Photo by SAUL LOEB / Stringer
Artillery Row

Past his prime

Even the President of the United States has to know when to retire

The President of the United States seems increasingly befuddled. “Thank you, Boris,” said Joe Biden last Wednesday, at the launch of AUKUS. “And I want to thank that fella from down under… Thank you very much, pal.” Later in the conference, Biden did finally appear to recall Scott Morrison’s name nudged, presumably, by the teleprompter (print size set to maximum) but the incident was just another in a long line where Biden appears vacant, disengaged and, despite his best efforts, unable to extemporise.

There have been many examples of the President’s off-piste behaviour: Admonishing Boris Johnson at the G7 summit for not introducing South Africa’s president, even though Johnson had just done so. Being forced to refer to large prompt cards when taking questions from the press. Rambling in conversation, before tailing off into silence. Losing his way whilst walking to the White House, and ignoring the Secret Service agent trying to shepherd him back on track. Producing scrappy bits of paper from his pocket crib sheets to help him field simple questions from the public. 

Soubriquets like “Dementia Joe” are perhaps a little harsh. But the unshakeable impression is of a man who is past his prime, who is continuing to take to the stage after the curtain should have fallen. Of someone who has “gone on too long”.

I used to think the President reminded me of Young Mr. Grace, the elderly department store owner in the British sitcom, Are You Being Served?. I can well imagine Biden, frail and decrepit, his sinewy, emaciated frame pushed around in a wheelchair by a pair of scantily clad nurses. I can imagine his blood pressure monitor exploding when a nubile White House staffer bends over to pick up a pen. Over time, this comparison has felt, whilst superficially beguiling, not quite apposite. Instead I think the person he most reminds me of is Bruce Forsyth.

Brucie, it is fairly widely acknowledged, went on too long. Indeed, a BBC insider tells me that, during the much-loved entertainer’s final, brief appearances on Strictly Come Dancing, his “live” interviews from home were placed on a thirty-second delay in case he dropped dead mid-sentence. The programme’s catchphrase “keeeeep dancing” was temporarily replaced by “keep breathing”. Forsyth had enjoyed a golden renaissance but, by the final two or three years of his career, it was clear that time had caught up. Any attempt at actual dancing was simply a brief shuffle with one foot rewarded, of course, with raucous applause. He was kept going, ultimately, by the collective energy of an audience willing him to succeed.

We must be careful not to be ageist

I have a slightly morbid fascination with the twilight phase of great entertainers’ careers. Frank Sinatra’s final concerts are almost impossible to listen to, Old Blue Eyes’ voice reedy and brittle, the Chairman of the Board unable to recall the lyrics to the songs which made him famous. Perry Como suffered a similar fate. His last Christmas concerts recorded for posterity are grand and opulent, but the man himself is diminished to a point where the whole feverish exercise feels like a macabre holly-festooned torture. The comedian Ken Dodd should have hung up his tickling sticks when he could no longer hold them. Max Bygraves’ final work is perhaps the weirdest; the clearly ill veteran entertainer released a video of himself driving around on a lawnmower, miming to disco-style remixes of his old hits.

We must be careful not to be ageist. I’ve always got on well with older people, partly, perhaps, because my own tastes and temperament remain firmly rooted in the mid-to-late 20th century. I am a creature of the post-war decline. It’s pure nostalgia, probably, but the period beguiles me: the mini-skirted dolly birds, smoking in pubs, Jon Pertwee as Doctor Who, the twinkly pooves in pink cravats, saying things like “I don’t fancy yours much” and swigging campari and soda. 

When modish young things often, in reality, older than me lecture us on how awful everything is, whilst doing all they can to re-racialise our culture, and telling “jokes” that are little more than political clarion calls, they leave me decidedly cold. Older people have a lot to offer, deplore attempts to stoke intergenerational conflict (though there are clearly some issues which need addressing) and feel the attitude we have developed towards our history is juvenile and self-destructive. I’m lucky, I think, to have friends in their 20s and friends in their 70s. There is much to learn from those who have “been there, done that” and, in many cases, are still doing it; semi-retirement, for many, seems to be a state they both choose and thrive in. Old gals, and old geezers, can be wise and entertaining. But sometimes one more concert, no matter how glitzy the stage and how much the public want to see you, is one concert too many. 

Mental acuity is perhaps the key, along with the nature of the work. Great writers can keep going well into their 80s or 90s. Elder statespersons often have much to offer. But, everybody well, everybody who is lucky enough to get there will start to diminish. Most Presidents of the United States seem to age about fifty years in office; that’ll leave Joe Biden the equivalent of a cool 130 when he finally steps down. It seems likely that, in 2024, the Republicans will retake the White House depending on their candidate. Donald Trump will be nearly 80 by then. All of us, even Presidents of the United States, can go on too long.

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