It’s summer reading time, and this year my summer reading includes Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 biography of Abraham Lincoln called, “Team of Rivals.” It’s all about how Lincoln stocked his administration with men who were his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. It’s extremely detailed with lots of great material about Lincoln’s life and, more importantly, a glimpse into his mindset. A small part of it was the basis for the Spielberg film, “Lincoln” where the 16th president was portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis.
This year, we’re commemorating the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Lincoln was 54 when he delivered it. Less than two years later, he would be dead. So the Great Emancipator never made it out of his 50s. His entire presidency ran from less than a month after his 52nd birthday to a couple of months after his 56th birthday. It’s a bit unsettling to think that I have already lived longer than Lincoln ever did.
I have done some research and found that Lincoln was not unusual in being in his 50s while president. According to Wikipedia, the median age when our U.S. presidents took office is 54 years and 11 months. Most of our presidents served at least part of their term while in their 50s. The list of presidents who served their entire term while in their 50s includes (in addition to Lincoln), Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Rutherford B. Hayes, Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Taft, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.
What I glean from this is that our society feels that people in their 50s can be trusted with the reins of government. They have enough experience through more than a half-century of living so that their judgment is sound, and yet they are not so old that they no longer have the energy to do the job. Looked at this way, being in your 50s is the sweet spot in life. You’re at the precipice of ability. Oh sure, there’s a long slope to senility ahead. But for now, for many in their 50s, it’s the top of the world.