WASHINGTON -- Hillary Clinton hasn't even thrown her hat into the 2016 presidential ring yet, but Republican tremors over the very thought have already unleashed red flares about her age and health that question her qualifications for the office.
It's an old partisan tactic, this time invoked by Karl Rove, the man who brought you George W. Bush, who with neither his age nor his health impeding his election arguably went on to be the worst American president to date with his Iraq invasion in 2003.
Fox News audience that Mitt Romney might yet beat Barack Obama, as most other assessors of the results were acknowledging the incumbent's victory.
The New York Post last week threw gasoline on the Target Hillary fire with a report that Rove had claimed the former first lady and secretary of state had suffered brain damage in a fall in 2012. Rove subsequently denied to the Washington Post he had made any such claim, but observed that she had suffered "a serious health episode" that she would have to discuss as candidate in 2016.
The "episode," described by her doctors as a concussion that produced a blood clot for which she was hospitalized for three days, played nicely into another episode -- the Benghazi consulate attack, for which the Republicans have had a field day accusing Hillary of negligence and dissembling.
It so happened that her injury and hospitalization led to postponement of a scheduled appearance before a congressional committee. When she subsequently testified, she wore special glasses said to correct double vision suffered in the fall.
As reported by the New York Post, Rove raised the matter at a conference in California, asking: "Thirty days in the hospital? And when she reappears, she's wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what's up with that."
Beyond the fact that she had been hospitalized only three days, not 30, Rove's linkage was a clever political gambit raising not only Hillary Clinton's health but also keeping alive the Benghazi narrative, currently the major Republican attack line along with the party's unending assault on Obamacare, with Hillary's age thrown in for good measure.
The "health episode" also serves to feed into the presidential qualification issue by focusing on the presumptive Democratic frontrunner's age of 66. If elected in 2016, she would be only months short of 69, the age at which Ronald Reagan won the White House in 1980. But that didn't stop his re-election four years later, when the age issue was again raised against him as the oldest American president.
But the good-humored Gipper, after a seemingly confused first debate performance in 1984 against Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, recovered in the next debate by dead-panning to his younger challenger: "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." Mondale acknowledged afterward that as soon as he heard Reagan's remark, he knew he had lost his chance to be elected president.
Health more than age can weigh heavily on voters' minds in casting their presidential ballots, but Reagan easily cleared the bar in 1984, having survived an attempted assassination and hospitalization in the first weeks of his presidency, and later colon cancer surgery.
As for Rove's stirring the pot, it fell to the always sensitive and caring former House speaker Newt Gingrich to note he was "deeply offended" by the references to Hillary Clinton's health, adding on CNN: "This is an absurdity and it typifies the Republican political consulting class, which wants to be negative, narrow, personal, avoid ideas and not have to wrestle with the big issues" -- as, of course, he always does.
If that wasn't the pot calling the kettle black, it was a pretty good imitation, from a failed politician who has himself become a prominent member of that consulting class. In any event, it is unclear how any of this will deter Hillary Clinton, a battle-scarred veteran of the big time, from running two years from now.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at email@example.com.)
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