Of course, it’s Utah Sen. Mitt Romney — for whom paid employment has been optional more or less since birth — who’s clocked his fellow senators as having job attachments that are more psychological and emotional than remunerative. His retirement announcement — he will be 77 when his term ends in 2025 — coincided with an excerpt from a new biography in which he observes that the “old man’s club” of the Senate “might not need their government salary to survive, but they need … the stimulation, the sense of relevance, the power.” Perhaps Romney’s previous stints as a governor and even longer turn as a private equity fund manager satisfactorily scratched those itches, leaving him unbothered by pangs of post-Senate irrelevancy as he plays in his bat cave or watches his wife do horse dancing.
Romney is old and rich, even by Senate standards, but he is neither the oldest nor the richest.
Romney is old and rich, even by Senate standards, but he is neither the oldest nor the richest. (Looking at you, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Diane Feinstein, Sen. Mitch McConnell and Sen. Jim Risch — all among both the richest and oldest.) Romney is the exception in another way: The rich, old politician who acknowledges he’s rich and old.
The most senior politicians in America are just about the most senior they’ve ever been. The median age of a House member is almost 58 and that of a senator is 65 — the Senate is, in fact, the oldest it’s ever been. If we see former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden battling in the fall, they will be the oldest two nominees to compete against each other since the last time they competed against each other. And whoever wins would end his term as the oldest president in the country’s history. (If Biden loses he’ll leave office in January 2025 at 82 years and two months old; if Trump should regain the Oval Office, he would shuffle out of the White House four years later at 82 years, seven months old — and, surely, tired of winning at last.)
We face a gerontocracy dependent on its station for personal needs (as Romney observes, Congress provides “free meals, on-site barbers, and doctors within 100 feet at all times”) but also, again according to Romney, fixated on some warped definition of legacy: “Job preservation [is] existential. Retirement was death.”
Even as calls for America’s graying statesmen and women to leave office voluntarily have become impossible to escape, they have been mostly ignored. Feinstein will not run for another term, but her situation reached such an acute stage of embarrassment her decision didn’t feel voluntary. I’m not even sure it’s correct to call it her decision. McConnell’s most recent health scare happened right after being asked about running again. He has previously said he will serve out his term, which ends in 2026. Meanwhile, Trump is so insistent that age shouldn’t be a factor that he’s actually defended Biden on that front.
The problem here is, obviously, ageism. Ageism on the part of those who would like these silver statesmen to step aside, perhaps, but also ageism among the elderly office-bearers themselves. The defenders of the gerontocracy who bemoan our culture’s obsession with youth are not wrong in their diagnosis of the problem; what they fail to see is how the desire to deny the passage of time haunts the hallways of Congress and the White House as well. Our leaders want everyone to just accept their age but they cannot admit they are simply old. Getting old has become just another one of the consequences that people in power think they can wiggle their way out of.
What else could White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre — responding to yet another query about Biden’s fitness for office — mean by, “80 is the new 40”? In a world without ageism, couldn’t 80 just be 80, full stop? Maybe a rolling stop.
No piece of legislation can keep the ravages of time at bay and the Senate cloakroom is not a fountain of youth. The only magic the Capitol holds is the illusion that time hasn’t passed; between their armies of aides, wealth and a collective state of denial, it is possible for elected officials to quash the infirmities and limitations that hobble the less fortunate. To leave that atmosphere would be to bring the reality of their age crashing down.
Now, considering the reality of growing old in America, for most Americans, one can hardly blame them for delaying the literally inevitable. As the boomers continue their march through history, the social services needed to support aging citizens have already been strained to the point of unraveling — hit by the “Silver Tsunami.” People over the age of 65 who aren’t in Congress, on the Supreme Court, or in the White House are today more likely to be homeless than ever before, and newly so. One study found that almost half of the unhoused over the age of 50 are homeless for the first time. Rent and cost of living increases have outpaced social security. Assisted living centers have never been plentiful or cheap but their closures now, amid the staffing shortages that Covid only intensified, mean that “senior care is crushingly expensive [and] [b]oomers aren’t ready.“ Maybe they should run for office?
Indeed, you would think that the political will to create policies addressing these problems would be almost unstoppable, considering the demographic in charge. I would joke that it slipped their minds, but getting older isn’t a punchline. Pretending you can cheat time is.