Measuring the Record-Breaking Presidential Lifespans of George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter

U.S. President George W. Bush meets with President-elect Barack Obama (2nd-L), former President Bill Clinton (2nd-R), former President Jimmy Carter (R) and former President George H.W. Bush (L) in the Oval Office January 7, 2009 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

As America celebrated the life of President George H.W. Bush in the days following his death on November 30, the Internet’s curiosity quietly shifted to the now-oldest living U.S. president, Jimmy Carter. At 94 years old, President Carter is a few months shy of outliving President Bush and becoming the oldest living president in U.S. history — ever.

For a few more months, though, George H.W. Bush will continue to hold the title of oldest-ever U.S. president (setting that record at 94 years and 171 days). Assuming President Carter (who clocks in at 94 years and 65 days) lives another 106 days, he will match President George H.W. Bush’s long lifespan and continue to surpass it, setting a new longevity record for America’s commanders-in-chief that few others have approached.

Thanks to an easily scrapable chart on Wikipedia, we can determine how unusual of a moment this is in American history. Based on a quick data analysis using Python, we can see that the average age of all U.S. presidential deaths is around 71 years old. When we include living presidents in that equation, the mean age for a president remains at 71. This becomes really apparent when looking at the kernel density estimation for this dataset.

If we then zero in on the histogram, we can see the age distribution of each living and deceased president more specifically. There are 14 of 45 presidents who have made it to their 70s, putting those presidents in the 50th percentile overall. By contrast, you can see the six presidents who lived into their 90s (more on them later), as well as the two presidents who passed away in their 40s: John F. Kennedy and James A. Garfield.

By contrast, President Bush and President Carter are in the 99th percentile of all U.S. presidential ages as the only two individuals who have lived until 94. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as the 39th President of the United States celebrated the life of the 41st President of the United States, Google promptly picked up Carter’s age as a trending topic. The question of Carter’s age continued to rise in interest on December 5, as George H.W. Bush’s state funeral service was broadcasted.

Carter has outlived every predecessor in the White House, as well as the two presidents who served after him. There is a good reason to find Bush’s and Carter’s longevity statistically remarkable, but there are a few other quirks buried in the presidential age data that we got from Wikipedia.

Only six presidents have lived to be 90—including our second president, John Adams. Does that shock anyone else? A Founding Father was born in 1735, and he is one of six presidents who lived until age 90. Adams also happened to die on the Fourth of July that marked the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. How did that not make it into a Lin Manuel Miranda song?

Oddly enough, there are three living presidents who share the exact same age (72) and birth year: Presidents Donald Trump, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Trump is the oldest of that trio, as well as the oldest president to serve the White House. He celebrates his 73rd birthday in June, while Bush and Clinton follow in July and August.

Barack Obama, the youngest of the living presidents, is 57 years old, with Carter, of course, remaining the oldest living president at 94. Carter will celebrate his 95th birthday on October 1, 2019. He wrote a book called “The Virtues of Aging” in 1998 where he explained a time after his one-term presidency when he wondered whether he “had anything much to offer in the years ahead.”

“What could possibly be good about growing old? The most obvious answer, of course, is to consider the alternative to aging,” Carter wrote. “But there are plenty of other good answers—many based on our personal experiences and observations.”

Thank you for taking the time to read! I’m a political reporter turned data journalist based out of NYC. I’m using Medium as an outlet to experiment with new forms of breaking news data analysis, and I’m always looking for new data sets. Please reach out with comments, questions, or ideas on what to try next. You can find me on Twitter, too.

Data Journalist | Bylines in ProPublica, The Associated Press, Teen Vogue, and Newsweek | linleyasanders@gmail.com

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