In space, no one can hear you scream!
Not all senior citizens are alike. How do I know this? Personal experience. I am looking forward to celebrating my mother’s 101st birthday this month. And, what is becoming less and less unusual for someone her age, she is still quite active and has all her mental faculties. Furthermore, as strange as this may sound, she is wise beyond her years. At 93, she knew it was time to sell her condo and move to independent living. Two years later, she no longer felt comfortable driving and sold her car. If and when the time comes she needs to move into assisted living, I trust she will tell me long before I ever need to suggest it.
I share this with you in response to the news Wednesday afternoon that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell unexpectedly froze during a press conference for the second time in five weeks. During coverage of the incident on MSNBC’s “Deadline White House,” host Nicole Wallace asked an insightful question, “In the current political environment (clearly referring to both GOP and Democratic concerns about Joe Biden’s advanced age), can we have an honest conversation about what Senator McConnell is experiencing without being ageist?” In McConnell’s case there may be a correlation between age and these episodes, but are they necessarily causal? On March 8 of this year McConnell suffered a concussion when he tripped while attending a Washington dinner party. One has to ask, “Absent that incident, would the Minority Leader be having these episodes when he zonks out during a press conference?”
Similar questions are understandably being asked about California Senator Dianne Feinstein who is nine years older than McConnell. And Iowa Senator Charles Grassley (89). But what about John Fetterman? The junior senator from Pennsylvania is 54 years-old, ten years under the current Senate average of 64.3 years of age. In Fetterman’s case there are equally compelling questions about his ability to serve that have nothing to do with age.
Editor-in-chief of The Bulwark Charlie Sykes responded to Wallace with what I thought was a more prescient observation. Does each of these individuals’ public stature prohibit their friends and family from doing what you or I would do with loved ones who similarly struggle with mental or physical limitations? I believe Sykes was making a much more important point. Despite the political ramifications of either McConnell or Feinstein stepping down, this is not a choice between party and country. This is about party versus grace and compassion.
The best example to make this case is McConnell because he is both victim and perpetrator. Feinstein’s early retirement should be a no-brainer. California’s Democratic governor Gavin Newsom preemptively announced he would appoint an interim replacement who would not be a candidate in 2024. Therefore, Feinstein’s decision would not effect the current Democratic majority in the Senate or provide advantage to one of the three announced candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to replace her in January 2025. Except Feinstein is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and is critical to the confirmation of Biden appointments to federal judgeships. And McConnell, who infamously blocked Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, said the Republicans will not allow Democrats to replace Feinstein on the 21 member committee consisting of 11 Democrats and 10 Republicans. Without Feinstein’s tie-breaking vote, committee votes on judicial confirmations will be deadlocked 10-10 and would not be forwarded to the full Senate for a final vote.
So, Republicans who are shedding crocodile tears about how sad it is to watch Feinstein’s physical and mental health deteriorate in front of a national television audience can put away their hankies. McConnell and his minions are the ones who are preventing Feinstein from making what is clearly the most rational choice.
Ironically, McConnell is in a similar position thanks to Kentucky’s legislature which is ruled by a GOP supermajority. As reported in the New York Times:
For decades in Kentucky, the power to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate was reserved exclusively for the governor, regardless of whether an incumbent stepped down, died in office or was expelled from Congress.
But with Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, in the state’s highest office, Republican lawmakers used their legislative supermajorities to change the state law in 2021.
Under the new law, a state executive committee consisting of members of the same political party as the departing incumbent senator will name three candidates the governor can choose from to fill the vacancy on a temporary basis. Then a special election would be set, and its timing would depend on when the vacancy occurs.
One more example of a Republican legislature changing the law when it no long benefits them politically. But that is a discussion for another day. Among the likely candidates put forward will be House Oversight Committee chair James Comer who has already signaled he will run for McConnell’s seat if he does not seek re-election next year. Comer is a member of the Freedom Caucus, 2020 election denier and is leading the push to open a Biden impeachment inquiry though he has yet to identify the “crime or misdemeanor” the president might be guilty of. The sane GOP members in the Senate who make up the caucus majority therefore prefer McConnell, which means the minority leader’s personal health and well-being, like Feinstein’s, are held hostage due to externalities beyond his control.
But age or cognitive ability are not the only criteria which determine fitness for office. Given a choice between an octogenarian who occasionally makes a verbal gaffe and a young, charismatic alternative who can race through a lie faster than A. J. Foyt, I will always take the former. Which leaves only two concerns I have about one’s longevity in public life. First, like my mother, an individual does not need someone else to tell them when to exit the stage. Second, others do not create barriers which keep an individual from making that decision.
Let me close with one more personal observation. I have occasionally been asked whether I ever considered a podcast. I know my own limitations. At the top of the list, I am no Casey Kasem. I do not have a classic radio voice. A close second is the fact I find, as I have aged, I often stop in mid-sentence to get my thoughts in order. That too does not make for good audio. Which is why I stick to the written versus spoken word. To paraphrase the Alien tagline, “On WordPress, no one can hear you pause!“
For what it’s worth.