Read the rest of our Happy Birthday, Mr. President package.
Just because someone is 80 doesn’t mean they shouldn’t look to their elders for advice. As Biden celebrates his 80th birthday, there are lots of people who have already sailed through that milestone out there, so I asked members of the cohort he’s joining, octogenarians, if they had any wisdom to offer our president—or really, any thoughts to share about how ol’ Joe is doing. My friends had lots of suggestions—perhaps he should take up a new hobby?—but were mixed on the small question of whether he should run for another term.
“Stay connected to young people,” said Marian Zelasky, an 87-year-old in North Carolina, when asked what Biden should focus on. “Even if you have to go out and look for them.” Zelasky practices what she preaches—she has 10 grandchildren who serve as her links to the youth.*
She also thinks that Biden ought to keep exercising his mind. She’s doing that by taking a class on Theodore Roosevelt. On that note, maybe he should try meditation? She acknowledged that might be a hard sell. “I’m not sure I could convince any of my 80-year-old friends to meditate,” Zelasky said.
“I can only imagine the stress that he will be under If he seeks another term and wins,” said Buck O’Leary, an 84-year-old in Washington, D.C. O’Leary recommended that an 80-year-old Biden try something new, and ideally something stress-relieving. For him, that’s been guitar lessons. “Will it be a waste of time? Very possibly. Then my arthritic fingers change chords? Can my brain keep up with the chord changes and the rhythm? Who knows? But you know, I’m giving it a shot.” He’s currently working on learning “Girl From the North Country.”
One reason Biden might not want to retire is simply because it’s boring. O’Leary certainly thought so when he first took the plunge. “I wouldn’t recommend retirement to Biden, but whether he wants to tackle that job for an additional four years, I would understand if he decided that he didn’t want to run,” he said. Later, he added via email, “You have to do something in your 80s, so maybe why not be president? President Biden certainly has the experience, and who is the Democratic alternative?”
I wanted to get a little representation from Slate’s 80 Over 80, the list the magazine put together a few years ago of the 80 most influential Americans older than 80, so I reached out to a bunch of them. I heard back from Rep. Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat and highest-ranking Black legislator in Congress. His advice was brief, but pointed: “Stay the course,” he offered through a spokeswoman. Any chance he was referring to 2024? Unclear, but thanks, Rep. Clyburn.
I also got in touch with Jane Campbell, a short story writer who Slate recently featured for publishing her first book at the age of 80. She shared the following: “On this date, Joe, it is important to remember that, while we certainly know more than most, as Plato once said, actually nobody knows anything.” Something tells me Biden wouldn’t contest that.
“Joe Biden has been mostly a pleasant surprise to me,” Jack Cargill, an 81-year-old retired professor in Marshall, Texas, said to me in an email. Cargill did not vote for Biden in the Democratic primary, but voted for him in the general. However, he would prefer if he didn’t run again.
“Joe deserves our thanks and praise for saving our political system in its darkest hour,” Cargill wrote. “Having done that, let him go into a deserved retirement from the fray, confident in the gratitude of all honorable citizens. Let us not risk him dying or being incapacitated in office; he should make the conscious and public decision not to run again.” But will he vote for him again if he does run? Begrudgingly, yes, he said.
Helen, an 81-year-old American who lives in Costa Rica (and asked that I not use her real name so she could speak candidly about politics), strongly disagrees. “Don’t listen to the naysayers who grumble about your age,” she offered as advice to Biden in an email to me. “Look around at the idiots who are considered ‘young.’ ” Helen also recommended that Biden stay active, follow his conscience, and “keep on rebutting the Republican bullshit!”
Like Biden, Arjay Morgan, an 84-year-old in Zephyrhills, Florida, originally hails from coal-mining country in Northeastern Pennsylvania. “We coal crackers are tough as old leather, so if he wants to run for a second term, I say ‘Go for it, Joe,’ ” he wrote to me.
Morgan said that growing up, he and Biden’s values were both shaped by where they came from: “You never give up. You don’t mind being the underdog because given time and persistence you can become the upperdog.” They may both be in their 80s now, but “I’d advise him to stick to the values of his roots,” Morgan said.
Also like Biden, Morgan eventually left Pennsylvania for opportunities elsewhere. “I don’t think either one of us regrets our paths in life, so my advice to Biden is keep on keepin’ on.”
Correction, Nov. 20, 2022: This article originally said Marian Zelasky has nine grandchildren. She has 10.