How Old Is Too Old?
Is there a point at which we should swallow our pride and admit that we’ll never resolve all the issues that are before us? Or should we continue to think that “we can handle this; it just may take a little longer’? In other words, how old is too old to do the job that we used to do at a high level? Or is age just a number, and should we insist on forging ahead until they come to cart us away? All I really know today; is that there are certain activities I used to do all night, that now take me all night to do.
There are companion questions lurking in the wings, but I’d like to address this “package” first. The short answer to the first one is, “that depends.” In the U.S. Congress, as well as the Supreme Court, we’ve had members serving as long as fifty years. How well they’ve served and for how long they’ve performed at the top of their game, are questions that can only be answered by considering the record of each individual to be examined. It’s a case by case pursuit, and we can only make certain generalizations in this limited space. We should note that there is presently a bill before Congress that would limit the age of Federal employees to 72. On the other hand, we used to call some “goldbricking” fellow airmen “retired on active duty.”
Presently there are two major favored aspirants for the next presidential term, whose age will become a hot debate point, should they each decide to run. At the end of their respective terms, they would both be in their ‘80s, which was long past our total life expectancy until a few short generations ago. These days, thanks to the miracles worked by modern medicine, we can expect to live well into our late ‘80s and beyond with reasonably good health, in many cases. But modern medicine is often trumped by lifestyle choices, like smoking, excessive drinking, and a high-fat diet. We are also subject to the various strains of dementia, which is progressive and ultimately fatal.
Nancy Reagan has written about her husband Ron’s journey through dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. She calls it “The Longest Goodbye,” and I wholeheartedly concur with her sentiments. It is a life-shortening illness, to be sure, but of daily, debilitating concern is the loss of quality of life. Add the financial burden to this mix, and we have families being drained of all their resources while caring for the afflicted member.
To put life-shortening illnesses in the context of the pressures of public service, we have this consideration to factor into a candidate’s qualifications to serve. It is more likely, at advanced ages, that some new (or latent) illness will surface and cause either lessening effectiveness or early culmination of the public servant’s capability to serve. We expect a maximum-effort performance from all our elected officials. Anything less is a disservice to their office. With that in mind, maybe age limits should not be ruled out. From my own experience, I can report that I felt that I was still at the top of my game at age 70, but I had to admit that I was getting a little tired at the end of a week of long class periods. Rather than beat the old horse to death, I retired but continued to teach part-time for the next eight years. One year later, still feeling really good, I had triple- bypass arterial surgery, so I guess my timing wasn’t too far off.
A related, and vitally important issue where it concerns political service, is the question of term limits. The original premise of holding political office was that of public service. Two terms in office were originally considered sufficient, after which the country’s needs had been served and the office-holder could return to private life. Mu memory is clouded as to exactly when all that changed, but I vividly remember Franklin D. Roosevelt dying during his fourth term in office,
just before the end of World War II. It is well-documented that this president’s mind was still acute at the time of his death, but his overall health had deteriorated so badly that it became questionable as to whether or not he would survive to the end of the war, much less finish out his elected term.
Health issues like this will often present challenges to an officeholder’s effectiveness, but there is an overriding concern regarding unlimited political terms: the question of effective public service vs. the rise of careerism. It seems that everyone except the officeholder him/herself is in favor of limiting one’s tenure in office to two terms, with some variations on that theme.
The fact that public office has morphed into a lifetime career for so many, was not the intention of the founding fathers. They couldn’t imagine that anyone would even want to serve more than two terms in the snake pit of politics.
But we live in a far different political atmosphere now. Repeated terms lead to an ever-increasing power grab, a sense of mean- spirited partisanship and the corresponding loss of its enemy, bipartisanship, or cooperation across the aisles. Various powerful lobby groups exert more influence in Congress than the voters themselves, which has led to the “purchase” of votes based on who can contribute the most money. Resulting legislation has usually favored the well-funded backer, often to the detriment of the voter. We can conclude that all this political antagonism comes with increased radicalism and the re-introduction of extremist violence.
In my non-political opinion, there should be (1) no lifetime appointments at all, for anyone, at anytime. Supreme court justices should serve no longer than ten years. (2) U.S. representatives should only serve for a total of six years (with no retirement benefits) and (4) senators should be limited to two four-year terms. I realize that this is a wildly popular concept among average voters, but who are they, anyway? Do they have any idea of what’s best for the country, after they’ve seen the Congress voting itself ever-higher salaries, marvelous retirement packages, and perks that would make a Saudi prince blush? No, the average voter has been neatly cut out of the process, and is still paying enormous overcharges for prescription drugs, and Medicare won’t pay for an Alzheimer’s medication now under development. I’ll stop chanting my litany of complaints here, lest I be tempted to start on certain lobby groups whose grip on Congress leads to ever-more slaughter in the schools.
The Last Word
When the final word’s been written, And the last line put to bed,
And the perfect rhyme seems to fall in line, Should I then lay down my head?
When I’ve heard the last great story, And the books have all been read, When the critics, lame, all applaud my name, Should I then toddle off to bed?
When there’s no more inspiration,
And up with my crap you’re fed,
When the well runs dry, but I don’t know why, Should I go play golf instead?
Well, it’s all a question of timing,
So when everything’s done and said, Make me leave the table, while I’m still able, Help me quit — while I’m ahead!
George Thatcher, 2022
George is an American Bad Ass. He grew up in Jersey, flew B-52s in Vietnam, taught English, Spanish and other languages to children around the world, makes his own salsa, has been known to enjoy a beer or two and has called Lubbock home for a few years, just to entertain the locals. Welcome to Raiderland, Major. We are going to feature some of his writings going forward. Some new, some old. Some rhyme, some don’t. When it comes to George, there’s no box. So… enjoy our friend and enjoy his writings! – Hyatt