Can somebody please tell me what the big brouhaha about John Conyers is all about? I know that the Michigan congressman is embroiled in some sort of big-time scandal but I never get to the meat of it because I can’t get past an item of biographical info that always appears high up in the coverage.
The Congressman – and until Sunday, the ranking Democratic member of the House Judiciary Committee -- Is 22 years into qualifying for full Social Security retirement benefits. He is 18 years past the mandatory retirement age for most civil servants and more than three decades older than the average CEO of a Fortune 500 company. If Conyers were a member not of the U.S. Congress, but of the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals – not a group known for its youthful vim and vigor – he would have been required to hand in an automatic, age-based resignation letter in 2004.
Experts agree that successful aging involves maintaining a network of human relationships. So I guess it’s good for Conyers that, as a major Democrat for whom 80 candles on a cake means “don’t retire!” he has loads of company. At 84, Senator Dianne Feinstein has announced that she is seeking re-election, thus envisioning herself in high office until she has hit the big nine-oh, at least. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are both entertained as 2020 presidential prospects when they would take office at 78 and 79 respectively. House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi just might get the Speaker’s gavel back in 2019 – thus becoming not only the first woman ever elected to that office, but the oldest person by nearly a decade.
Make no mistake: Both as a left-of-center American and as a relatively sane one, I would rather have Biden and Pelosi running the country while popping Xarelto and looking for their teeth than Donald Trump and Paul Ryan running it under any circumstances. But honest to God, are those the only options?
There are so very many reasons to hope not, most of them far beyond the oft-cited problem of optics. Nor is it simply a question of individuals’ personal fitness to serve. Even if every elder were the strongest of statesmen, it would be a terrible idea to keep everyone younger (read: under sixty) in an endless holding pattern. For every leader who strives to forge gloriously on like Queen Elizabeth, there have got to be twenty talented, ambitious would-be successors who are sick and tired of waiting around -- and being seen to be waiting around -- like poor Prince Charles.
And let’s face it, not every elder is the strongest of statesmen and thank you in advance for the hate mail. If Social Security is the third rail of American politics, the question of any increased likelihood of decline on the part of the people eligible for Social Security has got to be the third rail of American conversation. To hint that anyone might to be too old for anything is to be labeled “ageist!” and pelted with examples of nonagenarian marathoners, mountain climbers, authors, scientists, titans of industry. No question, some people do maintain their brilliant sheens right into the shadow of their centennials and I, for one, could not be more grateful that Ruth Bader Ginsburg seems to be one of them. Somehow, though, this doesn’t seem quite true of Conyers. It certainly wasn’t true of Senators Robert Byrd or (Republican) Strom Thurmond, both of whose service would have been better if briefer.
Nor can it be true of all the old friends we have in high places. Well...I suppose it is possible to believe that notwithstanding a lifetime of rubber chicken, air travel and industrial-grade stress, an amazing proportion of U.S. politicians are like some much-studied subset of hundred-year-old hill people; truly capable of flourishing for decades beyond the norm. Otherwise, just on the statistics, one can't accept current levels of super-seniority without accepting at least one pretty dubious proposition. One could, for example, reject the idea that to hold elective office is extremely demanding, both physically and mentally. Alternatively, one could accept that the office holder is merely a figurehead, most of whose actual work can be done by unelected staffers. Or one can calculate that despite showing the normal amount of wear and tear, a given incumbent’s hanging on to the job is better than its being ceded it to somebody new.
This last one seems most on point – and off the wall. The question for any incumbent, at any age, ought not to be “why should they have to go?” but rather “why should they get to stay?” This only becomes more true with time. It is fine to think that Feinstein, for example, can still do her job. What’s toxic, though, is the implicit notion that nobody else can. And it’s poisoning the party not to let anyone else try.
I’m not remotely hoping that the old guard just shrivel up and disappear. On the contrary, the peaceful transfer of power is a difficult miracle to work – yes, “work.” It’s a major effort, into which the party’s most seasoned politicians ought to be throwing themselves with brio. Rather than gaming out their own last hurrah’s, these folks ought to be helping to plot the party’s next ones. If, for example, Pelosi deserves her reputation for political savvy – for an ability to muster troops in the Congress and frame issues for base voters outside it, not to mention the storied fundraising touch -- she should be transferring all those skills, all that support to a well chosen heir or three. If she truly cherishes the idea of a Democratic takeover of the House in 2018, she will show her leadership by handing her leadership position to someone whom the Republicans haven’t spent the last twenty-odd years (unfairly but effectively) branding a Bolshevik.
That’s just the politics. Don’t forget the policy side of this, which is huge.
Ours is a time of epic mismatching. For so many people, skills don’t match existent jobs, income levels don’t match expected lifestyles, actual social status doesn’t match theoretical legal status, and so on. This goes for chronological age too: it’s so much harder now to fit a person’s age to anything else about him. it’s no longer shocking for a twelve-year-old to be fluent in Spanish, Mandarin and three kinds of code – or for a thirty-year-old to live in his parents’ basement. Women contemplate childbirth in their forties, but even if they never have kids, they can now color, blow bubbles and go to sleepaway camp with people their own age. Many more millions of people than ever previously imagined now live into their eighties and nineties. Of course this is all great!
Well, no, come to think of it, it’s not all great – but it feels so wrong even to type that. When it comes to the ups and downs of increased longevity -- as with so many other developments -- Americans insist upon seeing only the “up.” For purposes of the culture, then, super-seniors are either miracles of eternal vigor, or objects of pity. Admirable, or invisible. Energetic, hilarious and wise, or silent. Amazingly functional, or functionally dead.
Given all this, no American wants to compromise with age – least of all top-tier politicians, who hate to compromise with anything. Thus, the people in charge of grappling with these issues on behalf of the nation, are the very people who refuse to do so for themselves. From health care to Social Security to the economy:
How can leaders address the myriad issues arising from the fact that America is aging, while in such absurd denial of the fact that they are aging, too?