No country for old men?

I take as my text today the phrase “no country for old men,” which lurks in the public imagination thanks to the Cormac McCarthy novel that has been made into an Oscars-nominated film.

As you may know, the novelist borrowed the title from the words of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, who wrote them as the opening line of his poem “Sailing to Byzantium” in order to curry favor with English majors. And why not? As numerous people weren’t shot dead in the poem, it naturally was a waste of stirring expression for jaded American readers.

So now that deviousness and intrigues fill our own sails on a course to a Byzantine mooring, it seems timely to consider whether this present shore is no country for old men. My thoughts are prompted by the seeming certainty of Sen. John McCain being nominated as the Republican candidate for president.

It seems now that only the Lord coming down from heaven as the ultimate super delegate can stop the inevitable, although it is equally possible that Rush Limbaugh might actually explode and all results hitherto registered might be covered in a vile and impregnable goo of coagulated opinions.

The thing about McCain is that he would be an old man in any country. I could be wrong, but I believe the senator from Arizona personally knew some of the biblical patriarchs — Methuselah, Abraham, Joe Paterno — plus several pharaohs.

You may think by these words that I think John McCain is too old for the job. I do not. As an apprentice old man myself, I do not want a country fit only for young people, which popular culture seems dedicated to bringing about.

Of course, I have nothing against young people, except that they are irritatingly young. I note with alarm their growing influence this election season and I fear that frequent use of the word “like” may be soon made obligatory in inauguration addresses.

Actually, I think McCain seems remarkably fit for his age, or anybody else’s age. In a witless era, he has his wits about him. He is a genuine hero of the Vietnam War and I am inclined to like him on the general theory that anyone who gives Rush and the troglodyte community conniptions can’t be all bad.

I do worry about the White House famously being a wrinkle factory of passing presidents. They skip into office in the bloom of youth and come out of that wringer looking about 100 years old with skin like papyrus.

The only one to escape the worst effects of this syndrome is the current occupant, who cleverly outsourced his thinking so that he still appears relatively young while perhaps deep in the bowels of the building various aides stumble about like preppy versions of the Picture of Dorian Gray.

Being old may actually be an advantage for Sen. McCain, who can wear as well as a pair of pre-weathered jeans and stand to lose nothing in the wash-and-spin cycle of presidential politics.

No, the calendar is not a problem for John McCain. His body of thought is another matter, but that is not his exclusive problem. Many younger members of his party have the same condition only worse — a hardening of the political arteries, an elderly and increasingly sclerotic ideology that causes sufferers to rage about like bull elephants with emphasis on the bull.

On every issue — health care, the environment, national security — conservatives take their cue from way we were as a prescription for the way they want us to be. Always back to the future.

The war on terror has become the Cold War redux, with today’s Joe McCarthys suspecting jihadists under every bed instead of Reds. Any suggestion that it is way past time that the Iraqis took responsibility for the security of their own country so that we can concentrate on other fronts is denounced as “raising the white flag of surrender” when it is really the bold flag of reason.

They look to President Reagan, who would have turned 97 on Feb. 6, as the latest thing in political thought. Yet in one of his last public speeches, Ronald Reagan said this: “And whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts.”

Today his imitators are all about appealing to our worst fears and accordingly it is clear they intend to fight the next election on the war on terror. No country for old men and their old ways of thinking? We shall see.

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com)

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