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You know presidential candidates are getting older when TV comedians are using it as a main joke. In a recent monologue, David Letterman said, "Bob Dole is calling himself an optimist. I understand this, because a lot of people would look at a glass as half empty. Bob Dole looks at the glass and says, `What a great place to put my teeth.' "

And Jay Leno said, "Bob Dole's senior aides are urging him to hurry up and make his list of potential choices for vice president. Searching for a vice president doesn't bother me. What bothers me is that Bob Dole has senior aides. How old are they - 90, 100? I mean, senior aides?"If Dole were to be elected in the 1996 presidential election, he would be, at age 73, the oldest president ever to take office. (Ronald Reagan, the oldest to date, was just shy of 70 when he was inaugurated in 1981.) Because Dole is frequently teased about that distinction, he often addresses it. In answer to the popular joke, "Dole IS 96!" he playfully suggests he is considering making the 93-year-old South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond his running mate - "to bring generational balance to the ticket."

But it was Reagan who most effectively diffused the age issue. In a 1984 debate with the much younger Democratic candidate, Walter Mondale, Reagan put his tongue firmly in his cheek and said, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."

It is demonstrably true that despite the fact that advancing age may bring physical and/or mental problems, it may also bring invaluable experience and wisdom.

But regardless of how lightly we may take the issue of age in a presidential race, some presidents have been incapacitated in office, and it isn't all related to age. Woodrow Wilson, who was only 56 when elected, suffered a neurological illness and was unable to function for 17 months while serving as president. Warren Harding, who was elected at the age of 55, had heart trouble and died only two years after taking office, probably of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was a comparatively young 51 when he was elected, suffered from polio and heart failure, even though he managed one crisis after another for 12 stressful years before he died in office. Dwight Eisenhower, who was elected at 62, suffered three major medical emergencies in office, including a stroke and a heart attack.

Even John F. Kennedy, who was our youngest elected president at 43, suffered serious health problems, including Addison's disease, a slow-moving cancer of the adrenal system. Before any of those health problems could catch up with him, he was assassinated. Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy at the age of 55, had suffered a serious heart attack before becoming president, then eventually died of one after he left office.

On the other hand, presidents often live far beyond the normal age expectancy. Our first eight presidents lived to an average age of 79.4 years, including John Adams, who set an all-time record for presidents of 90 years, 197 days. In the 20th century, Herbert Hoover also lived to be over 90. Several presidents, such as Truman, Madison, Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Reagan - have survived into their 80s.

More presidents than not have exceeded the life span of their chief rival in the opposing party. It may very well be that the pressures and obligations of the presidency serve as a life-extending stimulant. Although all presidents are frequently criticized, they also receive many accolades and better care than anyone else in the country.

Besides, if the life expectancy of white males in the United States is 73.7 years, those who reach their 72nd birthday (such as Dole) can expect to live another 11.3 years. That means that senior citizens are more likely to live longer and be healthier in the 20th century than they were in the 19th century. In fact, when the oldest president ever elected, Reagan, was succeeded by 65-year-old George Bush, it was the first time the country had ever had two senior citizen presidents in a row.

In fact, senior citizens that year (1988) dominated all three branches of government. In Congress, they held all four of the top positions - speaker of the House, majority leader of the Senate, and minority leaders in both houses, as well as five of the nine Supreme Court justices. Moreover, the vice presidency has become famous for its inclusion of senior citizens. Eight - or almost one-fifth of the nation's 45 vice presidents - began at least one term after passing their 65th birthdays.

All four of the senior-citizen vice presidents of the 19th century died in office, but none of those who served as vice president in the 20th century either died in office or suffered serious health problems. Alben Barkley, for instance, who served with Harry Truman, was inaugurated in 1949 at the age of 71. He holds the record as the oldest inaugurated vice president.

Yet Barkley campaigned energetically and conducted the most active vice presidency the country had yet known. Barkley was even characterized by one of his political opponents, Republican Robert Taft, as a "horse for work," and as possessing "a quick, muscular and resourceful brain." But in 1952, when the then 75-year-old Barkley sought the presidential nomination, he was not taken very seriously.

The 1996 presidential election promises to be the biggest test of the age issue, partly because Dole's election would be a record, and partly because he and President Clinton represent the biggest generational gap the country has ever seen. If elected to a second term, Clinton will be 50, making him young enough to be Dole's son.

Besides age alone, Dole suffers some effects of his war wounds - he has only one kidney, a useless right arm and limited sensation in the fingers of his left hand. More recently, he was treated for prostate cancer. On the other hand, his doctors assert that today he is in good physical shape for a man in his 70s.

Clinton ranks as one of our younger presidents, having been elected when he was 46. He has no serious health problems, although he takes frequent ribbing from comedians because of his considerable girth and his propensity for fast foods. To be realistic, he is also approaching the age when several past presidents have suffered strokes or heart attacks.

The two men share one odd but trifling health problem - esophageal reflux - the stomach acid backup that occasionally caused hoarseness for Clinton during the 1992 campaign. Age, of course, has nothing to do with that problem.

The average age of American presidents falls in the mid-50s, with 22 having been elected during that decade of their lives. On the other hand, Theodore Roosevelt was our youngest president, at 42, Kennedy was 43, U.S. Grant was 46, Grover Cleveland was 47, James Garfield was 49, Franklin Pierce was 48, James Polk was 49, and Bill Clinton was 46.

Conversely, John Adams, Andrew Jackson and Gerald Ford were 61; William Henry Harrison, who died in office, was 68; Zachary Taylor was 64; James Buchanan was 65; Harry Truman was 60 and Dwight Eisenhower was 62. Because even Reagan was still 69 at the time of his election, Dole is bucking a historical trend.

We live in an era when age is more respected than it has ever been before, and when it is more likely that a person in advanced years will enjoy good health. So it is not surprising that a president in his 70s is more likely to be taken seriously than in the past. Whatever the decision of the electorate, the 1996 election will be a true conflict of generations.

Nevertheless, with an increased sensitivity to age and ageism, the Democrats should probably beware of using ads that show Newt Gingrich next to Dole with the voice-over: "Their old ways don't work," or making statements criticizing Dole's speeches as examples of "tired, old, worn-out rhetoric."

Age is no measurement of competence, and sooner or later, all politicians are going to reach their 70s. Besides, Americans concerned about the ages of their own leaders need only look at South Africa's president, Nelson Mandela, who is 78, China's Jiang Zemin, who is 69, Indonesia's Suharto, who is 74, or Taiwan's Lee Teng-hui, who is 73.

At 62, Boris Yeltsin, who is running for re-election as Russian President, is considerably younger than Dole. A recent study of the 25 most powerful foreign nations found the average age of heads of state is 61.

In fact, many political leaders around the country tend to fall into the senior citizen category. Since a 50-year-old president who is overweight may create as many concerns as a 70-year-old president who has been treated for prostate cancer, it is probably time to measure candidates on their merits alone.