Joan Smith: A tale of two politicians of a certain age

I've never been a fan of Hillary Clinton but I have to admit to a sneaking admiration for someone whose 60th birthday present to herself is a run at the American presidency.

Anyone – by which I mean anyone who is a senator and former first lady – can get a pop star to perform at a birthday bash; it's actually rather sweet that Hillary has gone for Elvis Costello after her husband, carrying on a long tradition of blokeish behaviour, called up the Stones for his 60th last year. Hillary always seemed the more cerebral of the two, even as she was embarrassed and compromised by her husband's predatory behaviour towards other women.

As she reaches 60 this month, she has belatedly stepped out of his shadow; Bill Clinton recognised the danger early on and advised Hillary Rodham, as she then was, to leave him and pursue her own political career, safe in the knowledge that a young woman in love would do no such thing.

It has taken decades for her to come into her own and she's done it at an age which many women (wrongly, I think) regard as placing them over the hill. The cost is evident in the way she looks artfully constructed, not a hair out of place, but maybe that's the kind of armour older women need to survive in the public arena if they don't instinctively feel comfortable with themselves in the first place.

She's certainly doing better than another politician who's no longer in the shadow of a charismatic rival. Like Hillary Clinton, Gordon Brown spent years in an uncomfortable position as the less attractive half of a famous double act; being Chancellor to Tony Blair's Prime Minister meant that Brown endured years of comparisons with someone who was younger, more popular and had the easy-going charm of an actor.

That Brown suffered is evidenced by his fingernails, which are as ragged and bitten as those of any unhappy teenage girl, and his response (unlike Hillary's) has been to clothe himself in a gravitas which has added years to his physical age.

This is a fascinating, if gruesome, process to watch. Having achieved his ambition of becoming Prime Minister at long last, Brown has aged overnight, his body language more contorted and defensive by the day. With exceptions like Jack Straw, he has surrounded himself with young, inexperienced ministers who are in Cabinet at an age when they could reasonably expect to be on the first rung of a ministerial career – the "teenagers" who have been blamed by angry backbenchers and the media for Brown's crass decision to jilt the electorate at the altar.

The psychological effect, I suspect, must be like ditching the wife for a series of younger women: briefly invigorating, but a constant reminder of your own (political in this case) mortality.

There is no inevitability about this in an era when men and women in their fifties and sixties are running marathons. Bill Clinton has survived major heart surgery necessitated not by nerves – his self-belief is invincible – but a lifestyle which used to revolve around burgers, pizzas and golf.

He looks more relaxed than ever as he pursues his self-imposed mission to save the world, not concealing his hearing problem but still looking like a man with a vigorous approach to life; he may even be sincere when he says he would be content to take a back seat if his wife becomes the first woman president of the US.

Whatever my reservations about the Clintons, which would fill the rest of this column, that eventuality – a 61-year-old woman, as she would be by then, in the most powerful job in the world – would overturn a great many preconceptions about age.

There is an argument that people's true character emerges as they get older and they can no longer rely on physical beauty (if they ever had it) to dazzle onlookers. This must be an ever-present anxiety for all those actors and pop stars, now in their twenties and thirties, who rely so heavily on looks to make an impact; it's hard to imagine Victoria Beckham being comfortable with herself at 60, although I can predict with some confidence that she's unlikely to seek a late-blossoming political career.

In that sense, Gordon Brown's problem with the age thing – which seemed to be highlighted cruelly when he faced a rejuvenated David Cameron during Prime Minister's questions on Wednesday – is a distraction.

Brown must have looked across the despatch box this week and caught a glimpse of his worst nightmare: a new Tony Blair, modern, charming, confident, and 13 years younger than the real thing. The Prime Minister has reached an age when he believes he is entitled to respect, angrily refusing to "take lectures" this week from the young pup on the opposite bench. But such assumptions belong in a previous area – a different century, actually – when deference was the order of the day; the world isn't like that any more and political leaders must adjust or die.

Hillary Clinton has done it, surviving decades of bruising attacks to emerge with a persona that is sleek, youthful and assured – and she's four years older than the Prime Minister. Brown's problem isn't that he's old; it's that he's terminally old-fashioned.