Commentary Magazine


Topic: Irving Berlin

Presidential Longevity and Social Security

Today is George H.W. Bush’s 90th birthday. That is certainly an event worth celebrating, and may he enjoy many more. But it is also illustrative of a remarkable increase in longevity enjoyed by recent presidents (and the rest of us).

Before there were presidents there were English sovereigns. Not one of them lived to see his or her 70th birthday until George II, who died in 1760, aged 76. To be sure a few of them, such as Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI, were assisted early into that good night for political reasons.

Of the first six presidents, four of them (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and John Quincy Adams), remarkably, lived to be over 80 and John Adams lived to be 90 and 8 months, a presidential longevity record that would last into the 21st century, until Ronald Reagan surpassed him in 2001. But from John Quincy Adams to Herbert Hoover, more than a century later, no president made it to 80. Hoover lived to be 90 and two months. Harry Truman, who died at the age of 88, was the only other president to live to 80 until Richard Nixon.

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Today is George H.W. Bush’s 90th birthday. That is certainly an event worth celebrating, and may he enjoy many more. But it is also illustrative of a remarkable increase in longevity enjoyed by recent presidents (and the rest of us).

Before there were presidents there were English sovereigns. Not one of them lived to see his or her 70th birthday until George II, who died in 1760, aged 76. To be sure a few of them, such as Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI, were assisted early into that good night for political reasons.

Of the first six presidents, four of them (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and John Quincy Adams), remarkably, lived to be over 80 and John Adams lived to be 90 and 8 months, a presidential longevity record that would last into the 21st century, until Ronald Reagan surpassed him in 2001. But from John Quincy Adams to Herbert Hoover, more than a century later, no president made it to 80. Hoover lived to be 90 and two months. Harry Truman, who died at the age of 88, was the only other president to live to 80 until Richard Nixon.

But starting with Nixon, every president has either lived to the age of 80 or is still alive. Reagan and Ford each lived to be 93, and Ford holds the longevity record at the moment, dying at the age of 93 and five months. On October 1 this year, Jimmy Carter will also turn 90.

Living to 100 used to be exceedingly rare, but not anymore. Among the famous who have reached 100 in recent decades are Irving Berlin, the Queen Mother, Rose Kennedy, Brooke Astor, Bob Hope, and George Burns. I have a friend who is in robust good health at the age of 84. Her mother, in equally robust health except for being a bit deaf, is 109.

All this, while unreservedly good news for all of us, has profound policy implications regarding entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. The latter program was instituted in 1935 and set the age for receiving benefits at 65. The reason 65 was chosen is that that was the life expectancy in the 1930s. Today, in the United States, it is 79.8 for women and 77.4 for men and rising quickly. That is no small part of the reason both programs are headed inexorably toward insolvency unless Congress acknowledges mathematical and medical reality.

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‘Tis the Season to Be Obnoxious

Garrison Keillor, one of my least favorite people, has written a column in which he tells “nonbelievers” to butt out of Christmas. He especially objects, it seems, to Christmas songs written by Jewish composers: “And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck.” Dreck is certainly an interesting word choice in this instance.

Some Christmas songs were indeed written by Jewish composers, such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “White Christmas.” (Irving Berlin, just to rub it in, also wrote the most — perhaps only — famous Easter song, “Easter Parade”). Rodgers (who was Jewish) and Hammerstein (who was raised Presbyterian by his Scottish mother) wrote “Happy Christmas, Little Friend,” a lovely Christmas song that, inexplicably, never caught on. “Jingle Bells,” however, was written by James Lord Pierpont, who was J. P. Morgan’s uncle. Jewish he wasn’t.

What jerks like Garrison Keillor don’t realize is that the Christian holy day that celebrates the birth of Christ and the utterly secular holiday of presents, Santa Claus, mistletoe, office parties, etc. are completely different. They just happen to both be called Christmas and fall on December 25th. I wrote about this dichotomy for the Wall Street Journal a while back. Jews, of course, often make the same mistake. A few years ago a mother objected to her son going on a class trip to see a dramatization of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, so the whole trip was canceled. Dickens’s famous tale is a ghost story, for heaven’s sake. It has nothing whatever to do with the Christian holy day, but rather with an unhappy old man’s rediscovery of love. Should a class trip to see The Diary of Anne Frank be canceled because the play has a scene in which the family celebrates Hanukah?

Some people love the Christmas season. I’m not one of them. The Garrison Keillors of the world are part of the reason.

Garrison Keillor, one of my least favorite people, has written a column in which he tells “nonbelievers” to butt out of Christmas. He especially objects, it seems, to Christmas songs written by Jewish composers: “And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck.” Dreck is certainly an interesting word choice in this instance.

Some Christmas songs were indeed written by Jewish composers, such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “White Christmas.” (Irving Berlin, just to rub it in, also wrote the most — perhaps only — famous Easter song, “Easter Parade”). Rodgers (who was Jewish) and Hammerstein (who was raised Presbyterian by his Scottish mother) wrote “Happy Christmas, Little Friend,” a lovely Christmas song that, inexplicably, never caught on. “Jingle Bells,” however, was written by James Lord Pierpont, who was J. P. Morgan’s uncle. Jewish he wasn’t.

What jerks like Garrison Keillor don’t realize is that the Christian holy day that celebrates the birth of Christ and the utterly secular holiday of presents, Santa Claus, mistletoe, office parties, etc. are completely different. They just happen to both be called Christmas and fall on December 25th. I wrote about this dichotomy for the Wall Street Journal a while back. Jews, of course, often make the same mistake. A few years ago a mother objected to her son going on a class trip to see a dramatization of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, so the whole trip was canceled. Dickens’s famous tale is a ghost story, for heaven’s sake. It has nothing whatever to do with the Christian holy day, but rather with an unhappy old man’s rediscovery of love. Should a class trip to see The Diary of Anne Frank be canceled because the play has a scene in which the family celebrates Hanukah?

Some people love the Christmas season. I’m not one of them. The Garrison Keillors of the world are part of the reason.

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