Neal Milner: Aging US Politicians May Need To Just Get Off The Stage - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Mandatory retirement ages are blunt instruments. There’s a better way to utilize their wisdom while passing the baton.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein is in serious trouble involving an inseparable combination of politics and aging. That makes her both exceptional but also just like the rest of us.

Feinstein is a powerful U.S. senator who because of significant dementia and physical illnesses is unable to do her job. Her absence from the Senate Judiciary Committee means that the Democrats can’t carry out their agenda of appointing federal judges.

She refuses to resign from the Senate, and Democrats cannot get enough Republican votes to allow her just to resign from the Judiciary Committee and allow someone to replace her.

Feinstein is also an old person at 89 with significantly diminished physical and mental capacities who faces a life-altering decision that will end her life as she’s known it. 

As if she is just another elderly woman in her late 80s. Just like your grandma, auntie, spouse or maybe even yourself.

All the political bells and whistles about what Feinstein has done for America and how she may be undoing it are just a superstructure built around that everyday process of aging.

And her family’s responses are the same ones you might make regarding an elderly grandparent.  

“The decision is ultimately hers,” the senator’s stepdaughter recently said. “We will all be there to support her in whatever decision she makes. The whole family feels this way.”

When a couple of years ago Feinstein’s husband, who has since died, was asked whether his wife should leave the Senate, he asked a fundamental question of aging: “What else is she going to do?”

U.S. senators have a plan to age in place — in the Senate. (Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017)

Two more pieces of this aging-politics puzzle make this more complicated — the advances in knowledge about aging along with the continuing limits of politics.

Thanks to Covid and the drug overdose epidemic, U.S. life expectancy has declined except for those over 85 — this country’s fastest growing demographic — and, as Andrew Sullivan puts it, “the reason our life expectancy is not in free fall.”

The aging process creates two extremes. On the one hand, the over-80s are considerably more competent, resilient and healthy than we used to think.

Until they are not. The longer a person lives, the more likely he or she also is to become frail and develop dementia.

Or as Sullivan puts it, as we age, we are more likely to fall, often horribly suddenly, into “an endless, crepuscular twilight zone of the undead.” 

Does his description make you as uncomfortable? “Crepuscular” simply means foggy or fuzzy, but the word itself sounds so creepy.

That’s what Sullivan wants, to make you feel how an aging person can move from competence to twilight in a “sudden crumble of the faculties.” 

That is what has happened to Dianne Feinstein, a highly competent senator in her early 80s who crumbled a few short years after that.

Personal meets political. Politics complicates matters because Feinstein still has a political face. She is a kingpin, a key part of the Democrats’ political agenda, representing issues and forces bigger than herself.  

In this case, it’s about judges, which nowadays is as big, sensitive and polarizing issue as any. 

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 89, is among the oldest lawmakers serving. (Dianne Feinstein/2023)
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 89, is among the oldest lawmakers serving but has plenty of company. (Courtesy: Dianne Feinstein/2023)

So, the nuances we might use in some cases regarding aging go out the window here because the political situation mandates a stark up or down response.

Speaking of imminent potential for a plunge into the crepuscular twilight zone, today’s Senate is the second oldest since 1789. One-third are over 70.  

Senators have a plan to age in place. That place is the Senate.

There is talk that Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who is 89, will run again when his six-year term is up, making him over 100 years old if he wins and finishes that term.  

Nothing new there. Strom Thurmond was still a sitting senator at 100 though by then he couldn’t understand or even hear what was going on. His aides would wheel him out of the proceedings so they could tell him how to vote. 

Thurmond served 48 years in that body, which is less than the number of years Dan Inouye served. Inouye died at 88, still a sitting senator. He won his last term at 86.  

Whether age becomes an issue for those older politicians depends on the political situation at the time.  

For political reasons, Republicans perched Thurmond up, just as for political reasons, Democrats want Feinstein to stand down.

Andrew Sullivan thinks all senators over 80 should leave office. He also admits that is just a dream.

Mandatory retirement ages are blunt instruments, especially because the issue of elderly politicians has become even more complicated today, considering our knowledge of that mixture of resilience and fragility.

But that should not end the discussion of the status of elderly politicians. In fact, Plutarch the ancient Greek philosopher and all-around polymath, had a plan based on an understanding of aging that’s surprisingly still relevant.

The image of the late Sen. Dan Inouye in a tribute film looms over delegates to open of the second day of the Democratic Party of Hawaii State Convention. 5.25.14©PF Bentley/Civil Beat
The late Sen. Dan Inouye, who died in office at age 88, won his last term when he was 86. (PF Bentley/Civil Beat/2014)

Politicians, according to Plutarch, get better as they get older because they continue to accrue knowledge and skills. It is a terrible waste, he says, to lose this combination of counsel, wisdom and justice.  

This sounds like a way of keeping older politicians in power.

It’s not, though, because he goes on to say that a sensible older politician needs to develop a strong sense of modesty and restraint, not seek honors and the limelight but consciously avoid them.

Instead of a highly visible hot shot or a famously popular hero, the elderly politician needs to adopt different roles, becoming a public servant rather than a politician and a guide and mentor rather than the leader.

“Elder politicians, being well past feeling envy, must not, like malicious old trees, prevent and obstruct the blossoming and the growth of the young politicians that are conspicuously blooming near them and growing underneath them.”

“Malicious old trees.” I like that.

Instead, he argued, “they must receive them kindly and make themselves available to the young people who reach out and make connections.”

This is such a healthy mixture of appreciation of political skills along with ways to redirect and sometimes even dampen them.  

New roles for sensible old people and the need for a taming modesty and restraint to enhance the chances that these characteristics will develop.

That’s not at all what U.S. politics is like today, but let’s think little rather than think big.

What if successful older politicians like Diane Feinstein, or for that matter Mitch McConnell who at 81 just missed a month in the Senate because he was in rehab after a fall, had stopped to assess themselves earlier with Plutarch’s guidance in mind.   

“What would I do?” Believe me, I know how essential, difficult and frightening that question is for older people, maybe particularly for people who have been in the limelight for so long.

Plutarch’s ideas offer a way of answering the question that maintains dignity and usefulness while at the same time saying it’s time to get off the stage and become an artist in a different way.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

It is somewhat crazy that people can stay in politics for so long. I doubt the founding fathers considered this 250 years ago, when life expectance did not even get close to 80, but here we are. Term limits on senators, representatives and supreme court justices would be a first step, but do you think these any of these career politicians will ever come close to a majority to vote this in? Not a chance. Feinstein's service is recognized, particularly 50 years ago, but it's time she resigned for the betterment of the nation.

wailani1961 · 1 month ago

We don't need to make rules based on age. Just enact term limits which is what should have been done a long time ago to reduce the corruption in Congress. There is no reason that people need to be there for decades.

Annoyed · 1 month ago

I'm a makule buggah and I still can not figgah out how these politicians enter "public service" (which pays a modest annual salary) and sty forever and come out with uku million dollars net worth. If I were cynical, nah not me, I'd say they were in it for the kala. Anyway, my position is that the old futz need to retire and let the younger generations get their chance to get rich on the public dollar. Spread the wealth.

CatManapua · 1 month ago

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