How Old Is Too Old in Politics?

“One’s physical and mental acuity is a valid voting factor,” writes one reader.

People standing at voting machines
Michael M. Santiago / Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week, I asked: “How should voters assess the physical and mental fitness of politicians, and how should the press cover such matters?”

Bekke points out that voters have a tough job:

How to decide who is mentally fit to serve is a true conundrum. Like beauty, it is mostly in the eye of the beholder. Media can be a big influence and paid ads can sway voters. Given the First Amendment, it’s difficult to throttle “free speech” regardless of its veracity. In the end, it comes down to the voters doing their due diligence and really paying attention to the candidate’s policies, rather than listening to media hype and attack ads.  

Glenn believes that the matter calls for impolite journalism, a necessity that is heightened by a generational characteristic of Baby Boomers:

If the World War II generation was the “Greatest Generation,” then the Baby Boomer generation is the “longest generation.” They refuse to retire; can’t imagine retiring; won’t retire!

The Greatest Generation made its name and reputation on the battlefields of Europe, all the time looking to return home to a normal life with their family, whether it existed yet or not. Once home in the postwar era, they set about building a career, a life, a family, and a nation, but always looked to retirement when they could enjoy the fruits of their labor in a much more private manner. The Baby Boomers are nothing like that. They have never contemplated any life beyond a professional one. And so their plan seems to be to hang on to whatever power, prestige, or routine their work affords them for as long as possible.

We all value this stubborn “not gonna quit” mentality, and of course many of us can be highly functional assets to our chosen profession very late in life. But it is equally apparent that many of us can and do lose some of our acuity and utility as we grow older. This physical reality, coupled with the psychological makeup of our current eldest generation, has forced the burden of determining “when it's time to go,” from the individual to the rest of society. None of us are comfortable making these decisions within our own families, much less for someone else’s family. These decisions are being made privately in company boardrooms and family living rooms all over America today. But in the political arena, such decisions are necessarily made in a very public setting.

Voting is a big responsibility. Every citizen is asked to make very difficult and messy boardroom and living-room decisions for our nation in a very public way. If we are to make the best decisions possible, we need accuracy and fairness more than politeness from our media. One’s physical and mental acuity is a valid voting factor. Is that ageism? Maybe. Is it appropriate for the people that have to choose the leaders of the free world?  

Absolutely.

If the days of the party nominations coming out of a smoke-filled back room are over—and they are—then we will have to make some very public, very uncomfortable decisions, and we will need some very public, very uncomfortable reporting to fulfill our civic duty.

Rachel feels herself to be at the mercy of media that are failing to perform their duties:

Can the population assess a candidate’s fitness to serve without honest reporting? We, the plebeian class, find ourselves caught between two forces of chaos while our journalistic class finds ever more justifications to align with one of them. Honest assessments are met with cries of some evil “-ism”, as if basic journalistic integrity is fodder for oppressors.

Our journalistic class has spent a year telling me Democracy is in peril—that if I do not come to the same conclusion as them, I am killing our republic. But I believe that the failure of our journalists to report honestly, to strive to separate their personal perspectives from their public service, is killing our democracy. A polity unable to honestly assess a candidate’s fitness because journalists fear having a scarlet A for ableism sewn to their profiles is a population incapable of carrying the weight of our democracy.

Whereas Harold would prefer a less individualistic approach to evaluating candidates:

There is a myth in America: Change, innovation, and genius flow from a single person, preferably a model of perfection. Those around them who made all of it possible share little in the success. It is a story that shapes who we perceive as being worthy to represent us. Should anyone exhibit any characteristic that is viewed as a deviation from perfection, then they are no longer qualified for the position. I find it all very disheartening.

And Timothy believes the press should avoid even raising the question of age in order to avoid ageism:

There are 90-year-olds getting college degrees and opening businesses and there are 60-year-olds rotting away in a recliner watching I Love Lucy reruns for the 96th time. Young politicians should not have their age used as a weapon to create doubt about their competency any more than an old politician should have their age used as a weapon to create doubt about their competency. Even mere mentions of a candidate’s age, presented as nothing more than fact, can impose bias in the public and should be avoided.

Other than the candidate meeting the legal minimum required age to serve in the office, there should be no mention of a candidate’s age by the press nor the opponent unless the candidate themselves makes it an issue. Just as a criminal defendant’s medical conditions can’t be pursued in court unless the defendant brings it up, age needs to be protected to start removing ageism from our conversations.

Meredith attempts to draw distinctions:

As a mother of a neurodivergent son and a volunteer who helps adults with disabilities, ableism is not a subject I take lightly. We live in a country that continues to overlook the dignity, rights, and needs of citizens with disabilities and that undervalues the lives of our seniors. To assess a particular politician, ask one simple question: Can the impairments in question be mitigated with reasonable accommodations? If so, withholding those accommodations would be wrong. However, if there is no form of support that could assist a person in performing the duties to which they were elected, questioning their suitability is appropriate. A free and fair society must have a media where their fitness to serve can be challenged, but there is a way to do so that targets the issue and not the person.

If we keep throwing ableism and ageism around to shut down criticism, we become complicit in covering up the systemic ableism that permeates our world and presents the REAL problem for those living with disabilities or returning to the workforce at an advanced age. I DO see the impact of ableism in our society, in our cities, in how we educate, work, and recreate … I don’t see it in asking our elected officials to put the needs of their constituents above their own need to be the person holding the office when age or illness impairs their ability to serve. I share the desire that our politicians be cognitively capable.

Theodore wants voters to get help from experts so that they can make more objective decisions:

Where issues of mental competence or mental health arise, I would suggest a politically neutral panel of eminent doctors specializing in neurological and psychiatric disorders, perhaps convened by the National Academy of Sciences or some similarly distinguished, apolitical, medical or scientific body, either at the initiative of the convening body or upon the request of the candidate whose fitness has been challenged. The candidate or candidates would be asked to submit to examination by the panel. The panel would be tasked with examining the candidate and issuing a public report on the candidate’s fitness for the public office he or she seeks and, if appropriate, the candidate’s prognosis over his or her prospective term. The report should be couched in nontechnical, easily understandable language capable of being understood by the general public.

Bruce agrees:

I don’t believe voters can or should have to decide on the physical and mental health of candidates for public office when plenty of experienced experts are available. As a starter, I suggest a board of five nonpartisan physicians, including a neurologist and a psychiatrist, who are permitted to fully examine candidates for the presidency and vice presidency and report their findings publicly and transparently in a manner to be determined.

But Robert warns against misleading ourselves into overestimating the objectivity of our impressions and judgments:

This obsession with the mental and physical health of politicians is part of a larger problem: misuse of medical terminology to give a patina of scientific objectivity to subjective judgments. We label someone a “narcissist” when we mean to say he’s a bit full of himself. We call someone a “sociopath” when we mean to say she’s insensitive to our feelings. We rarely, if ever, diagnose people on our side. It is always a way of saying someone on the other side is unfit. But a mental or physical illness does not define a person. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy all suffered from serious illness while in office. All three are considered among the top presidents.

I think we should mostly leave mental- and physical-health concerns out of our political judgments. We’d be more honest if we called our politicians too old, cold, or stupid instead of making armchair diagnoses of dementia, psychopathy, or intellectual disability.

Gary stopped working to spare his patients the possibility of age-diminished performance, and criticizes politicians who stick around too long, arguing that in doing so they risk great harm to millions of people.

He writes:

I am a retired surgeon.

My mother is alive at 101; my father lived to be 97. Both appear (past tense for father) alert and cogent to a casual observer. That is far, far from true. I am well: no medications, quite active, etc. My experience with peers and patients (my practice was joint replacement; Medicare age heavily represented) and general observations prompted me to retire from surgery at age 70 and completely at 71.

I greatly enjoyed my medical/surgical practice and was in no way “burned out.” With a largely Medicare population, I am far from wealthy. In order to cheer myself—or, at least, to reassure myself of this decision—I did a little research. You can see how my voting will go from what I wrote:

Old age brings physical infirmity and illness. Mental decline—especially in tasks requiring rapid analysis and fluidity of thought—is also inevitable. Although length of life has increased, there has not been an accompanying improvement in physical and mental well-being. Between 5 and 14 percent of people aged over 70 suffer some form of dementia, and this incidence nearly doubles every five years. Roughly 20 percent of those aged over 80 are mentally impaired, and by 90 years, up to 40 percent have dementia.

Loss of insight and judgment are nearly universal with dementia. These changes may be subtle; worse, a person with diminished mental acuity will never recognize their dementia. For the elderly, rapid yet complete and accurate decision making as is required in some occupations may be difficult, even impossible. Conflict then occurs between personal interests versus public safety; these are ideally resolved in favor of public safety.

Certain positions come with a mandatory retirement age: air-traffic controller, 56 years; federal law-enforcement officer, 57 years; airline pilot, 65 years; diplomat (but not ambassador!), 65 years. At least eight states require mandatory retirement for certain types of judges. Several health systems have introduced mandatory retirement or competence testing by age 75. Doctors can injure people, of course, but only one at a time, and an airline pilot might be responsible for several hundred deaths. In either event, the effect of an error is immediate and obvious. With consequences delayed and unclear, a president, legislator, or judge might repeatedly ruin the lives of tens of millions with misguided decisions and undo a lifetime of their own accumulated esteem.

Woodrow Wilson represented the U.S. at the Paris Peace Talks following World War I. During these talks, Wilson became ill. One school of thought on how harshly the Treaty of Versailles treated Germany is that Wilson failed to counter the French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, who prevailed: Germany was destroyed, disorganized, and demoralized. The result in Germany included paranoia, rabidly defensive nationalism, intense racism, and division. The consequence was Hitler, World War II, and the Holocaust.

FDR was impaired when elected to his fourth term in 1944. The Yalta Conference in early 1945 determined the fate of Germany after World War II. According to some, its terms inadvertently set the way for Stalin and the Soviets to dominate Eastern Europe and precipitated the Cold War. It is believed that Roosevelt’s weakened state was partly responsible. FDR died two months later.

Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma will be 93 when his term is completed. Chuck Grassley is running for another Senate term; Senator Dianne Feinstein is leaning toward another term in 2024. If reelected, both will be 94 at the end of their term. In Congress, there are currently more than 10 members over the age of 80. The current Supreme Court’s conservative composition is in part attributable to the liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. RBG is respected as a Supreme Court justice and brilliant legal strategist. Yet, in her 80s and having survived several episodes of cancer, she lacked the insight to retire.

Just as the requisite hyperconfidence of a successful person might become dangerous hubris with years of power and influence, a decline from highly functional, wise, and insightful to mildly eccentric to overtly demented can subtly occur. Those in positions of power carry a burden to provide for clients, patients, constituents, customers. As they age, they deserve respect and, if desired and appropriate, a position where they will contribute. They also carry an obligation to potential successors, and their best action might be stepping aside, deferring to a younger, more astute and mentally agile individual who would benefit from mentorship or guidance. Consider Sir Isaac Newton’s observation: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

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Stephan offers a similar conclusion from the perspective of a different profession:

I’m [Federal Aviation Administration–licensed] as a commercial pilot, and I’m now 86. I no longer fly, either recreationally (which is my choice) or for work (which is the government’s choice). The FAA mandates a fixed retirement age for working pilots, which is basically age 65, though there are minor exceptions. I have also stopped driving unless it’s absolutely necessary. My 16-years-younger wife takes the wheel of our Porsche. That is my choice as well, even though I am still quite capable of driving, after a career as an automotive journalist, including the editorship of Car and Driver, that put me behind the wheel of plenty of high-performance cars, including my own modified Porsche track car.

If we don’t want 86-year-old pilots flying our airliners, why should we accept 86-year-old politicians flying our country? There should be a government-mandated retirement age, and I’d be happy with it at age 75. How many of these people whining about ableism/ageism are also complaining that they should be allowed to fly in airplanes piloted by people Dianne Feinstein’s age?  

I’m guessing none.

Margie and Don object to ageism:

As two retired business consultants who are now 83 and still going strong, we object to Americans’ reacting to anyone over 70 as somehow less able. We are very active in our retirement home, and volunteer for many other charitable endeavors here in Boulder. I do four exercise classes each week, have written letters to the local newspapers and hundreds of postcards to get out the vote, monitor the book club, attend painting sessions weekly, and host a potluck monthly for 30 to 35 residents. We also volunteer at our local library for various ESL programs. In addition, we stay in touch with our five children and 11 grandchildren, including sending boxes of homemade cookies to encourage our college students at midterms and to celebrate their birthdays. We stay informed by watching morning and nightly news, as well as the Sunday political programs and Fareed Zakaria’s take.  We are not just “napping our lives away,” that’s for sure.

My husband, a former college professor with a Ph.D., has climbed all the 14ers in the lower 48, still plays senior softball, manages the 70s team, and runs the Boulder Blues Softball Club. He works out in a gym, hikes or rides his bike at least three to four days per week. His interest in and concern for climate change has prompted him to take the lead in our efforts to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” and we now compost and recycle more than 70 percent of our refuse in our building. Fortunately for us, he also volunteers to help with everything else in our senior community, including running the Great Decisions discussion group sponsored by the Foreign Policy Association each winter. Our management here has benefited from his advice and counsel on everything from staffing to the installation of electric chargers in our communal garage, used for charging our EV and two others.  

We take umbrage at the idea that anyone beyond a certain age can no longer contribute to the greater good. If the American public chooses to lump all of us in one category just because of our ages, they’re sadly mistaken. We think Joe Biden is doing an excellent job and, if allowed to continue, will do so in another term beginning in 2024.  

Dennis reflects that age giveth and taketh qualities of a good leader:

I have a saying: “I know that tomorrow I will be wiser than I am today, because I know that today, I am wiser than I was yesterday.” At age 77, I feel very wise and able to act on that wisdom.  

Nevertheless I must admit that my strength and stamina have declined. My ability to physically act is somewhat limited compared to decades ago. Wisdom and experience are excellent traits for leaders; however, each individual is different, and voters need to be able to fully evaluate all circumstances of a candidate’s fitness. Also, do circumstances require a leader who can carry the sword in a charge in battle or have the diplomatic skills to negotiate and maintain prosperity and peace?

Hopefully, I will be able to continue being wiser tomorrow than I am today. However, I realize that at some point I may not remember what wisdom I have gained today for tomorrow––and how, when, or if this decline should occur is unpredictable. Unfortunately, age does increase the probabilities of some decline, but not when and in whom.

I fully enjoy my retirement, although I know others my age and in my profession who continue to work. I believe that most people (who are free to choose) know when it is time to retire, and we should give a candidate some credit for knowing if they are fit for the job. Still, it is the voter’s right to have as much information as possible to evaluate a candidate, and the candidate’s obligation to provide that information, and the journalist’s obligation to report on it as well.

And Errol opines:

There is something to be said for your leader having poise and exuding strength. People can call that “ableism,” and maybe it is, but we live in the real world where superficialities have value. People are going to have to learn to live with that as long as humans exist.