders admits that health is an issue that voters are entitled to judge, along with a candidate’s position on the issues. “It is a factor, (but) so is what you’re standing for,” he says.

What should people think, NBC asked. Sanders replied: “People should think that I had a procedure which hundreds of thousands of people a year have, people should think that, according to the doctors, that I am on my way to a full recovery, people should think that I have an enormous amount of energy — and it is not what they think, it is what they’re going to see.”

Sanders isn’t the only older person in the race. Former Vice President Joe Biden is 76. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is 70. President Donald Trump is 73. On the other end of the spectrum, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is just 37.

Age has always been a factor in presidential campaigns. It led to one of the greatest debate clap-backs in history, when a Baltimore Sun reporter grilled then 73-year-old President Ronald Reagan about his age and stamina during a debate with Walter Mondale, then 56.

“I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” Reagan said, in an answer he’d obviously prepared in advance. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

It was a fine line, but it was undergirded by some truth: As candidates get older — as they accumulate life experience or serve in other offices, gain knowledge and maybe even some wisdom about the process — they get better at their jobs. Biden famously took office at age 29, and who would argue he wasn’t a better lawmaker by 2008, when Barack Obama selected him as vice president? Who could argue that most anybody gets better at their job the longer they do it and the more they learn?

On the other hand, there’s no doubt the presidency is a grueling, full-time-plus position that puts incredible stress on any person. The long, hard hours spent on the campaign trail are a kind of crucible that allows voters to see how a person responds to stress, long hours, little sleep and interactions that require swift and sure-footed responses to changing events.

Voters have every right to include age and physical infirmities when they consider a candidate for public office and judge whether they believe that person can handle the responsibilities and stress.

But they should also consider that one of our greatest presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, presided over the creation of the New Deal and led the nation through World War II while confined to a wheelchair. Even in a pre-television media age, he was able to comfort, inspire and steel the nation’s resolve when America needed it most.

Age is a factor. But it’s far from the only one.

Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0253. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.

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