Four grandchildren, two candidates, one choice

Four grandchildren, two candidates, one choice

Emma Charlotte Weiss, left, Dylan Anderson Weiss, Daniel Michael Weiss, and Lindsey Rachel Weiss
Emma Charlotte Weiss, left, Dylan Anderson Weiss, Daniel Michael Weiss, and Lindsey Rachel Weiss

Dear Lindsey, Daniel, Dylan, and Emma,

I know you guys think of me as an easygoing 81-year-old-grandpa who just loves to say yes to all your requests. But that lighthearted character will hibernate for the length of this open letter and several more in the months ahead, while a serious zaydie emerges to express himself on a critical subject.

I want to share my thoughts on the presidential election in November, and I feel it’s not a moment too soon. I consider this particular event to be a watershed, once-in-a-generation inflection point, one that will have a direct bearing on your joyful and promising lives for years to come.

Ordinarily, I would frame the letter in a civics context, exhorting each of you to cast a ballot as responsible citizens and to honor thousands of countrymen who died in wars past to protect your right to exercise this privilege. But this time around, my message is decidedly different.

I chose this structured format rather than text, phone, or social media because I think it’s the best way for someone of my years to amplify and communicate my thoughts. Since your ages range from 28 to 20, I’ll be writing across nearly three generations, hoping to disprove the notion that communication between our respective cohorts has faltered or that we are tone deaf toward one another.

Like you, I am faced with two candidates whose personal conduct, domestic agendas, and global outlooks could not be more dissimilar. Looking back and peering ahead, I can safely say that this is the most significant ballot I will cast in six decades of voting. While you and your fellow GenZers will be influencing politics and policies for decades to come, this is the first time all of my grandchildren will be eligible to participate in the same presidential race, and one that also features significant down-ballot choices.

I certainly want to acknowledge the big issues – Israel, antisemitism, Ukraine, inflation, immigration, reproductive freedoms, climate change, DEI, and election integrity, among others. I could devote an open letter to each subject, and I hope to delve into several as the campaign progresses. But let me focus here on the age and character of two candidates who your generation largely perceives as too old and too out of touch, with one being ideologically rigid and the other having no ideology at all.

The first, Donald Trump, is an unreconstructed and, at this point, unconvicted insurrectionist who is fond of authoritarian figures and often aspires to be one. He suffers from an engorged ego that revels in societal chaos and tribalism by pitting one class, ethnicity, race, or religion against another. His toolbox overflows with tropes, dog whistles, innuendos, and insults as he wallows in coarseness and shows an unlimited capacity for mendacity.

The second, Joe Biden, quietly and consistently (and sometimes feistily) pursues decency and civility. He talks repeatedly and optimistically about building a society from the bottom up by bringing people together in common cause. The president is an unabashed constitutionalist who values the traditions, ideals, and institutional integrity of the republic.

It’s readily apparent to all but the most cynical that one man is completely narcissistic, totally transactional, and consistently grievance laden, while the other is openly self-effacing, genuinely empathetic, and free of the conspiratorial shackles that hold the other hostage.

When he occupied the White House, Mr. Trump treated it more like one of his properties than the nation’s symbolic home, a convenient backdrop for shilling everything from wines to steaks. And all the while, he shamelessly promoted his Washington hotel, his Mar-a-Lago residence, and his Bedminster, New Jersey, resort as adjuncts for official business and entrepots of lobbying. During his watch, the Executive Mansion reflected a merry-go-round of crass commercialism, intrigue, turnover, and turmoil.

Conversely, Mr. Biden’s White House operates as a low-key policy-making hub. His cabinet choices reflect a broad swath of talent, gender, age, and backgrounds, compared to Mr. Trump’s cadre of mostly white male business types. Mr. Biden’s top aides rely on intellect and flexibility rather than the sycophancy of his opponent’s advisers of the month. And the president’s executive actions, a strategy more or less forced on him by a gridlocked Congress, address issues of equality and fairness designed to narrow class and economic distinctions.

One initiative that doesn’t attract enough attention is Mr. Biden’s ongoing effort to forgive or restructure student debt despite a Supreme Court ruling making it difficult to do so. (Thankfully, all of you will graduate college without loans.) Where he sees higher education as a learning experience and a step up the opportunity ladder, Mr. Trump values it mainly as a profit-making accelerator and has supported dodgy online universities and vocational schools known more for their scams than their curriculums.

Mr. Trump currently faces 91 felony counts in four criminal trials across multiple jurisdictions. (I marvel at the diversity of the charges: hush money to a porn star; encouraging overthrow of the government by obstructing justice; pressuring a Georgia official to find 11,000 votes to upend the election, and stashing highly secret documents at Mar-a-Lago.) He’s twice been impeached by the House but not convicted in the Senate. And he’s been found guilty in two civil actions, one for cooking the books of his real estate empire, the other for sexual assault.

The latter case could cost him dearly if he ultimately loses. Last week, after much maneuvering, he was able to post a $175 million bond to buy time while he appeals a $500 million judgment.

As of this writing, his legal woes remain extremely fluid on all fronts. Mr. Trump is a virtuoso at gaining postponements and running out the clock. The Supreme Court — his Supreme Court — already has ruled favorably for him twice, in keeping him on the Colorado ballot and delaying until late-April a hearing on his immunity claims.

Through it all, he’s been represented by a battery of attorneys paid for by siphoning his campaign war chest. In one of 2024’s shocking trends (and there are so many), the more his legal woes mounted, the more he netted from contributors, the more his poll ratings rose, and the more his primary margins increased.

Doctors might diagnose this as a case of national amnesia.

But Mr. Trump does face headwinds. As titular leader of his party, he’s steered the GOP through three consecutive losing election cycles. And the potential distraction of him racing from a trial to a campaign stop back to a trial could jar and sway voters, as would a criminal conviction between now and November.

Despite making slight gains with minorities, especially Latinos, Mr. Trump’s support still lags with women and college educated suburbanites, critical subsets in the electoral mosaic. At this point, Mr. Biden leads his opponent substantially in fundraising but trails him slightly and within the margin of error in most national polls.

By contrast, Mr. Biden doesn’t face charges in any jurisdiction. House Republicans keep scrambling to find impeachable actions to lodge against him but continue to come up empty-handed and look desperate doing so. Additionally, Mr. Biden has been exonerated by a special counsel of criminal intent while possessing classified documents in his Delaware home. But he paid a steep price since the investigator, a Trump partisan, included inappropriate, ad hominen observations about his age and cognitive acuity.

Mr. Biden grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where his father struggled through a series of jobs. After college, the future chief executive immersed himself in politics and became one of the youngest senators ever. He spent decades rising through the ranks of the upper chamber before serving as Barak Obama’s loyal vice president and then stepping aside to allow Hillary Clinton to run. His previous attempts in presidential primaries ended in failure until 2020 proved the charm.

Tragedy and resilience mark Mr. Biden’s personal life He lost his first wife and year-old daughter in a  1972 car accident, leaving him with two sons to raise as a single dad until his marriage to Dr. Jill Biden, with whom he had a daughter. One of Biden’s sons, Hunter, whose business dealings, poor judgment, and addiction issues cause a steady stream of embarrassments for his father, is facing trial on tax charges. The other, Beau, an attorney, served in Kosovo with the Army’s Judge Advocate Corps and deployed to Iraq during the war. He died soon afterward of brain cancer.

By contrast, Mr. Trump’s father made a fortune building shoddy public housing and making sure minorities couldn’t rent the apartments. He passed on his soulless, predatory business practices to a son all too willing to expand on them. The notorious Roy Cohn, Senator Joe McCarthy’s hatchet man and a disbarred fixer, tutored the younger Trump in the dark arts of the smear, influence peddling, and how to keep his name in the New York tabloids, especially during his three marriages.

And that brings us to the 500-pound elephant (not the GOP symbol) in the room. Quite simply, it’s age. Both candidates ARE old, and the optics confirm it. Mr. Biden is 81 and Mr. Trump is 77. Each manifests his own set of physical and cognitive shortfalls, with cameras and cell phones recording every gaffe and social media spewing out the clips and commentary – and vitriol.

While Joe Biden remains trim and exercises regularly, he walks with a stiff gait and talks in a voice sometimes barely above a whisper. (His State of the Union speech was a notable and welcome exception.) Mr. Biden, through constant practice, has minimized his lifelong stutter (which his opponent crudely mocks), but he also has a history of committing verbal faux pas. His doctors, advisers, and confidantes insist he’s still sharp, decisive, and fully in control of policy decisions. If reelected, he would be 86 at the end of a second term, the oldest president ever to serve.

Conversely, Donald Trump avoids exercise (golf cart riding doesn’t count), devours fast food, is overweight, and a germophobe. His younger appearance is both chronological and theatrical, aided by tanning cosmetics and hair coloring. Mr. Trump’s high-pitched voice climbs even higher as he hurls bomb-throwing rhetoric at rallies and struts about the podium, moving his hands in sharp patterns, cocking his head, and scowling, all somewhat reminiscent of the dictators recorded in 1930s newsreels.

Polls show that many voters are put off by a rematch of the 2020 candidates. You, dear grandchildren, may very well fall into that category. Yet while Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden are not the ones you would have chosen, they are the two from whom you will have to make a choice. Sitting out the election is simply unacceptable, as is voting for a third-party candidate.

Remember, aging in and of itself is inevitable, but ageism, unfortunately, is too often used as a disqualifier. Bear in mind that your own grandpa is older than both of the candidates, Joe Biden by three months, and Donald Trump by four-plus years. Ironically, when I was at the cusp of voting back in 1960 (the New Jersey minimum was 21 then), the presidential candidates were John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. One of the key issues was JFK’s age. He was considered too young and unseasoned at 42 (Nixon was 47) to be a credible, even though he had been a Navy hero in World War II and a congressman and senator from Massachusetts by then.

So buckle up. The next eight months are going to be a bumpy ride.

Jonathan E. Lazarus of West Orange, a lifelong centrist Democrat, hopes to write more letters to his grandchildren as the campaign progresses. The retired Star-Ledger editor also will continue reading and editing copy for the Jewish Standard/New Jersey Jewish News.

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