Democratic Debate Retrospective: “The Sunshine Boys, 2019” starring Bernie Sanders as Walter Matthau and Joe Biden as George Burns

Former EPA Regional Administrator Alan J. Steinberg argues that after the latest Democratic debate, though Joe Biden remains a most significantly viable candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, his age is now a significant obstacle for him.

I remember like it was yesterday the first presidential debate in American history. The date was Monday, September 26, 1960, the candidates were Democrat US Senator John F. Kennedy and Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon, the moderator was Howard K. Smith, and the debate was telecast live from Chicago.

Now there is a reason I remember the date of the debate. As my readers well know, outside of my family and religion, politics and sports are the two major passions of my life. I grew up in Suburban Pittsburgh, and Sunday, September 25, 1960 was a most historic day in the history of Pittsburgh sports.

On that day, the Pittsburgh Pirates clinched their first National League pennant in 33 years, ironically in a losing effort in Milwaukee. People celebrated all night in “the Burgh,” but it would be an even more festive occasion of rejoicing in the Pittsburgh streets two weeks later on Thursday, October 13, 1960, when the Buccos won the 1960 World Series over the New York Yankees on Bill Mazeroski’s home run in Game 7.

The historic Kennedy-Nixon debate took place on the night after the pennant clincher. I watched with Mom and Dad.

Mom always delighted in my interest in politics, while Dad encouraged my sports fandom. Neither was a political crusader, but both were traditional New Deal Democrats whose favorite was Harry Truman.

Mom was the more political of the two. She had a special fondness for Adlai Stevenson, and she was genuinely disappointed that Adlai had been defeated by JFK at the Democratic National Convention the previous July in Los Angeles in his bid for a third straight Democratic presidential nomination.

At first, I couldn’t understand why Mom was such an Adlai fan. My initial suspicion was that it was due to the fact that both Adlai and Dad were bald!

Today, the reason is clear to me. Mom was a Hadassah president. Eleanor Roosevelt used to attend all Hadassah conventions, and Mom loved Eleanor! And Eleanor was a major Adlai fan.

There was one more significant factor in Mom’s politics. Mom didn’t dislike too many people, but she absolutely LOATHED Richard Nixon. She thought he was an antisemite, and she remained angry at the pressure the Eisenhower administration had placed on Israel to withdraw from the Sinai after the 1956 Suez war.

So this was the family political backdrop as Mom, Dad, and I settled in to watch the debate. Both my parents thought that Nixon would prevail easily, due to his greater experience and familiarity with the issues.

So how unexpected it was when Mom turned to Dad after the debate and said to him, “I think Kennedy came out ahead!”

That really was no surprise to those who watched the debate. Surveys showed that people who listened on radio to that debate thought that Nixon had won. Those who watched it on television, by a wide margin, thought that Kennedy had prevailed.

The reason for this was simple. Kennedy looked tanned, rested, and ready, in the words of one journalist, like “a bronzed warrior.” By contrast, Nixon looked like warmed-over death. His “Lazy Shave” makeup exposed his beard growth. Nixon wore a light gray suit which caused him to fade into the light background. Finally, Nixon bumped his previously injured knee into his car door on the way into the debate.

As Theodore H. White stated in his classic work, The Making of the President 1960, “it was the sight of the two men side by side that carried the punch.” That was the lesson that seemed to have been forgotten by the managers of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders before the recent debate.

Specifically, without a protest, the Democratic National Committee representatives handling the debate arranged to have Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders stand next to each other. This accentuated the fact that Biden, age 76, and Sanders, age 77 are approximately at least a decade older than all the other participants in that debate. And that apparent age disparity is a major problem for both these candidates.

I thought of both my late beloved grandmothers, Rose Steinberg and Bessie Perr Miller as I watched that debate. In their perfect Yiddish, they both would have said the same thing:

“Look at Joe and Bernie on the debate stage. They both look like they are sitting with their eineklach (grandchildren)!”

I had two thoughts about Joe and Bernie in terms of their significant age contrast with the other candidates. The first was the famous quote from the renowned baseball manager, Casey Stengel, “A lot of men my age are dead at the present time.”

I also couldn’t help but think of the 1975 movie, “The Sunshine Boys”, screenplay by Neil Simon, a film about two aging vaudeville comedians considering a comeback television special. Bernie would be perfect in the role played by Walter Matthau, to wit, querulous Willy Clark. Biden would be ideal in the role played by George Burns, to wit, absent-minded Al Lewis.

As I said in my Insider NJ column, “The Surprising Impact of the Presidential Debates: Down to Biden and Harris” ( my view is that Elizabeth Warren has supplanted Bernie as the leading Progressive Democratic presidential candidate. The age factor accentuated by the Democratic debate is the leading factor in what I regard as the inevitable demise of the Sanders 2020 presidential candidacy.

By contrast, Biden remains a most significantly viable candidate in what I now regard as a two person race between him and Kamala Harris. The age factor, however, is now a significant obstacle for him. It was as much a problem in the recent Democratic debate as his fumbling of the busing issue.

For Biden, the key will be to communicate with voters that in spite of his age, he remains a physically strong and vigorous individual. Former President George H.W. Bush was able to demonstrate this most graphically when he went skydiving on his 90th birthday. I don’t see Joe Biden, however, taking up skydiving as a sport.

There are ways that Joe Biden will be able to demonstrate that in spite of advancing age, he is able to physically and mentally match up to the job of the presidency. I am sure that Biden’s staff is already developing options for him in this regard.

Otherwise, youth will be served in Campaign 2020, and Kamala Harris will be the beneficiary and become the first woman President of the United States.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.

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  • Ruth Jaffe Lieberman

    Wow thoroughly enjoyed your memories! Harris does seem poised to take it.. shes a bit too aggressive for me but at least honest about her very liberal views.

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