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The aging of America’s office holders: solution needed

If You Ask Me

Being an “elder statesman” used to be something of a distinction but in today’s political world, there doesn’t seem to be any other kind. Though there are more elders than statesmen.

Fortunately, the men and women who actually practice diplomacy are relatively young but our elected political leaders — the senators, representatives and also our past two presidents — are showing their ages in various ways, not always to their advantage.

It makes one wonder why people should be running for president at that advanced age. Let’s explore, starting at the top.

President Biden will be 80 in November; if he runs again in 2024 and wins, he’ll be 86 in 2028 when his second term ends.

Donald Trump, the leading Republican contender, is 76; if he runs again and wins, he’ll be 80 when his term ends. The four years between them make no difference.

There is no way to tell which of these two old men will retain his greatest accumulation of marbles after the 2024 election.

True, your physical or mental health can fail at any time in your life but the later years are, of course, the most vulnerable. And while failing health can be treated over the course of months or even years, it isn’t very convenient for the individual — or the nation — when one is president.

The 28th president of the United States was Woodrow Wilson in his first term from 1912 to 1916 and Wilson, his second wife, Edith Wilson, and his doctor, Cary Grayson, for part of his second term, 1916-20.

The wife and doctor secretly handled most presidential matters after Wilson suffered a disabling stroke midway in that second term and Mrs. Wilson was derided as “the first female president” at a time when women couldn’t even vote for the office. Steps have been taken to prevent much of this from happening again.

This topic was prompted by two recent news stories about people holding important positions in government and the private sector.

First, there was a troubling story about the mental state of a senator, the influential California Democrat Diane Feinstein. “Four U.S. senators, including three Democrats, as well as three former Feinstein staffers … told the (San Francisco) Chronicle in recent interviews that her memory is rapidly deteriorating,” wrote Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post.

“Colleagues worry Dianne Feinstein is now mentally unfit to serve, citing recent interactions,” the headline read.

Feinstein and her staff denied everything but after an erratic performance at Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearings, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer persuaded her to step down as ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. She’s up for reelection in 2024.

Then there was a happier story from the private sector, announcing the retirement of Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, who just turned 66, and the appointment of the paper’s highly regarded managing editor Joe Khan, 57, to succeed him.

The announcement noted in passing that 65 is an age that has traditionally meant retirement for top editorial posts at the Times. Those with lesser responsibilities might be permitted to work longer, but at 65, the most responsible posts should be refreshed with younger blood. That’s the policy of many institutions with a responsibility to the public and/or their shareholders but presidents and members of Congress — and justices of the Supreme Court — go on.

Feinstein is not the only octogenarian in a high Senate or House post. She’ll be 88 in June; Republican leader Chuck Grassley will be 88 in September. James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, is 86, so is Vermont Democrat Pat Leahy. The retiring Richard Shelby (R-ALA) is 87 and majority leader Mitch McConnell is 80. Bernie Sanders, who wants to join the old man presidency, is also 80.

Senators 75 and over are too numerous to mention but it should be noted they include Richard Blumenthal, whom you may know. He’s up for reelection in November.

And we can’t ignore the House because there’s Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 83, and fellow Californian Maxine Waters, 84, along with Democratic leaders Jim Clyburn, 82, Steny Hoyer, 83, and New Haven’s own Rosa DeLauro, 79.

So what are we to do about this troublesome phenomenon?

Supporters of term limits — and there are many — would be quick to speak up with their solution but I’m not so sure. Term limits would interfere with the basic right to vote and prevent the nation from obtaining the services of some valuable public servants. Revolving doors in the House, and especially the Senate, would transfer a lot of power to the permanent, unelected staff.

But what about age limits? After all, we already have minimum age limits for the presidency, the Congress and the courts.

It could happen but the way things work, some aged office holder will have to do something really dreadful first.


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.

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