For those who don’t read the Sydney Morning Herald either in print or online, here’s the text of my column today. What are your thoughts?
Question: what do Tina Turner, Seamus Heaney, Ralph Lauren, John Cleese, Sir David Frost, and Francis Ford Coppola have in common?
Answer: Like our prime minister, they all turn 68 this year. And, again like John Howard, they are all still working and, again like him, probably don’t feel ready for the scrap heap yet.
John Howard turns 68 today. The cacophony of cruel comments about his age has been quite extraordinary.
Some of it, such as Labor’s YouTube climate change ad, is politically motivated. Howard’s opponents from all sides (including his own) evidently think that in political warfare any weapon is fair.
But I am also detecting some straight out prejudice, particularly in the media, towards people in their 60s who are brutally dismissed as “old”. If 60 is old, what is 80? Let alone 100 – the age an increasing number of us will reach.
I see examples everywhere. A few weeks ago, a tourist who died in an accident in the Kimberley was described as “elderly”. She was 60. I wondered whether the reporter would use the same word to describe Glenn Close, the fabulous – and stunning looking – American actress.
Just this week, Close signed up for a six-year stint playing Patty Hewes, the lead character of Damages, a new TV drama described by The New York Times as a “cloak-and-dagger legal thriller”. Close turned 60 in March, which means she will be playing Hewes until she is 66.
But then American television has always been more tolerant of older – even old – people. Andy Rooney, who does weekly commentary for 60 Minutes, is 88, which makes Barbara Walters, who at 77 still produces regular specials such as her Academy Awards interviews, look like a spring chicken.
Australian television, with a few honourable exceptions in news and current affairs, by contrast, favours the young and the good-looking, regardless, it often seems, of talent. Experience is no longer required.
It’s starting to seem the same in politics. Howard stumbles – over a name or walking into a building – and it’s evidence he’s too old. Kevin Rudd, age 49, does the same thing and it’s a slip of the tongue. Howard was sneeringly described in the press over the weekend as joining the “old man’s club” of politics, as if he is so decrepit he is unable to function. And he’s only 68, for heaven’s sake.
Most world leaders are in their 50s and 60s. When Howard hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Sydney in a few weeks, the person most likely to feel out of place because of his age is the President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, who is only 44. Eleven of the 21 leaders attending are in their 60s and one – Sir Michael Somare – is in his 70s. If India – which is seeking to join APEC – is allowed entry, its Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, who is 74, will push the average age up even further.
We like to look fondly at the youth of charismatic leaders such as John Kennedy who was 43 when he became the US president, and Bill Clinton who was 46. If Barack Obama, who will turn 46 next month, becomes the 44th president, he will continue that trend. But most US presidents are older. Ronald Reagan was 69 (older than Howard – and stayed in the job till he was 77), Gerald Ford was 61, Richard Nixon was 56 and George Bush was 54 on entering the White House.
The next US president is likely to be the 59-year-old Hillary Clinton, who is already talking about her second term. If she achieved that, she would be almost 70 by the time she stepped down – the same age Howard will be if he gets to keep this week’s promise to stay two years if he wins this year’s election.
In other words, Howard’s age is hardly remarkable. He certainly does not qualify to join “the Elders”, the group of former world leaders established recently by the 89-year-old Nelson Mandela, who points out that between them they have more than a thousand years of collective experience.
But then Howard would never qualify for a group that includes Desmond Tutu, Mary Robinson, Aung San Suu Kyi and other visionary and progressive leaders.
It’s not the Prime Minister’s age that is the problem – it’s his policies. I can think of dozens of reasons not to vote for Howard: child care, asylum seekers, education funding, children in detention, paid maternity leave, the war in Iraq, climate change, Work Choices, Mohamed Haneef – to name a few.
These are areas of policy and politics where, in my view, he has changed this country in often horrifying ways. These are what we should be debating and attacking Howard for. Not his age.