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The story of youth versus experience in US presidential campaigns.

A zinger debate for history: ‘I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, the youth and inexperience of my opponent’

Reagan’s joke about not exploiting Walter Mondale’s youth and inexperience during the second and final debate of the 1984 campaign helped dispel the age issue.

David Longstreath/AP


Reagan’s age would become an issue in the 1984 general election.

In the first debate with mondalethe president got his facts wrong and delivered a inconsistent conclusion statement that left his own advisers worried about his chances that November.

Reporters wrote that Reagan’s hair was grayer and that his hearing aid was visible.

Some Democrats tiptoed past the president’s mental acuity.

“You can look tacky and it can backfire by making you look rude,” Dottie Lynch, who served as Hart’s head of polls, told The Miami Herald.

Others went straight for it.

“Reagan showed his age,” said Rep. Tony Coelho of California, chief of campaign operations for House Democrats. “The age issue is on the campaign trail now and people like me can talk about it, even if Mondale can’t.”

Then came Kansas City, the site of the second and final presidential debate.

Moderator Henry Trewhitt asked Reagan about staff members who said he was tired after his first debate with Mondale. He wanted to know if that could be detrimental if the president had to deal with a foreign policy crisis like the one Kennedy had to handle — with “very little sleep” — when Soviet missiles were being deployed in Cuba.

Reagan again relied on humor, to great effect.

“Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt, and I want you to know that I’m not going to make age an issue this campaign, either,” Reagan responded. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, the youth and inexperience of my opponent. If I still have time, I might add, Mr. Trewhitt, I might add that it was Seneca, or it was Cicero, I don’t know which, who said: ‘ If it wasn’t for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, I wouldn’t have been.'”

A few weeks later, Reagan won re-election in one of the most lopsided presidential elections in US history.

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