Dianne Feinstein, a senator from California for decades, died last week at age 90. Feinstein voted on a spending bill in the Senate Thursday morning before going home for the day and dying sometime late Thursday evening or Friday morning. Few people would criticize her work ethic. She took on a new 31-year career at a time in her life when most workers would be looking forward to retirement. She was pushing 60 when she was elected to the Senate. In the last several years of her storied career Feinstein faced pressure to retire from colleagues and constituents both in Congress and California. Prior to her death some people claimed she tarnished her legacy as a powerhouse in politics by staying in the Senate beyond her ability to effectively serve.
Feinstein spent months away from the Senate last spring due to an illness and at times had to rely on aides to do everything from pushing her in a wheelchair, to explaining issues and when (and how) to vote. It was only about seven months ago in February that Feinstein finally announced that she would not seek reelection for another term.
Former South Carolina governor, Nikki Haley has called the U.S. Senate “the most privileged nursing home in the country.” The average age of the Senate in 2023 is 64, with more than half older than age 65. Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders are both 81. Senator Charles Grassley is 89, while Senator Feinstein died last week at age 90.
Twenty years ago, former South Carolina senator, Strom Thurmond, died at age 100. Thurmond had been a governor who was later elected to the Senate. He too served a full career in the Senate, retiring after 48 years at age 99. Like Feinstein, near the end of his career there were calls for him to retire. His last year in the Senate he basically lived at Walter Reed Army National Medical Center, was so hard of hearing he couldn’t follow debates and had to be told by aides how to vote.
The age of politicians is an issue partly because of concern about the age of presidential candidates. When he was elected to a second term in 1984 Ronald Reagan was 73 years of age. At that time we was the oldest presidential candidate nominated by a major party in the history of the United States. In the 2020 election, Donald Trump was 74 while Joe Biden was 77. In 2024 Trump will turn 78 while Biden will turn 82. If either wins the presidential election, they will be 82 and 86 respectively when leaving office.
The advanced age of President Joe Biden raises an important question: how old is too old? Should there be an age cut-off for politicians?
A recent poll from YouGov/CBS News showed that 77% of respondents said that there should be a maximum age limit for elected officials, with the most popular cutoff being 70 years old. The idea of an age limit for the presidency or Congress isn’t entirely new; Jimmy Carter even endorsed the concept in 2020. But the prospect of a mandatory political retirement age seems newly relevant with protests over our “gerontocracy” filling news outlets seemingly daily.
Keep in mind there already is an age limit. According to the Constitution one must be 35-years of age to be elected president. Framers of the Constitution never thought to include an upper age limit. Our first president, George Washington, was age 65 when he left office and decided to retire from public life. Indeed, the first four presidents left office at ag 65 and the 5th left at age 66. Warren G. Harding was just 57 when he suffered a heart attack and died while in office. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was just 63 when he died in office during his third term. Zachery Taylor was 65 when he died in office, while William Henry Harrison was 68.
One problem with age limits is that age 70 is different in different people. While I know some people who are mentally sharp and active in their late 70s, I know others who are not. It’s not just mental acuity, it’s also physical stamina. Here is an explanation from Stat News:
Older adults, those 65 and older, are the most heterogeneous group for a given age with regard to health and abilities. As Louise Aronson, author of “Elderhood” and a geriatrician colleague of mine at UCSF, pointed out in a Salon article discussing Biden as the first octogenarian president, “There is a legitimate increase in risk of disease, disability, and death with advancing age and that risk varies tremendously among octogenarians depending on their health, opportunities, and function.” Aging is a heterogenous, unpredictable process mitigated by old-fashioned advantages in life and luck.
Then there are arguments that discussing age is discrimination.
As Ashton Applewhite, anti-ageism activist and author of “This Chair Rocks,” has pointed out more than once, “Generalizations about the capacities of older people are no more acceptable than racial or gender stereotypes. Period.” Let’s race on the real debates.
Seriously? An airline pilot undergoes a flight physical every six months to assess their health. There used to be an Airline Age 60 Rule for commercial airline pilots, limiting the age at which they would legally fly passengers. It has since been repealed and now airline captains can fly until age 65 and work in other capacities, such as flight engineers, until they can no longer pass the flight physical.
By contrast, a supreme court justice serves for life unless they choose to retire. A senator serves for six years while a president serves for four years before facing a new election. A member of the House of Representatives serves for wo years before facing another election. Once elected there are no easy ways to remove them should their health status change.
Questions of age and ability are uncomfortable questions, especially for 70 million Baby Boomers as they succumb to old age. Nonetheless, these are important questions. This is especially true when some people are over the hill at age 60, while others are still climbing at age 90.