How Old Is Too Old?

Just how old can a politician be before he's too old to do his job effectively? This is a question that a number of politicians are going to be grappling with soon. For starters, Vice President Joe Biden is making some noises suggesting the possibility of a run for president in 2016. Before we get to the question of his age, let's get this out of the way: Of course Biden wants to be president. That's not a guarantee that he'll run, but he ran twice before so he has obviously wanted it for a long time, his profile has never been higher, he probably feels like he saved his boss's bacon in his debate with Paul Ryan, he's plainly having a great time as a highly influential VP working on a broad range of issues both foreign and domestic, and like any reasonably successful politician, he no doubt thinks he'd be great at the job.

But Biden will turn 74 in 2016, which would make him the oldest president in American history. Ronald Reagan was just shy of 74 when he took the oath for his second term, and in retrospect there were some signs that he was already developing the Alzheimer's disease that would eventually take his life. There have been two recent party nominees of similar ages—Bob Dole was 73 when he ran in 1996, and John McCain was 72 in 2008—and age became an issue for both. The presidency is obviously an intellectually, emotionally, and physically demanding job, with long hours and a constant stream of momentous decisions to be made. There is some flexibility if the president wants it badly enough; Reagan basically kept banker's hours, and George W. Bush logged a remarkable 1,020 vacation days during his eight year term, spending over a third of his tenure either at Camp David, his ranch in Texas, or Kennebunkport. But there's little doubt that the ordinary dimunitions of age, like a decline in stamina and memory, are going to make a president less effective.

That being said, what happens to most people as they age won't necessarily happen to any particular person as he or she ages. It could be that Biden is going to be unusually sharp and vigorous into his eighties. But if he were elected and then re-elected, he'd be 82 at the end of his second term. And the other potential bigfoot candidate in the race, Hillary Clinton, would face similar questions. She'll be 69 in 2016.

Which brings us to the story of one octogenarian who apparently has no intention of shuffling off to a quiet retirement. New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg turns 89 years young today, and is letting it be known that he won't step aside for that whippersnapper Cory Booker. When asked about his staff's characterization of Booker as "disrespectful" for publicly considering a run for Lautenberg's seat, Lautenberg told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "I have four children, I love each one of them. I can't tell you that one of them wasn't occasionally disrespectful, so I gave them a spanking and everything was OK." Well then.

At the end of another term, Lautenberg would be approaching his 97th birthday. But what kind of a hindrance would his age be? The fact is that a senator's staff is much more capable of doing most or all of his job than a president's staff is. Yes, the president has a huge number of people around him who take care of many things, but there are still lots of decisions only he can make. A senator, on the other hand, can be as involved as he chooses in the affairs of the government. He doesn't have to attend committee meetings if he doesn't want to (sit through a hearing on Capitol Hill some time; unless it's going to be on the evening news, attendance is often sparse, as members will come, stay for a few minutes, then leave to attend to other business). He doesn't have to stay up late into the night writing bills; many barely bother with the whole legislating thing. The only thing he absolutely has to do is be there for the critical votes, and he has plenty of help for that. Strom Thurmond stayed in office past his 100th birthday, groping young women in elevators until nearly the end.*

But the potential for diminished capacity isn't actually the strongest argument against Lautenberg going for another term. Conor Friedersdorf points out that the unfeeling actuarial tables tell us that chances are pretty good Lautenberg would die while in office. That's certainly something the voters could reasonably consider.

*In case you weren't aware, Thurmond was more than a garden-variety sexual harasser. He literally walked (and later, wheeled) around Capitol Hill groping nearly any young woman who got within arm's reach. Every woman who worked there knew that unless you wanted your ass pinched or your boob grabbed, you'd better not get within five feet of him (and if you didn't know it, you'd find out the hard way). It was that charming old-school Southern gentility.

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