The Aging of the Political Class

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

We are in an era when we recycle politicians.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s previous governor, told a highly credible source recently he may hit the comeback trail. It was not clear when. The macho muscle builder and cinema action-hero is a boyish 66.

According to the same source, Jerry Brown, the state’s current irrepressible chief executive could have one more presidential run in him. After he wins a fourth term as anticipated he would have turned 82 before launching another quest for the White House.

Hilary Clinton is a prohibitive favorite to win her party’s nomination in 2016 trying for the second time. If successful she would be, at a perky 68 on inaugural day, 22 years older than her husband when he first ran.

Only Ronald Reagan, 69 when he assumed the Presidency, trumps that.

Dianne Feinstein, California’s hard charging senior senator, is running for re-election. She would be 86 at the completion of her fourth term.

The average age of a U.S. Senator is 60—its highest average in history. In the House the average is 55—the oldest in a century.

Presidents since George Washington have averaged a little over 54 at inauguration which made Barack Obama at 47 a young pup. Washington was a doddering 57 but that was when the average life span in the U.S. was 47 and 35 for males!

In the modern era only two presidents upon taking office bested Obama in the youth category: Bill Clinton was 46 and John F. Kennedy was 43. The youngest ever to take the oath was Teddy Roosevelt in 1901—-a precocious 42.

If age is a limiting factor in seeking public office there is little evidence that it counts for much. A few of the most durable figures from bygone times challenge our pet assumptions about who is or is not fit for office.

Senator Carl Hayden of Arizona was a sprightly 92 when he cast his final vote. He had nothing on Strom Thurmond of South Carolina who retired one month after reaching 100!

Of course they and others are suspected by some of lingering well beyond their capacity to function effectively.

For the last nineteen months of President Woodrow Wilson’s presidency after suffering a stroke, his wife, Edith, pretty much ran things. Eleanor Roosevelt did the same when FDR also fell victim to a stroke. Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer condition was not disclosed until six years after leaving office. It is not known how it may have affected him.

We now have drugs targeted at every human condition and stores stocked with countless youth-prolonging vitamins. We are conducting genetic cloning whose DNA tampering could determine the very nature of our beings at birth!

Since politicians have proven their longevity, given the perilous issues entrusted them, like surgeons, judges, economists and bus drivers they need to be functioning at optimum levels.

With revolutions and unrest accelerating around the globe, the political gene is turning out to be even more important than we realized. Though medical research may never be capable of inventing the perfect politician, we should probably be doing all we can to limit the damage when peak performance appears unobtainable.

The questions are what standards should we apply in determining career disability and what signs do we look for?

Age is hardly the most important factor in evaluating readiness for public office or keeping it.

We are prone to elect and re-elect politicians regardless of age who will leave no mark on history, have serious if often undisclosed character flaws, and whose principal attribute is name familiarity.

What we do know is that, when it comes to judging a politician’s merits primarily on the basis of age or time in office, history is not the best guide. We might start by examining their voting records and how they behave.

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