Washington just keeps getting uglier and uglier. The Mueller hearings brought out the worst this city has to offer: More evidence of corruption, political grandstanding, and, in some ways the worst, unapologetic ageism. Nothing is out of bounds in Washington, even incredibly callous attacks on the man who is identified as an exemplary public servant and war hero. In Washington, they call that hardball and cite it as an excuse to lodge blows below the belt.
The ageist attacks are particularly troubling because they were directed at Mueller from both sides. Kellyanne Conway described Mueller as “feeble.” Spectator USA quoted an unnamed senior Democrat as suggesting, “Mueller is slowly losing his faculties,” a comment offered to help explain why the hearings were not the huge boost for impeachment hoped for by many in his party. Film director Michael Moore, before congratulating himself on knowing in advance that over-reliance on the Mueller report as the basis for impeachment was a mistake, described Mueller as, “A frail old man, unable to remember things, stumbling, refusing to answer basic questions.”
These ageist comments are reprehensible. If Mueller had been attacked based on his race, religion, sexual identity or preferences, outrage would have been forthcoming. Instead, many observers, including some that shared disappointment in Mueller’s performance, remained quiet. They acquiesced when public ridicule of Mueller based on his age continued.
Those who followed the lead-up to the Mueller hearings will recall that Mueller unambiguously indicated he would not speak further on the report. He wanted it to speak for itself, knowing that any oral testimony that could be construed as going beyond or contradicting the report would be seized upon by one side or the other. What he feared is what happened despite Mueller doing his best to say as little as possible.
Mueller agreed to testify before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees only after the issuance of subpoenas. Thus, to call him a reluctant witness is an understatement. As should have been expected, his testimony reflected his reluctance and his prior indication he would have nothing to say about the investigation beyond what was covered in the 448-page report. Democrats hoping to “bring the report to life” to further the cause of impeachment did not get their wish. Mueller provided monosyllabic answers and declined to read from the report when requested to do so.
One might interpret the Democrats’ ridicule of Mueller as an effort to find an excuse for their dud hearings. Republicans’ attacks on Mueller might be viewed as an effort to discredit the report. In both cases, these strategies fell short. The report remains an important roadmap to understanding the crimes that took place during the 2016 elections and the all but inconceivable scenario where Trump is convicted and removed from office remains, well, inconceivable.
Be that as it may, it is worthwhile to return to the subject of ageism, especially given the possibility that someone age 70 or older (Trump, Sanders, Biden, Warren) will be sworn-in as President in January 2021. Will that President be routinely attacked as “too old?” Will proposals be dismissed as reflecting senility instead of being examined on their merits? The answer is yes.
More importantly, the recent circus represents a setback for the civil rights of seniors. We still live in an environment where open discrimination against seniors is not only common but is ignored. Today’s mindset is a stark contrast to the respect shown seniors in other nations. The “wisdom of elders” has been replaced with the concept that Gen Xers or millennials have all the answers whether it is industry, government, or entertainment. Just ask older female actors how difficult it is to get substantive roles. Think about the last time you heard a joke about an “old geezer” or an elder unable to turn on their TV without the help of a 10-year-old.
Bottom line: It’s OK that negative comments were made on Mueller’s testimony, but it’s not OK that they were explained with ageism, an approach that denied Mueller and many of the rest of us the respect we deserve.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. He is a former counsel to the House Committee on Education and Labor. For more than 30 years, he advised clients on federal education and social service policy. He is the former chairman of the National College Access Network (NCAN), a group promoting success in higher education among underrepresented groups, and KnowledgeWorks Foundation, a national leader in strategic foresight and education innovation. He is an advocate for the environment, education reform, civic public debate, and good government.