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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.