You know Jerry Brown still has better than three years left
in his term as governor if he’s willing to take time off for surgery. And admit
Sure, it was just a low-rent, low-risk skin cancer the
governor had removed from his nose last week. And there are plenty of people
who would rather undergo surgery than spend a weekend at the state Democratic
But when you’re 73, the oldest man ever to hold California’s
top job and at least looking at the possibility of winning a second (or fourth)
term in office come 2014, you can be forgiven if you’d rather stay in seclusion
for a few days to avoid those inevitable photos of a man looking bandaged,
hurting and, just possibly, old.
Let’s put it this way. If Brown found out during last fall’s
campaign that he had a non-threatening basal cell carcinoma on his nose,
there’s no way that he – or any other post-retirement age candidate – would
have had this surgery and reminded voters that no one escapes the ravages of
It’s not fair, of course. People of all ages get sick all
the time. With allergy season in full swing, Sacramento and Washington are full
of sneezing, wheezing, watery-eyed politicians struggling to make it through
the day. But when it’s someone near the biblical three-score-and-10 who’s
hacking and staggering around, people, aka voters, look at those ailments in a
very different light.
A politician can laugh aside forgetting a name or blowing a
line in a speech as "a senior moment," but only if he’s not a senior himself.
Let someone who’s 70-plus make those same mistakes, however,
and it’s won’t be very long before he’s under a close watch by everyone from
his aides and the party leadership to constituents and those would-be
challengers who have become increasingly unhappy about waiting around for a
In 2000, for example, five-term Sen. William Roth of
Delaware, then 79, managed to fall down a couple times during his re-election campaign,
once in full view of television cameras waiting to film his speech.
His aides quickly blamed the stumbles on "an inner-ear
problem," which could happen to anyone. That’s not the way voters saw it,
though. The race, which was a dead heat the week before the election, turned
into a 56 percent to 44 percent landslide for Democratic Gov. Tom Carper.
It’s a lesson that hasn’t been lost on politicians.
The Golden State, for example, has plenty of officeholders
who fall into that ill-defined danger zone between well seasoned and
superannuated. In a state that supposedly worships youth, the governor is 73,
Sen. Barbara Boxer is 70 and Sen. Dianne Feinstein is less than two months
short of her 78th birthday.
Feinstein already is gathering endorsements for her 2012
re-election campaign, when she’ll be 79 if she wins a fourth full term and 85
when she completes it.
She absolutely doesn’t want to get the flu in the weeks
before Election Day.
While the constant turnover of term limits has kept the
average age down in the Legislature, 20 members of California’s congressional
delegation are older than 65, with 10 of them in their 70s.
Now age was never much of a factor in the safely partisan,
incumbent-friendly congressional districts state legislators have drawn in the
past. But with a special citizen’s redistricting commission now working to
redraw those district lines without worrying about where an incumbent lives, at
least some people in Congress will be facing unwanted competition in 2012.
And voters in those competitive districts, facing a real
choice for the first time in more than a decade, will be watching the
candidates closely. For everything.
That means it’s time for politicians to stock up on Vitamin
C, allergy medicine and skin bronzer so they can give their best Superman
imitations. And they better remember to lift their feet when they walk up the
steps to give a speech.
John Wildermuth is a
long-time writer on California politics.