The Press Should Grow Up About Aging Politicians

At one of those Washington parties where unimportant people mix with important ones and ask them annoying questions, I decided to ask Senator John Warner why he had recently decided to retire. Before I could open my mouth, he shocked me by seeking my advice:

“Have you been able to find the can in this place?”.

“Yes, Senator, it’s over there behind the main staircase”

“Thanks!” he said as he set off for the loo.

But later, I got my question answered when I read Warner’s simple explanation in a newspaper: He was 80 years old, the state of the Virginia deserved a younger person to represent them, and there were talented people available and he didn’t want to get in their way. Simple, classy and wise, just like the man I had known so well for so long*.

Which brings me to a USA Today story about Senator Frank Lautenberg, who thinks that the “disrespectful child” Cory Booker needs a “spanking” for daring to run against him in 2014. If re-elected, Senator Lautenberg would be sworn in during the month he turns 92.

The “spanking” story calls Booker “ambitious” (contrasting him, one assumes, with the world’s many non-ambitious politicians), setting up the standard narrative: A pushy up-and-comer who won’t wait his turn thinks an old person can’t be an effective elected official. Other likely stories to come will cover how Booker will have to allude to his “energy” without turning off senior citizen voters who think he is making age an issue.

What the press ought to do instead is communicate reality: The burden of proof is entirely on Lautenberg to demonstrate that he isn’t too old to be an effective senator until the age of 98. Extrapolating from life table data, a 92 year old has only a 1 in 6 chance of living to 98, and that’s the combined rate for males and females. And those who do live to 98 have an extremely high rate of significant physical and/or mental decline. It should therefore not be some awkward responsibility for Cory Booker to hint vaguely about “new ideas”, “vigor” etc. as a way to gingerly raise the age issue. Rather, the press should put the question straight to Lautenberg: “Senator, if you are re-elected the odds are very low you will survive your term at all, much less do so in good health. Is that fair to the people of New Jersey when there are certainly other politicians in the state who could do the job?”. That keeps focus on a legitimate question that the public has a right to have answered (whether Booker brings it up or not).

The other advantage of more straight talk about advanced age is that it might help more politicians make the wise choice that Senator Harkin and Rockefeller are making: Go out on top of your game and thereby be remembered that way. It is painful for people who admire elderly politicians when a codger will just not leave the stage, sort of like watching a once mighty slugger hitting .220 on a second-rate team because at age 42, he can’t admit that he’s past it. Some Delawarean’s most vivid memory of Senator Roth, sadly enough, is of him passing out at a campaign rally at the age of 80 during a losing re-election bid (He died three years later). Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put his fellow justices in a terrible position: A few months prior to his 91st birthday, they had to come to the legendary jurist privately and tell him that he no longer was qualified to serve on the SCOTUS, an unneeded humiliation for all involved.

How old is too old? I don’t know, nor have a firm rule, nor think the same standard should apply for every political job. But I do know that multiple people who might run for President in 2016 (e.g., Biden, Clinton) will be hoping to serve through their 70s, and it ought to be something that they and the press talk about like grown-ups just as they would any other aspect of their candidacy. The press assumes that the public can handle straightforward reporting on genocides, sex scandals and corruption; they can also assume that we are all old enough to also handle discussions about advanced age and capacity to serve in office.

*To be more precise, the entire scope of our relationship is summarized in the story about finding the can, but implying otherwise makes me sound like a “consummate D.C. insider”. I wanted to say further in the traditional Washington name-dropping way that it was great to see Senator Warner again recently at Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing. See him on television, I mean. And Chuck too, whom I’ve never met, but call “Chuck” to slyly imply otherwise.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

31 thoughts on “The Press Should Grow Up About Aging Politicians”

  1. In 1981, Ronald Reagan was the oldest president sworn into office at 69 years old (his 70th birthday was celebrated in February after his inauguration) and I seem to remember that his age was mentioned quite a bit by the news media.

    Hillary Clinton was born in October 1945, so in January 2017 she’ll be 71 , older than Reagan was when he was sworn in. Biden is even older — he was born in 1942, so he’d be 74 years old at his inauguration. I think this will be an issue if either of them chooses to run for president.

    I live in NJ, and I think he should retire. Remember, he retired the first time in 2000 (at the mature age of 76) and was brought out of retirement in 2002 to replace Bob Torricelli, who was facing corruption charges.

    1. “I live in NJ, and I think he should retire.”

      For clarity, I meant *Lautenberg* should retire. I really wish we could preview our posts before submitting them.

    2. The press does cover age, but how honestly do they do so is the question. Here is Weigel this morning commenting on the post

      But coverage of Lautenberg goes just the opposite direction—it high-fives him for his vigor. A recent Philadelphia Inquirer story pointed out that the senator had returned from “a cold that became the flu” and was “wielding a cane—which he insisted he didn’t really need,” but otherwise focused on his “feistiness.” A Star-Ledger story quotes Lautenberg on the Bob Menendez scandal(s), but the quotes are nearly word salad: “I don’t want to be part of the external review at all. It’s much too sensitive a thing to be discussed randomly.” Someone else watching Lautenberg deliver some of these quotes (i.e., me) might say that Lautenberg walked slowly with the cane and took ages to make his point.

      1. The statement seems like an equivocal indicator of Lautenberg’s cognitive abilities. A direct, clear statement would be dangerous as would be a refusal to comment at all. Word salad seems like the politic move under the circumstance. Perhaps an indication of the wisdom that can come with age?

        Anyway, in politics as in much of life, everything is relative. A senile Lautenberg is nonetheless probably preferable to the backstabbing conservative turncoat of a Democrat named Cory Booker.

  2. Cory Booker is a Wall Street shill, including defending private equity and criticizing Obama at key points in last years campaign.

    I’d vote for a 105-year old Lautenberg over him. There have to be consequences to Democrats loudly defending Wall Street over the middle class lives it tosses into the meat grinder.

    1. In that case, be prepared to never see a Democratic Senator from New York. Legislators are always going to end up defending the largest industry in their jurisdiction. While Wall Street isn’t as big across the river as it is in New York, it’s still a major player.

  3. The public managed to figure out quite clearly that Fortney Stark was past it, and sent him to pasture. I kind of think Lautenberg is the Fortney Stark of NJ.

    1. Stark was also redistricted so that his new district included more conservative democrats, and he lost to one in the general election because the top two vote getters in the primary, who in the Bay Area will always be Democrats, have to run against each other. Had he been running against a Republican, he would have won handily. I know all this because I lived in his district through the 2010 election but no longer do, as a result of the aforementioned redistricting. The new guy is probably fine but will be unlikely to be as solid a voice against war as Stark was. Also, Stark was the only atheist (I’m one, too, but I’m not in Congress) in Congress and the highest open atheist in the federal government. His opponent was quick to criticize him for his atheism, albeit indirectly.

  4. Presentient timing! This morning I woke up, read about the pope’s resignation due to advanced age, and then scrolled through my RSS to find this!

  5. Keith presents two distinct issues, which I think should be separated:
    -Can Lautenberg make it through a full term?
    -Can Lautenberg be an effective senator while he is in office?
    As another NJ (and Newark) resident, I do separate the two. I’m no great fan of Cory Booker, but I’m even less fond of Chris Christie. As long as Christie is governor with appointment power, Lautenberg’s ability to make it through a full term is significant, and would predispose me to vote for Booker. Even a corporate Democrat is better than a Christie appointee. If some miracle occurs and Christie is deposed by the voters in November 2013 (yes, we have odd-year elections in Juhsey–do you have a problem with it?) Lautenberg’s ability to make it through a full term is not significant. I would then prefer the dotard Democrat to the corporate Democrat.

  6. You go to the floor with the senators you have, not the senators you’d like to have.

    As long as there is obvious ideological space between the old guard and their younger potential replacements, I think it’s best to ignore the particular arguments being used and look at the issue in a purely game-theoretical way. A very small amount of what senators (or other officials) do is speak, invent and deliberate. Most of their job performance is about whether they’re a reliable vote (in committee or otherwise) for the things their faction wants. Lautenberg could be 20 years younger, and Booker would still be talking about “new ideas”, and Lautenberg would still be complaining about the young whippersnapper.

    How does the game-theory version play out? I don’t know.

    And yes, this is terribly destructive to the people involved, who have to face the fact that they’re being kept in office as figureheads, and to their staffs and close associates, who have to keep up the pretense that there’s still some competence there. But it’s not clear what the alternative is, as long as you have a kludgy representative democracy. “The people” vote for a person who embodies a particular policy stance, and one can at least argue that their choice shouldn’t be nullified by the physical failure of the vessel.

    1. Duke Short had a very fun time being the effective Senator from South Carolina for years-and-years-and-years. So I kind of doubt your premise on the staff level.

  7. Igloo: when Booker staged his little “pity the poor PE guys” moment, my first thought was: he’s getting ready to run state-wide.

    1. Resigning is about the best thing he’s ever done as Pope. His successor will now be expected to resign in turn before he becomes incompetent. Perhaps he’ll announce this on taking office.

      1. Beverly Sills famously remarked “I’d rather have people ask, ‘Why did she retire?’ than have them say ‘Why doesn’t she retire!??'”

  8. I met “Blank Frank” once, twenty-odd years ago, and I thought he had suffered significant mental decline then. I cringe every time I hear him speak and literally held my nose the last time I voted for him because I didn’t think I would like the consequences of his opponent winning.
    I would very much like to see him resign and let a more capable person step up, but I doubt he knows what state his mind is in.
    Thanks for saying what we needed to hear.

  9. I’ll be glad to see him go; There aren’t many people who manage to get an ex post facto law named after them, but Lautenberg accomplished it.

    1. Knowing so much more about ex-post-facto laws than the Federal judiciary must be a source of great personal satisfaction to you.

      1. That “ex post facto” terminology is simply bullshit, a meaningless use of language to mislead the uninformed.

        If we pass a law that nobody who was convicted of a war crime involving murder of civilians is eligible to be a police officer, that would be an “ex post facto” law by the same ridiculous usage.

        1. “Every Federal appellate to review the Lautenberg Amendment says differently.”

          The courts are basically determined to refuse to admit anything is an ex post facto enactment unless it comes in the form of “The Ex Post Facto Act of 2013”. As well as being in massive resistance mode in regards to Heller and McDonald, and thus refusing to admit that being stripped of a constitutional right is a “punishment”.

          Not being a legal ‘realist’, I don’t have to pretend I think the courts are infallible, or ignore it when I witness bad faith in the service of the state.

    2. So you and your fellow gun nuts say. Every Federal appellate to review the Lautenberg Amendment says differently.

    1. I suppose if one could play the spread, that would be a good bet for Dawkins. Otherwise, it’s a very nice line, though not a betting line.

  10. Can the voters be trusted to figure out that the candidate is old? Is there a serious lack of information because the press treats age so gingerly, or unduly respectfully? It’s a bit like term limits: it seems to me that a democracy should trust the voters to decide when someone has held office too long. These days it’s pretty easy to see elected folks in action, on TV news or online doing their jobs. And as the comments have noted, there are other reasons than cutting-edge intelligence to vote for someone.

    Reagan was a grotesquely bad president – I doubt that anyone outside the US understands Americans’ infatuation with him – but it’s hard to say that it was his age in particular that was the problem. He wasn’t too smart going in.

    This particular community has not been reticent about whether Senator McCain has lost it (though opinions vary on what he ever had.)

    1. Put me in for “never had it”. He’s long been known for his anger management problems.

      I think you’ve got a good point here: Politicians seem to reach a point where they’re a bit wrinkled, and then hang there for ages, like Dorian Grey had his portrait taken in his 50’s. A large part of this is that the media are reluctant to expose how decrepit the people they’re reporting on have really become. Sure, you get to see them occasionally on CSPAN, if you seek those opportunities out, but even there the cameras are largely controlled by Congress, and you won’t see the moments of confusion, or trouble moving.

      I think it’s cowardice on the part of the media, frankly: They don’t want to rock the boat, and get kicked out, to be replaced by somebody more obsequent. So they’re preemptively obsequent, instead.

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