NICK EICHER, HOST: Up next on The World and Everything in It: Aging politicians.
Last week, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate minority leader, went silent during a press conference in his home state of Kentucky. He was presented with a question about his plans following the end of his current term.
REPORTER: What are your thoughts on running for re-election in 2026?
MCCONNELL: What are my thoughts about what?
REPORTER: Running for re-election in 2026.
MCCONNELL: That's uh...
AIDE: Did you hear the question, senator running for re-election in 2026?
[Several moments of silence]
AIDE: Alright, I'm sorry, you all, we're gonna need a minute.
REICHARD: The episode is one of several that have dogged McConnell and others in Washington in recent months.
Meanwhile, out on the campaign trail, the two top candidates for president in 2024 are over the age of 75. Joe Biden ran in 2020 calling himself a bridge to the next generation of Democratic leaders. This time around, he’s said nothing of the sort.
EICHER: So how much does age and all that comes with it play into the actual physical and mental readiness of the nation’s leadership?
WORLD Washington reporter, Leo Briceno, has our story.
LEO BRICENO, REPORTER: During a press conference back in July, Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell was discussing the progress of the National Defense Authorization Act.
MCCONNELL: This week, there’s been good bipartisan cooperation, and a string of uh…
And then suddenly he froze.
AIDE: You ok Mitch?
During the 20 seconds of silence, everyone in the room could tell something wasn’t right.
JOHN BARRASSO: Anything else you want to say to the press?
Concerns about McConnell’s ability to lead have followed the minority leader since he suffered a concussion earlier this year and spent several nights in the hospital. Despite assertions that he was “fine,” the freezing incident has raised new questions. Particularly now, following the senator’s second freeze at a press event in Kentucky.
And McConnell isn’t the only legislator who has needed help from aides during a public event.
Back in July, during a Senate appropriations committee meeting, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California mistakenly began giving a speech instead of casting her vote.
DIANNE FEINSTEIN: It funds priorities submitted—huh?
PATTY MURRAY: Just say aye.
FEINSTEIN: Ok. Aye!
MURRAY: Thank you. Senator Durbin?
Feinstein had spent 10 weeks in the hospital earlier in 2023 due to a severe case of shingles. She turned 90 in June and has ceded power of attorney to her daughter.
And by now, President Joe Biden is famous for his verbal gaffes, such as last Spring at Supreme Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation ceremony.
BIDEN: America is a nation that can be defined in a single word: (incomprehensible) I was in the foothills of the Himalayas with Xi Jingping…
And after attending a memorial to victims of the wildfires on Maui, the President ignited a social media firestorm when he was caught on camera apparently nodding off.
Episodes like this underscore concerns captured in a recent APNORC poll that found over three quarters of respondents think the president is too old to effectively serve a second term. That includes almost 70 of Democrats.
So is age a political problem for lawmakers?
Well, not necessarily—at least, in terms of age itself. Sherri Snelling is a gerontologist and the CEO of the Caregiving Club.
SNELLING: A Gerontologist is someone who studies biology, psychology, and sociology and the intersection of those three areas that determine how healthy we will be, how happy we will be, and how long we will live.
Snelling believes the conversation around age in politics has become too one-dimensional. Different people, she says, experience the effects of age differently. For example, Donald Trump will turn 78 in 2024—the same age that Joe Biden was when he was elected president in 2020. But in the AP-NORC poll, only 51 percent said Donald Trump is too old to serve. So age alone isn’t enough to draw a line across the board.
SNELLING: And when it comes to things like some of the missteps we’ve seen, the actual falls, the pauses, yeah, those are cause for concern, and I would look at that on an individual basis. I wouldn't just say across the board anybody over the age of 80 needs to go. You know? But what I would say is, ‘yeah I’m really concerned about those folks’ and I hope and pray that people around them love them enough to tell them "you know what? This might be the time to take the bow."
Another reason to be skeptical of age limits is that in a country where the legislature writes the laws, experience is essential to the process.
Jim Curry is the Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Utah’s political science department. He points to former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who got a lot more done in her later years compared to earlier on in her career.
CURRY: Are you willing to sacrifice that potential skill in our government, you know, in order to have these age limits, which may come with benefits of their own, but that's the trade-off.
Curry says that age might be a very visible issue at the moment. But it’s not a new issue. Leadership on Capitol Hill used to be older—actually by default.
CURRY: Up until the 1970’s, seniority, or how long you'd been on a committee, was the sole determining factor in whether or not you were chair of the committee. If you were in the majority and you were the longest-serving member of the majority on that committee, you’d become the chair.
Over about 30 years starting in the 1970s, the parties in both chambers changed their rules so that committee leadership would be determined by party leaders rather than seniority alone. So while there are certainly a handful of key leaders serving into their 80s and beyond, younger representatives are also moving into positions of leadership much sooner than they used to.
CURRY: It’s hard to make predictions, but I do think it’s probably a blip where we’ve already seen turnover in the House. And so you’ve seen that transition happen there and it's pending in the Senate.
Concerns over age and physical readiness in presidential politics are also nothing new. Back in 1984, Ronald Reagan famously turned the issue on its head with a bit of humor.
MODERATOR: President Kennedy had to go days on end with very little sleep. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?
REAGAN: Not at all Mr. Truett, and I want you to know; I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I will not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.
Forty years later, voters still have to weigh whether older candidates—who have stood the test of time—have the wisdom and ability to perform their duties in office. Whether that office is in the House, the Senate, or the West Wing.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Leo Briceno.
WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.