By Jim Harmon

Barring some unexpected circumstance, it appears we will have two of the oldest men ever running for president of the United States this fall. Joe Biden is 81 and Donald Trump is 78 years of age.

We have to go back to Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy to find presidents in their young 40s (42 and 43, respectively).

But if you want real youth, you’ll have to back to the late 19th century, when the Democrat and the People's Party (Populist) candidate were one and the same: a wildly-popular 33-year-old Nebraskan, William Jennings Bryan.

William J Bryan 1902
William J Bryan 1902

Among other things, the Populist Party “advocated for nationalization of railroads, a graduated income tax and more direct citizen participation in government.”

In the Treasure State, miners favored the Populist Party and William Jennings Bryan, especially when the silver market plummeted in 1893.

William Jennings Bryan’s ‘Cross of Gold’ speech countered the Republicans’ backing of the gold standard. Montanans loved him!

On the stump in Missoula, the young candidate was met by “the boom of cannon and the blaze of bonfires, the inspiring music of a band and the cheers of enthusiastic supporters ... at the site of Missoula’s original courthouse, 435 North Third Street West on Missoula’s north side.

The building had been converted to a rooming house by Ethel Buckhouse, who hosted Bryan that summer day in 1896.

Judge Sloane chaired the gathering, telling the crowd, "It is our purpose to hold a non-partisan ratification of the nomination of William Jennings Bryan and Arthur Sewall.”

“They have been nominated on a platform that meets with the approval of the vast majority of Montana voters. We want to show that this is so.”

1896 William Jennings Bryan speaking in front of the Missoula County Court House, Missoula, Montana.
1896 William Jennings Bryan speaking in front of the Missoula County Court House, Missoula, Montana.

Sloane then introduced F.C. Webster, a prominent Republican, who admitted: "This is the first time that I ever had occasion to take part in a political meeting under the auspices of this party. Crises make parties, and produce changes in party relations. Such a crisis, we believe, is now at hand.

“We in Montana believe that the platform of the Chicago convention is for the interests of not only Montana but of the whole country.

“It is not the pleasantest thing in the world for us who have followed other standards to work shoulder to shoulder with those who have been our antagonists. We went to St. Louis, hoping to win, but we did not. Your candidates are now our candidates and your platform is our platform.”

Anaconda Standard August 1, 1893
Anaconda Standard August 1, 1893

J. M. Quinn of Butte told the crowd, “On the one side is organized greed and on the other side organized humanity. I do not believe they can defeat William Jennings Bryan by ridicule. They say that he lacks dignity, but I say that he has dignity of brains and intelligence.”

“They say that he is too young. I ask when did it become a crime for a young man to possess brains and intellectual power?”

“The weather was perfect for an outdoor meeting,” wrote an Anaconda Standard newspaper reporter. “The platform next to the court house was elaborately decorated with flags, and electric lights were hung among the trees, making the scene an attractive one.”

The reporter concluded, “The demonstration tonight was a splendid one and was one of the grandest in Missoula's political history.”

On November 3, 1896, voters in the state overwhelmingly favored Bryan by an 80% margin, yet he went on to lose to William McKinley.

So is age a plus or a minus in political races? Traditionally we have thought of age conveying experience and wisdom.

After last week’s televised presidential debate, the question seems suspended in the ether.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at