AGING POLITICIANS: How and When to Walk Away (July 31, 2023)
I’m always interested in different takes on aging. How do diverse thinkers, writers, friends and public figures come to terms with growing old?
In this and other contexts, politicians attract special scrutiny. They’re on display, in the public limelight. How do they accept, downplay or cover up their signature signs of aging? A slower gait or precarious balance? A loss for words or embarrassing gaffe? How should we value their expertise and experience as counterweights to evident physical and mental slippage?
This month a curious pair of case studies captured my attention: Marcus Tullius Cicero and Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. Two powerfully influential politicians millennia apart. What can they tell us about effective aging in the public domain?
AGILE AGING IN CLASSICAL ROME
My student contacts with ancient Greece and Rome were sporadic and superficial. Caesar’s Gallic Wars in high-school Latin class. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in ninth-grade English. A semester of Sophocles and Euripides during freshman year of college. Richmond Lattimore’s bard-like translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Sweltering mornings traipsing through the Roman Forum and Athenian Parthenon during a backpacking summer abroad. I knew these civilizations were “important,” but their inhabitants remained remote and two-dimensional.
What a delightful contrast was waiting for me when I checked out Cicero’s How to Grow Old from the Portola Valley Library. I was thrilled by this thin volume’s animation and accessibility. Here was a real person speaking and writing in 44 BC about subjects of keen interest to me today!
I knew embarrassingly little about this historic figure. Quick glances at Wikipedia and Google reduced my unfamiliarity. Marcus Cicero was a Classical superstar. One of the most respected Roman intellectuals, his philosophical principles derived mainly from Stoical values, celebrating public service, personal restraint and common sense. His chosen profession was politics, in which he was brilliantly successful. He rose rapidly to receive recognition and accolades as a legal advocate, orator, senator and statesman. He was elevated to consul, the highest elected political office in the Roman Republic. His wide-ranging writings, including translations from Greek, were admired as much for their prose as for their convictions. His retrieved letters and treatises would later profoundly influence the European Renaissance and Enlightenment.
But it wasn’t Cicero’s enduring celebrity that sparked my enthusiasm. It was his essay’s persuasive wisdom, relaxed self-confidence and wit. This ancient commentator could be our contemporary. Listen to the scope and tone of sample lessons for seniors selected from the text by Princeton translator Philip Freeman:
- A good old age begins in youth.
- Old age can be a wonderful part of life.
- There are proper seasons to life.
- Old age need not deny us an active life, but we need to accept limitations.
- The mind is a muscle that must be exercised.
- Older people must stand up for themselves.
- Sex is highly overrated.
- Cultivate your own garden.
- Death is not to be feared.
Even crediting Professor Freeman for felicitous phrasing, even acknowledging that Cicero was a privileged personage composing in his rural villa, I was encountering Agile Aging in a toga.
Cicero’s tips for his fellow retiring politicians impressed me as particularly resilient. Know when to quit; make room on the rostrum for talented juniors. Get out of the capital, so you won’t be tempted to stalk your old corridors. Don’t bemoan your loss of power and prominence. Be grateful for the occasional invitation to come back to offer an opinion. Do maintain contact with young professionals, exchanging your wisdom for their energy. Ditto with thoughtful elders, but listen as much as you spout. Attend banquets for conversation and fellowship, but go easy on the food and drink. Exercise your mind as well as your body to keep the juices flowing. Celebrate your free time and your accumulated learning; you’ve earned them. Don’t brood about life after death: if it exists, there’ll be ample time to reconnect with your predeceased pals; if it doesn’t, you won’t have to worry about it.
Growing up, I’d always assumed that ours was the most advanced civilization. After all, who put a man on the moon? Besides, all those ancient ancestors wore impractical costumes and worshipped implausible gods. Cicero helps bring me up short. Here is one savvy solon. What a treat to revisit this past with enhanced appreciation and respect.
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2024
Nancy and I watched Fareed Zakaria interview President Biden on July 9, the eve of the NATO summit in Vilnius. After covering NATO, the war in Ukraine and U.S. relations with China, Zakaria asked the President why he was determined to run again, despite his advanced and advancing years. The response seemed more memorized than energized: “I just want to finish the job.”
I wasn’t at all surprised by his ambition to keep going; Biden had already thrown his hat into the 2024 ring. But I thought immediately of Senators Feinstein and Grassley. Fellow octogenarians determined to preserve their tenure and power, surrounded by insulating phalanxes. In fact, the job of governance is never finished; it’s a continuing institutional process. Yet incumbency and seniority are addictive attributes. Many arthritic political fixtures come to see themselves as uniquely qualified, if not indispensable.
Commentators are weighing the pros and cons of our aging President’s seeking a second term. One recent assessment struck me as distinctively insightful and empathetic. Eliot A. Cohen: “Step Aside, Joe Biden,” The Atlantic (July 7, 2023.) Cohen is a prominent neoconservative and life-long Republican. In Washington’s pugilistic polarization, we might reasonably be suspicious of his publishing advice to a Democratic President. But Cohen is a complex and respected national-security expert. Educated at Harvard, he served as Counsellor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and is currently Dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). In 2020, he publicly denounced Donald Trump as unfit for office and declared he’d be voting for Biden.
In his new essay, Cohen affirms his esteem for Biden’s first-term achievements but then unsparingly looks ahead:
I am deeply grateful to Joe Biden. By defeating Donald Trump in 2020, he rescued this country from the continuing misrule of a dangerous grifter and serial liar, a man gripped by vindictiveness, lawlessness and egomania. By contrast, Biden presented himself, correctly, as a decent, experienced and entirely normal politician. He may even have saved his country. Americans owe him a profound debt of respect and appreciation.
He also has no business running for president at age 80.
Nearing 70 himself, Cohen writes with empathy for Biden’s seniority. But he insists that we forthrightly confront the realities of growing old, disparaging America’s obsession with concealment and denial:
Plenty of studies (all available at the National Institutes of Health website) document the impact of aging on memory, mental acuity and endurance; on the production of cortisol and other hormones; and on the increased chances of dementia….Betting on being the exception strikes me as the triumph of hope over experience.
The author holds his own academic peers to an equivalent standard, condemning past-their-prime professors’ determination to remain in the spotlight as matching entrenched politicians’ “narcissistic self-indulgence.”
Narrowing his focus from elder professionals’ generic vanity to Biden’s specific career, Cohen underlines that the President is already 80 and would be 86 by the time his second term expired. After reiterating the job’s debilitating pressures as grounds for resigning rather than re-running, the author acknowledges that Biden’s proactive withdrawal could present formidable succession challenges:
Unfortunately, Vice President Kamala Harris, who has the resume but seemingly not the political skills and heft to be a compelling presidential candidate, is a weak backfill….But what about any of the talented Democratic governors out there?”
Cohen introduces historical precedents to strengthen the case for public figures withdrawing with dignity. (His admiring references to Cicero sent me to the library.) He then closes with a personal, almost poignant appeal:
Joe Biden had the leading role in a crucial act in the grand story of America, and he played it with grace and honor. It is time for him to take a bow, accepting the thanks of a grateful nation, and exit to well-deserved applause.
Even before his 2021 inauguration, I was convinced that President Biden should set his sights on a single term. This job is a killer. Aging in office diminishes backstage effectiveness as much as limelight authority. Far better, as Cohen and Cicero counsel, to withdraw proactively with dignity.
However, on recent reflection, I’ve been reminded that agile-aging decisions never take place in a vacuum. Contexts and constraints can tip the scales. If Biden’s personal health and perceived decline in fitness were the sole criteria, I’d remain convinced that early withdrawal would be his best course. But on real politik grounds, I’m reaching the opposite conclusion. Announcing a decision not to re-run could provoke a cataclysm of national and international risks. Here’s a back-of-the-envelope array:
- The announcement would immediately boost Trump’s momentum, as he crowed about Biden’s preemptive “surrender.”
- The sudden vacancy could hugely energize the third-party proponents of a Joe Manchin candidacy. As in 2016, siphoning off dispirited Democratic and independent voters in key battleground states could give Trump an Electoral College victory.
- If accompanied by a Biden suggestion that there should be an open Democratic competition to succeed him, this game-changer could alienate key Party constituents who’ve been assuming that sooner or later, Vice President Harris will be stepping into Biden’s shoes.
- It is already too late for an open field of substitute Democratic candidates to collect campaign funding, establish nationwide name-recognition and select a nominee. (To be candid, Biden’s go-it-alone approach to media relations has deliberately impeded potential challengers’ emergence.)
- Alternatively, a Biden resignation coupled with his endorsement of an ill-prepared Harris could throttle economic stability and sabotage Democrats’ general-election prospects.
- Simultaneously, an unanticipated leadership vacancy and the threat of Trump 2.0 could dismay foreign allies and tempt opportunistic adversaries. Especially when America and the global community are reeling from accelerating climate change, Putin’s Ukraine invasion and assertive Chinese nationalism, presidential discontinuity could short-circuit crucial international relations.
My regretful bottom line is that, on balance, we will all be best served if President Biden remains the Democrats’ 2024 candidate. Defeating Donald Trump must be the top election priority for the nation and the world. Already, Trump’s intensifying salvo of headline-grabbing threats — from vengeance against perceived opponents to abandonment of climate-change mitigation, pulling the plug on NATO and Ukraine, and consolidation of an unchecked Executive Branch – offers a chilling preview of his autocratic ambitions. These are differences not just of style but of substance.
President Biden has by far the best odds of inflicting this necessary defeat. If Biden wins but later has to resign for aging reasons while in office, that obviously will not be ideal. But a democratic disaster of historic proportions will have been averted. The stakes could hardly be higher.
You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away and know when to run
Kenny Rogers, “THE GAMBLER” (1978)
My sincere thanks to Shutterstock.com for use of their two photos.
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