NOTIONS: Let’s recognize that age has little to do with ability

The U.S. presidential campaign ran headlong into Martin Luther King Day last week. On the Democratic side, where the leading candidates are a white woman, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and a black man, Sen. Barack Obama, the juxtaposition triggered pointed conversation-between the candidates and among their advocates and the electorate-about race and gender.

Lost in the point/counterpoint on the candidates’ DNA were some less-noted but equally unfriendly jabs on the subject of age.

Speaking at an MLK Day ceremony in Columbia, S.C., at which all three Democratic candidates appeared, Sen. John Edwards saluted Obama as an “extraordinary, young African-American man,” while Clinton called Obama a “talented young man.”

The New York Times reported that “disapproving murmurs spread” when Clinton called Obama “young.” Perhaps the crowd included spectators “old” enough to remember an ugly era, not so long ago, when even the most talented, extraordinary African-American man of any age was called “boy.”

Clinton, 60, is, of course, trying to make this election about experience. This puts her in the awkward position of being a woman who actually wants to talk about her age. Obama, after all, is “only” 46.

And so, all along the campaign trail, Clinton has referred over and over to her “35 years of experience.”

Now, the question of how one has spent one’s years is fair game in love and politics. But the accusatory “you’re too young” is as devoid of context and as fraught with peril as “you’re black” or “you’re not a woman, so you wouldn’t understand.”

Context: Obama is 46. So was Bill Clinton, Hillary’s husband, when he became president. So was Ulysses S. Grant when he became president.

Teddy Roosevelt was 42, John F. Kennedy, 43, Grover Cleveland, 47, Franklin Pierce, 48, James K. Polk and James Garfield 49.

The Founding Fathers specified that one must be over 35 to be president, not over 50, or Hillary’s 60 or Sen. John McCain’s 71.

More context: If age and experience were all that mattered, Hillary’s husband would have gotten his keister kicked in 1992 by incumbent President George H.W. Bush. At the time, Bill Clinton was an upstart governor from a state (Arkansas) with a smaller population than Obama’s old stomping ground, Chicago.

The elder Bush, who was 68 when he ran against Clinton, had flown 58 combat missions for the U.S. Navy, been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, been U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; and had served as U.S. liaison to China, director of the CIA, two terms as vice president and one as president.

But “young” Bill Clinton had the audacity to talk about hope, tomorrow and bringing people together. Kinda like Hillary’s “young” opponent today.

When I was hired as a mayoral press secretary at age 22, the mayor’s chief of staff was 21. Reporters constantly referred to him as “21-year-old Mark Angel.” They didn’t refer to the city personnel director as “57-year-old” or the board of works chairman as “45-yearold.” Yet because of his youth, Mark had to be identified by age.

Things haven’t changed much in the last 30 years. We recently hired a talented marketing communications pro at our company. He dazzled people with his energy, aggressiveness and style. But some uttered concern that he might be too “young.”

Well, he’s 31. So I reminded folks that a friend of mine, who’s CEO of a competing agency here in town, is 27. And that I was 26 when a $30 million East Coast shop hired me.

While working in that job, I grew fond of an advertising series created by United Technologies Corp.

The ads, nicknamed “Gray matter” (after then-UTC chairman Harry Gray), ran in The Wall Street Journal. They offered simple messages about life and work. While they said nothing about the company’s products, they said everything about the company’s values – the kind that might prove worthwhile today for presidential candidates or anyone else.

A favorite that I’ve kept all these years bears the headline: “It’s What You Do-Not When You Do It.” It reads:

Ted Williams, at age 42, slammed a home run in his last official time at bat.

Mickey Mantle, age 20, hit 23 home runs his first full year in the major leagues.

Golda Meir was 71 when she became prime minister of Israel.

William Pitt II was 24 when he became prime minister of Great Britain.

George Bernard Shaw was 94 when one of his plays was first produced.

Mozart was just seven when his first composition was published.

Now, how about this?

Benjamin Franklin was a newspaper columnist at 16 and a framer of The U.S. Constitution when he was 81.

You’re never too young or too old if you’ve got talent.

Let’s recognize that age has little to do with ability.

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at

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