Ten Miles Square


February 11, 2013 11:31 AM The Press Should Grow Up About Aging Politicians

By Keith Humphreys

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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
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  • zandru on February 11, 2013 1:58 PM:

    Well, you're right about the media needing to step up and start doing the work for which they receive Constitutional recognition and protection. Politicians' ages are just one of many areas where our for-profit press have fallen down on the job.

    Personally, I think John McCain was mentally over the hill when he attempted to run against Barack Obama in 2004, and McCain has rapidly degenerated in terms of judgement and impulse control ever since. But I guess that makes him an ideal guest on the "reality-teevie" Sunday morning gabfests.

    "Senator John McCain! COME ON DOWN!!"

  • low-tech cyclist on February 11, 2013 4:34 PM:

    My observation as I watch my parents' generation age is that no matter how well you've taken care of yourself, it's all a crapshoot after 80, especially for us men. One day you're hale and hearty, and the next day something hits you out of nowhere, and six months later, you're dead, or stricken with something that makes the daily routine of a retired person a challenge.

    And even those few who reach 90 full of vim and vigor generally lose it in the next few years. Lautenberg should have the good sense to hang it up.

  • Dave Porter on February 16, 2013 4:19 PM:

    Think of how fearful a senior public official has to feel. Shuffled offstage after a lifetime of seizing every opportunity to advance and be powerful, who is going to care for him if he has no power and no position?

    Once you step down, all those people who have been kissing your ass because your job includes the ability to grant favors aren't going to be anywhere nearby when you need help wiping it.

    Not that most of us wouldn't be inordinately grateful to have their guaranteed health care benefits...

  • Brad O'Brien on February 19, 2013 4:30 PM:

    I've said all along here in the People's Republic of Incumbentstan cannot count on legislators enacting term limits. But we must all recognize the need for age limits.
    In the 80s Walter Cronkite was told to retire from CBS at aged 65. He lived on several decades embittered that he wasnt permitted to stay on the job like the 60 MINUTES geezers.
    I'd rather we cap all Federal elective or appointed jobs so that no one could be in "public service" after aged 68.
    Slim chance of that happening though.

  • alix on February 21, 2013 8:44 PM:

    Truth is, at the age of 40 or even 50, you have a reasonable expectation of good health and especially good MENTAL health, at least the continuation of what you're used to. But after 60, you truly don't know. Many will live healthy for another couple decades. Some will have a stroke and live on impaired for years. Some will have major health crises and have to spend their energy getting better rather than on their jobs.

    I see this as someone on the edge of 60. We just don't know. Perfectly healthy people suddenly become unhealthy. That's not very common before 50, but it's pretty common after 60. And very few of us can expect good enough health after 80, and especially enough energy, to stay sharp and focused on the complex job of an elected official.

    We have to be honest about this... and I think, as more of us have to deal with parents who were smart and tough and energetic and are now approaching senility, we might be better at gently suggesting, "Senator, it's time to give up your driver's license, and your seat too."

    If they're going to be insulted by this, well, they're too sensitive and unrealistic to be senators.

  • Rich on February 28, 2013 10:32 PM:

    Horrible examples.

    Warner's major skill was marrying wealthy women. He regularly made lists of the 10 dumbest Senators/members of Congress, which was something of a Virginia speciality for a while (Chuck Robb and George Allen also come to mind). I don't think his stupidity had much to do with age.

    Lautenberg was brought out of retirmenet to replace Torricelli. Lautenberg had just retired. No one expected him to stick around this long.