By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
Washington’s Wrinkled: (clockwise from top) President Joe Biden (79 years old); Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley (88 years old); former President Donald Trump (75 years old); California Senator Dianne Feinstein (88 years old)
Age is quite the grenade in politics these days. An unflattering article on April 14 about longtime Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) in the San Francisco Chronicle has ignited a firestorm.
Four U.S. senators, several former Feinstein staffers, and another unnamed member of Congress told the Chronicle that Feinstein’s fading memory and lack of mental acuity make her unfit to serve at nearly 89 years of age. Three of the four senators and one of the staffers who were interviewed are Democrats.
Many Democrats are already torqued off at Feinstein because she lavishly praised Republican Senator Lindsey Graham during the heated confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett in October 2020.
“This has been one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in,” Feinstein said before hugging Graham. “I want to thank you for your fairness.”
Dianne Feinstein's infamous 2020 hug of fellow Senator Lindsey Graham. Feinstein has served in the Senate since 1992.
Renowned for her feistiness, Feinstein is now said to be overly reliant on her staff, which has been accused of covering up her frailty and alarming lapses. So she finds herself at the center of the ongoing argument that our highest elected officials linger too long in office and grow stale or worse.
Term limits are said to be the best way to keep Congress fresh, invigorated and at least a little less under the influence of big-moneyed special interests. It is pointed out that other professions have age limits. Commercial airline pilots are required to retire at age 65, air traffic controllers at 56.
I suspect those particular rules have more to do with cost than safety, because salary and costly benefits usually increase with tenure in the private sector. Ageism is inevitably in the mix, too.
Republicans and their media allies are having a field day with their claims that President Biden, 79, can’t find his way out of a paper bag. According to right-wing columnists like the New York Post’s Maureen Callahan, on any given day Biden “thinks that his V.P. is his wife, or that his wife is his sister and his sister is the First Lady, or that Michelle Obama is the vice president or that Barack Obama is Donald Trump and vice versa.”
This constant drumbeat of “Biden is senile” claims has been very effective. A recent Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 48% of Americans are worried about his mental fitness.
“So are some of his own staffers, who, according to a Politico report, mute or turn off his live press conferences — so alarmed are they by the inevitable next malapropism or false claim or thought to nowhere or near-catastrophic foreign policy bungle,” Callahan wrote in the New York Post on April 14.
When I watch Biden, I see a man who is reasonably sharp for his age, especially one with the weight of the world on him. Heck, I’m nearly 65 and my memory fritzes (especially with names) while I’m speaking and my life is a breeze. My carcass is creaky and I’m starting to shuffle when I walk, but I’m still productive and I know my wife isn’t the First Lady.
I find it amusing that Trump supporters never seem to mind Trump’s incoherent rambling or inability to stay focused during the course of a sentence. Nor are they troubled by his jarringly unrelated answers to specific questions or his bizarre statements such as, “If you have a windmill anywhere near your house, congratulations, your house just went down 75 percent in value. And they say the noise causes cancer.”
Trump is nearly 76 and will likely be even more incomprehensible by the time he returns to the White House in 2025, which is a distinct possibility. I have a growing sense that in all his self-absorption, vanity, ignorance and intellectual laziness, he is being manipulated by his party, special interests, and even foreign powers. Age-related mental decline will only make him more vulnerable to them.
It’s disconcerting that after the upheaval and turmoil of the Trump years, an old white man was chosen to lead this country back to normalcy. Prior to Biden, the oldest President had been Trump, who took office at 70. Before him it was Ronald Reagan, 69, in 1980, who reportedly got loopy during his second term.
The median age of our Presidents has been 55. By contrast, the Senate is a collection of ancient artifacts. The average age of its current members is an all-time high of 64.3, led by Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, 88, who is seeking re-election. If successful, he will be in Strom Thurmond territory by the time his term ends in 2029. Thurmond, a Democrat-turned-Republican from South Carolina, went belly-up in office at age 100 in 2003.
According to a YouGov poll in January, 58% of Americans favor an age limit for elected officials. Retirement would be mandatory at 70 — meaning 71% of current US senators (23) would have to vamoose. I see some merit in this as America is in dire need of fresh, innovative ideas and positive, youthful energy. The downside is that effective legislators will automatically be swept out and replaced by God knows who.
Feinstein’s defenders say she’s still with it despite a particularly rough personal stretch. “The last year has been extremely painful and distracting for me, flying back and forth to visit my dying husband who passed just a few weeks ago,” Feinstein said in a statement to the Chronicle. “But there’s no question I’m still serving and delivering for the people of California, and I’ll put my record up against anyone’s.”
Unfortunately, a Public Policy Institute of California poll found that only 36 per cent of likely voters approved of her performance, a nine percent drop from a year ago.
When it’s time to go, it’s time to go. Unfortunately, some folks in Washington can’t tell what time it is.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.