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Quickly, now: who’s the president of Egypt? Who’s the president of Mexico?

Ah, just as I thought. Like me, you can’t remember. (Mexico: Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Egypt: Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.) If you are like me, in fact, and your interests range even beyond current affairs in Mexico and Egypt, you barely knew their names in the first place.

So here’s an easier question: what’s the first name of the Prime Minister of Britain? What’s his last name? Are you certain? Did it come immediately to mind? No? You must be aging.

Which brings us to the subject of today’s sermon: the ongoing cataclysm that erupted when Joe Biden referred to the President of Egypt as the President of Mexico last week at a press conference. A recap for aged readers: Mr. Biden, unwisely, staged the scrum to rebut the findings of Republican special counsel Robert Hur’s investigation into Mr. Biden’s possession of classified material in less than secure locations. (Donald Trump is awaiting trial on similar but more extensive charges.) Mr. Hur’s report highlighted Biden’s leaky memory, and Biden didn’t help his case when, for instance, he recently referred to Helmut Kohl (deceased) as the current leader of Germany.

Mr. Hur’s 338-page report concluded there was insufficient evidence to bring charges against Mr. Biden, and very little chance of winning the case. “At trial,” Mr. Hur wrote, “Mr. Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview of him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

Cue the jackals. Mr. Biden’s 81; Mr. Trump will be 77 by the time the election rolls around this fall. That thin difference hasn’t stopped Republicans from transforming Mr. Hur’s dispatch into a torrent of political attacks. “If you’re too senile to stand trial,” Alex Pfeiffer, the PR director of a pro-Trump super PAC declared, “then you’re too senile to be president.”

By the end of this week, similar opinions were being repeated by Democrats as well. An experienced Liberal political strategist of my acquaintance called Mr. Biden’s gaffe “a mortal blow” to his presidential campaign.

Really? Show me someone of any age who hasn’t confused a name or detail in a public, pressurized setting. Yes, Mr. Biden couldn’t immediately remember the year his son Beau died, but have you ever forgotten your anniversary? My neighbour, who used to work in External Affairs, once embarrassed himself by publicly confusing Saddam Hussein (of Iraq) and King Hussein (of Jordan). Said neighbour was a sprightly thirtysomething at the time. The truth is that a president who displays no natural human flaws is not someone you want as a president. But that’s an idea we can’t allow ourselves to accept in our era of illusory technical perfection.

I realize you may have an objection here. You might say, come on, the president of the United States is precisely the guy who needs to remember the names of heads of state.

But that isn’t true. The president of the United States has countless advisers and researchers to keep him informed of who’s who and what they do, when and where and why. What the president needs to grasp in his mind, instead, is the big picture – the global significance of Mexico and Egypt, their usefulness to the U.S., and what can be conceded to them in return for what benefits.

The president, in other words, needs to take a long view. That perspective benefits from thinking slowly. Neurologists have long known that emotional regulation and the ability to sort and marshal relevant facts actually improve with age. The role of president demands the reflectiveness of Old Mind, not the fizzing fervor of a tech bro like Vivek Ramaswamy.

There is, in fact, zero public evidence Mr. Biden has lost sight of these larger goals. The U.S. economy has come roaring back from a global pandemic, an unprecedented event in human history. He has tamed inflation, re-energized the stock market (not that its soaring is indicative of economic health), and invested billions in U.S. infrastructure. His moral leadership – on Gaza, in Ukraine – is controversial but unmistakable, mainly because it attempts to thread multiple needles with multiple threads. True, Mr. Biden has a border-control problem. But that isn’t only a function of his presidency: nearly every democratic country in the world has a border crisis, brought on by an exodus of refugees from a growing number of authoritarian regimes.

Meanwhile Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden’s main opponent in the upcoming election, threatened this week to ask Russia to invade any country that hadn’t paid its NATO tab. No wonder media critic Rusty Foster, in his excellent Today in Tabs Substack, declared that “Joe Biden in a coma would be a better president than Trump. Arguably Joe Biden in a coma would be a better president than either candidate.”

Mr. Biden’s problem is not his lack of substance, but the onscreen image of his frailty – his halting gait, his verbal gaffes, his wispy voice, his faintly stuttering diction (a defining characteristic since he was elected to the Senate in 1972 at the age of 29.) And the nonstop conversation about his age is proof of how much attention we pay to image, especially when that image says old.

Why is it that we immediately, unconsciously, mistrust the elderly? Because they remind us that we’re all going to die? Because we assume that a hesitant gait automatically denotes a hesitant mind? There is no science to support that contention. George Soros, doyen of liberalism (worth $6.7-billion) is now 93. Rupert Murdoch, conservative kingpin ($22-billion) is 92. Jean Chrétien is 90 and still travelling, working and talking nonstop. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was 87 when she died, after 26 years on the U.S Supreme Court. Beverley McLachlin, Canada’s longest serving chief justice, is 80 and sits on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal.

Konrad Adenauer helped birth the European Union in his nineties. Roger Penske, who started the Penske Corporation and owns the Indianapolis 500, among several billion dollars worth of assets, is 86. Michael Bloomberg, engineer, entrepreneur, former New York City mayor and former presidential hopeful (at the age of 78), net worth $96.3-billion, is going strong at 82; a decade ago he was still flying his own helicopter. Warren Buffett, the Berkshire Hathaway genius, has finally started to step back, slightly, at 93. He’s worth $150-billion.

And those are just a few eminent and capable souls who are actually old. Their number doesn’t include younger leaders who kept leading even though their bodies were failing them. Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack in office; JFK had Addison’s disease (and IBS, and ulcers, and spinal malformations, to name just a few of his afflictions) unbeknownst to many. Should those men not have been president? Franklin Roosevelt’s health was in decline from the age of 39 on, and throughout the Second World War; he was dying from congestive heart failure when he was last elected for a (short-lived) fourth term in 1944, and had been propped up, to hide his paralysis, for years.

I was chatting with a group of older friends the other day (older than me, at any rate) when one of them said “In the middle of the second world war, what’s his name …”

“Churchill?” I said.

“Yes, Churchill, he had a serious stroke.”

Rob Ford smoked crack while he was mayor. Richard Nixon, George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Ontario premier Mitch Hepburn and Alberta premier Ralph Klein were all functioning alcoholics at the peak of their power. Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King suffered from depression. No problem! But momentarily confuse the names of a couple of leaders and you’re senile, incompetent, not worthy of office.

Then there’s Elon Musk, 52, who (among other ventures) quixotically controls access to the globe’s largest satellite system. What’s he worth, $230-billion? But he steadily uses ketamine to control his depressions, and often sleeps under his desk. Perfectly normal! Nothing to look at over here! Thank God he never makes a misstep.

Earlier this week I called Isadore Sharp. He’s the chairman of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, the empire he founded in 1960 and grew to the point where it now comprises 128 high-end hotels and resorts around the globe. He’s reportedly worth $500-odd million; the Saudis and Bill Gates own stakes in the company. He was in Palm Springs when I called him; it was late on a Monday afternoon, and he’d just finished playing bridge with his beloved wife, Rosalie, to whom Mr. Sharp attributes a great deal of his success. Mr. Sharp is 92. He gave up tennis two years ago. He stopped heli-skiing six years ago.

“Are there tasks you wouldn’t take on today, given your age, in running your company?” I asked over the telephone.

“No, because I’m still chairman of the company,” he said. He sounded good. “I’m still active enough to know exactly what’s happening and to be able to participate in a meaningful way.”

“Do you think you’re unusual in that regard?”

“No. It’s just a matter of your interests, the things that keep you going. I can’t imagine anything more interesting or more challenging than being the president of the United States.”

He paused for a moment. “As long as people keep their mind and body healthy – the brain is a muscle, and you have to keep it in shape. So, if you have lots of variety mentally, it keeps the mind working.”

“Is Biden’s confusing the names of leaders a deal breaker for you?”

“No way. Mixing up dates and names – I guarantee you, you have sometimes come across somebody you know very well and you can’t bring their name forward.”

He had been reading about Mr. Biden’s memory lapses, and what they portend. “There’s forgetting with a small F,” Mr. Sharp said, “and there’s forgetting with a big F. Forgetting people, getting people’s names wrong, mixing up dates, not remembering the time of an appointment – that’s small-F forgetting. Everybody runs into it.”

This is true. Human brain function peaks at 28; memory decay begins in one’s 30s. “The big F,” Mr. Sharp continued, “using Biden as an example, would be not remembering that he met the president of Egypt. That’s the difference. Those things you never forget.”

We tend to get slower and more careful as we age. But age, in and of itself, doesn’t indicate a weakness that prevents a leader’s ability to do his or her job, just as a physical disability – such as a stammer or using a walker – is not proof of mental incapacity.

“I used to be able to run down stairs two at a time,” Mr. Sharp said. “Today, I’m gonna go downstairs, I’m gonna make sure I’m close to the railing. You adapt to what your body is capable of doing. But that has nothing to do with your mind.”

If that’s true, Joe Biden’s age, and his mental age in particular, is no cause for alarm. The real problem is the political apparatus of North American democracy, a contraption so encrusted and stalled and sclerotic, and so repugnant and closed off to younger political energies, that the only viable candidates for president are two creaky old white guys, one more unpredictable than the other.

The choice in Canada (so far) isn’t much more palatable. Maybe it’s time we all grew up and admitted that a democracy is what we make of it.

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