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How Old Is Too Old in Politics?

I am a retired surgeon.

My mother is alive at 101; my father lived to be 97. Both appear (past tense for father) alert and cogent to a casual observer. That is far, far from true. I am well: no medications, quite active, etc. My experience with peers and patients (my practice was joint replacement; Medicare age heavily represented) and general observations prompted me to retire from surgery at age 70 and completely at 71.

I greatly enjoyed my medical/surgical practice and was in no way “burned out.” With a largely Medicare population, I am far from wealthy. In order to cheer myself—or, at least, to reassure myself of this decision—I did a little research. You can see how my voting will go from what I wrote:

Old age brings physical infirmity and illness. Mental decline—especially in tasks requiring rapid analysis and fluidity of thought—is also inevitable. Although length of life has increased, there has not been an accompanying improvement in physical and mental well-being. Between 5 and 14 percent of people aged over 70 suffer some form of dementia, and this incidence nearly doubles every five years. Roughly 20 percent of those aged over 80 are mentally impaired, and by 90 years, up to 40 percent have dementia.

Loss of insight and judgment are nearly universal with dementia. These changes may be subtle; worse, a person with diminished mental acuity will never recognize their dementia. For the elderly, rapid yet complete and accurate decision making as is required in some occupations may be difficult, even impossible. Conflict then occurs between personal interests versus public safety; these are ideally resolved in favor of public safety.

Certain positions come with a mandatory retirement age: air-traffic controller, 56 years; federal law-enforcement officer, 57 years; airline pilot, 65 years; diplomat (but not ambassador!), 65 years. At least eight states require mandatory retirement for certain types of judges. Several health systems have introduced mandatory retirement or competence testing by age 75. Doctors can injure people, of course, but only one at a time, and an airline pilot might be responsible for several hundred deaths. In either event, the effect of an error is immediate and obvious. With consequences delayed and unclear, a president, legislator, or judge might repeatedly ruin the lives of tens of millions with misguided decisions and undo a lifetime of their own accumulated esteem.

Woodrow Wilson represented the U.S. at the Paris Peace Talks following World War I. During these talks, Wilson became ill. One school of thought on how harshly the Treaty of Versailles treated Germany is that Wilson failed to counter the French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, who prevailed: Germany was destroyed, disorganized, and demoralized. The result in Germany included paranoia, rabidly defensive nationalism, intense racism, and division. The consequence was Hitler, World War II, and the Holocaust.

FDR was impaired when elected to his fourth term in 1944. The Yalta Conference in early 1945 determined the fate of Germany after World War II. According to some, its terms inadvertently set the way for Stalin and the Soviets to dominate Eastern Europe and precipitated the Cold War. It is believed that Roosevelt’s weakened state was partly responsible. FDR died two months later.

Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma will be 93 when his term is completed. Chuck Grassley is running for another Senate term; Senator Dianne Feinstein is leaning toward another term in 2024. If reelected, both will be 94 at the end of their term. In Congress, there are currently more than 10 members over the age of 80. The current Supreme Court’s conservative composition is in part attributable to the liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. RBG is respected as a Supreme Court justice and brilliant legal strategist. Yet, in her 80s and having survived several episodes of cancer, she lacked the insight to retire.

Just as the requisite hyperconfidence of a successful person might become dangerous hubris with years of power and influence, a decline from highly functional, wise, and insightful to mildly eccentric to overtly demented can subtly occur. Those in positions of power carry a burden to provide for clients, patients, constituents, customers. As they age, they deserve respect and, if desired and appropriate, a position where they will contribute. They also carry an obligation to potential successors, and their best action might be stepping aside, deferring to a younger, more astute and mentally agile individual who would benefit from mentorship or guidance. Consider Sir Isaac Newton’s observation: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”


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