The recent death of Senator Dianne Feinstein (90), Senator Mitch McConnell’s (81) mid-sentence freezing at the podium, and the age debate around President Biden (80) and Trump’s (77) bid for another White House term briefly focused media attention on age, competency and when and how politicians should step away.
Talking about age never gets old for the media. The issue is extremely relevant to Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN, whose viewers skew older. There is also abundant content available since politicians are predisposed to blabbing publicly, and every gaff, trip, or crazy comment is recorded, edited, and circulated on social media at lightning speed. Democracy is messy and will become even messier with our politicians serving and living longer.
Many aging politicians pushing 80 or 90 are hyper-functional and competent, but what do we do when health or legal issues prevent elected officials from fulfilling the responsibility of their office, and they refuse to leave voluntarily? As the old joke goes, “50 is the new 40, 60 is the new 50, 70 is the new 60 but 80 is 80.”
Removing any elected official from office is not easy, nor should it be. We would prefer that removal from office be done at the voting booth and reflect the people’s will. However, this can be complicated for a Senator serving a six-year term who has severe health problems at the beginning of the term and refuses to retire. What do you do?
You would also think that Congressmen and women who serve only two-year terms would be easier to replace. However, gerrymandering, the political manipulation of electoral House district maps to advantage the party in power with more voters from their party, can keep people in office year after year. Political considerations also come into play, like leaders wanting to maintain a voting majority and therefore keep people in the office as a political calculation despite competency, legal, and other serious issues. Why else is NY Republican Congressman George Santos charged with fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds, identity theft, and false statements still serving in Congress, or for that matter, NJ’s Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, accused of bribery and found with gold bars in his home like some pirate? They don’t even censure these guys let alone kick them out.
Article 1, section 5 of the US Constitution allows the Senate and the House to expel members. The Senate can expel a senator with a two-thirds vote after specific committees do their diligence. A similar process exists in the House, which might be tested on Republican Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, who is hated by both parties and blamed for the current chaos in the leaderless House. However, this extreme process is rarely used, slow-moving, and reserved for people who have committed crimes – not for age-related health issues. Thus, barring establishing term limits or mandatory retirement age, and in the case of the President, impeachment or invoking the 25th Amendment requiring the Vice President and a majority of the cabinet to deem a President is not able to do his job, public officials of questionable competency can and will remain in office.
It was sad to watch Senator Feinstein’s very public decline after a long and heroic career of public service. Some argued that Feinstein’s refusal to step aside as the Senator of California left the State without a strong voice in the Senate during political chaos. I imagine that certain aging politicians like Feinstein are supported by loyal staffers who will protect and carry them for as long as needed. In this regard, I think of President Ronald Reagan, who died of Alzheimer’s (after leaving office), an illness many believe began late in his second term.
More of these awkward situations will arise, especially in the Senate, which gives a new meaning to aging in place. Feinstein served in the Senate for three decades, Mitch McConnell has served for 38 years. Vermont’s Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy (83) decided not to run in 2022 after serving 48 years. This contrasts with Iowa’s Republican Senator Chuck Grassley (90), who in 2022 was elected to his 8th term in office. He will be 95 at the end of his current term and will have served 48 years in the Senate. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (83), who has served 36 years, announced she would run again in 2024. In fact, According to NBC News, the 118th Congress is one of the oldest in the past century. In January, the average age in the Senate was 63.9 years, and in the House, 57.5 years.
Why do people stay in the office past their time? A belief they earned the right to go out on their terms; the confidence, sometimes false, that they can “still do the job;” a need to be in the public eye; or leaving is an ending they are unprepared for psychologically, who in the words of the poet Dylan Thomas would instead ‘not go gentle into that good night’ and instead “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
This age issue is not just political. Older Americans are one of the fastest-growing demographics in the country, a combination of aging baby boomers and we live longer. I was born in 1956 when my life expectancy was 69. My grandson was born a few months ago, and his life expectancy is 80. In 2019, there were 54.1 million people age 65 and older (up from 39.6 million in 2009). This population is projected to reach 80.8 million by 2040 and 94.7 million by 2060.
I have no solutions to the age issue in politics, and the media has moved on to cover Trump’s mounting legal troubles, Speaker McCarthy’s being voted off the island, and the deadly attack on Israel. My only suggestion is that every politician be required to watch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Musical Hamilton. One of the play’s most memorable moments was when George Washington dictated his Farewell Address to Alexander Hamilton, played by Miranda. The text of the duet they sing together was lifted almost entirely from Washington’s Farewell Address. Washington, at the time, was 64 years old and had served two terms in office and decided not to seek a third term. Below is an excerpt from the song One Last Time as Washington explains to Hamilton why it is time for him to say goodbye:
Mr. President, they will say you’re weak
No, they will see we’re strong
Your position is so unique
So I’ll use it to move them along
Why do you have to say goodbye?
If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on
It outlives me when I’m gone
Like the scripture says:
“Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid.”
They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve made
I wanna sit under my own vine and fig tree
A moment alone in the shade
At home in this nation we’ve made
One last time
One last time
[HAMILTON-repeating the last paragraphs of Washington’s Farewell Address; sung as a duet with WASHINGTON]
Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will view them with indulgence; and that after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service, with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as I myself must soon be to the mansions of rest. I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat, in which I promise myself to realize the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.
Hugh Panero, a tech & media entrepreneur, was the founder & former CEO of XM Satellite Radio. He has worked with leading tech venture capital firms and was an adjunct media professor at George Washington University. He writes about Tech and Media for the Spy.