McCain and his age rule

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I haven’t met any of this year’s presidential candidates, but I have spoken with one. In the fall of 1990, I had a half-hour phone conversation with Senator John McCain.

The back story here is that I had just written a book on the airline industry and an editor at Reader’s Digest called and asked if I’d be interested in doing an article on the Age 60 Rule. The Age 60 Rule, which has since been amended, was a rule that forbade major airline pilots from flying once they had reached that age. It was a stupid rule, and I gladly accepted the assignment.

For years, the Federal Aviation Administration, in consort with the major airlines and pilots unions, had forced the retirement of pilots once they had reached those arbitrarily chosen three score years. Although their rationale was pseudoscientific (they insisted that once one reached 60, all sorts of horrible things would happen and you’d crash your plane), the real agenda was political.

The airlines wanted to lower payroll costs by getting rid of their most senior pilots, while the unions were full of younger guys who wanted to move up. The FAA was catering to both groups.

Somebody suggested that I talk with John McCain. After all, he had been a pilot and had an interest in the subject. So in the early fall of that year, I put through a phone call to his office in Arizona and we spoke.

I’m going on memory here, but my impression was of a man who was knowledgeable and level-headed. He fully understood the issue and knew that the FAA’s rule was full of baloney.

It was full of baloney for several reasons. The FAA had data purporting to show that airplane accidents rose dramatically once a pilot reached 60, but the data was skewed. Since there were no major airline pilots over the age of 60 (they having all been retired), the crash data for that age group came almost exclusively from general aviation.

General aviation means guys flying Piper Cubs and Beechcraft Bonanzas. These guys aren’t required to get semi-annual physicals or undergo proficiency tests, and they aren’t flying dependable jets on a strict maintenance schedule. General aviation has always had higher accident rates.

The military has no Age 60 Rule. NASA has no Age 60 Rule. Most foreign airlines have no Age 60 Rule. It was clearly a case of age discrimination—and John McCain knew it.

Now, fast-forward 18 years, and we have another age issue. Can a man 71 be trusted to take control of our country?

I’m in Senator McCain’s general age bracket, so I think my perspective has value. I see nothing to disqualify a septuagenarian from serving as president as long as he’s physically fit and mentally competent. If you set aside Senator McCain’s disturbing penchant for confusing who the al Qaeda are and whether we’re fighting the Sunnis or the Shiites, he seems pretty spry.

But I’m reminded of why groups like the Air Lines Pilot Association and the Airline Transportation Association continuously said that age 60 was the limit. It did not have to do with one’s ability or health; it had to do with the fact that youth must be served.

Leading a country is different from flying a plane. It’s not just a matter of competence; it’s a matter of understanding your passengers.

The median age in our country hovers around 25. The vast majority are people with another 40 to 70 years to go on this planet. Even if we oldsters may disagree with this age group’s thinking, they’re the ones who will have to live with the consequences of what is being decided.

Personally, I have been quite impressed by how Barack Obama has handled himself. The primary contests have been ugly and personal, yet he has never lost his cool. Just last week, I received a nasty piece of work over the internet showing a doctored picture of Obama over the headline: “Half-Honkey, All Donkey.” That’s the kind of mentality he’s up against. Yet he has never stooped to the personal and, of the three candidates, seems to have run the most effective campaign.

So, no, I will not be voting for John McCain in November. As capable as he is, I think his time has passed. He’s not the first competent politician to whom that has happened. Think of Tom Dewey, Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey and Bob Dole.

But youth will be served. We have a lot of young people now who have grown disgusted by what’s going on.

To me, it isn’t right to say: “Give us geezers another chance.”

We’ve had our chance. It’s their turn now.

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