Politics & Media
Jan 25, 2024, 06:27AM

Should Old Politicians Continue to Engage in Public Affairs?

Reflections on the ideal country for very old politicians—and an easy solution to fix that.

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The recent spectacle of the Biden-Trump fitness challenge, a somewhat farcical affair of my own devising that involves the candidates partaking in mundane physical feats like carrying boxes of pizza and lifting their feet while walking up ramps, offers a fascinating perspective on the interplay of age and politics. In this dance of the old and the young, the vitality and vigor, as championed by the 77-year-old Trump, clash with the wisdom and experience of the 81-year-old Biden. This scenario, while superficial in its manifestation, mirrors a more perennial debate in political philosophy: the role of the elderly in governance, a subject explored by Plutarch, the ancient Greek biographer and historian.

In his essay "Whether an Old Man Should Engage in Public Affairs," Plutarch addresses this question in considerable depth. He opens with a reflection on the common tendency to shy away from political life in old age, driven by various infirmities and ultimately by the excuse of old age itself, which “casts down our manhood into abysmal gloom” (Plutarch, Moralia, 783B); Joe Biden can certainly relate to that line. This tendency, Plutarch argues, isn’t only a disservice to the individual's accumulated wisdom but also to the society that benefits from such experience.

Plutarch counters the assumption that physical vigor is the primary qualification for leadership, emphasizing instead the value of wisdom and experience, traits often associated with age. He notes that “the love of honor never grows old,” and this should be even truer for the “spirit of service to the community and the State” (783B-783C). Such a perspective is vital in an era where the physical capabilities of leaders like Biden and Trump are disproportionately spotlighted, overshadowing the insights and understanding that might come with their advanced age. Biden, for example, was born not long after the advent of color television and got to watch Gorgeous George wrestling matches when they aired on television, while Trump has been a fixture on the New York scene for so long that he’s been able to attend a host of memorable first-run Broadway musicals, including former Trump Tower tenant Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats, and The Phantom of the Opera.

Interestingly, Plutarch's views can be squared with the cynical directive expressed by my own father: “Never vote for anyone your own age; never help those jerks get elected; they want to prove they’re better than you.” This rule reflects a skepticism towards younger politicians, seen as self-serving and hungry for power. In discussing the role of the elderly in public affairs, Plutarch invokes the examples of great leaders who remained active in their later years. He cites the example of Cato the Elder, who believed that “we ought not voluntarily to add to the many evils of its own which belong to old age the disgrace that comes from baseness” (784C). This belief underlines the importance of continuing to contribute to public life, even in old age, as a means of avoiding idleness and maintaining a certain amount of dignity.

Plutarch's exploration extends beyond mere participation in politics to a nuanced understanding of how the elderly can contribute. He suggests that older statesmen, with their wealth of experience, should focus on guiding and counseling rather than seeking direct power in the manner of Trump and Biden—a “gray eminence” role long inhabited by figures such as the late, Gollum-like Henry Kissinger, who died recently at 100 and was writing op-eds almost until the moment of his death. This approach not only utilizes their accumulated wisdom but also paves the way for somewhat younger leaders to emerge. Plutarch argues that “the love of honor never grows old,” emphasizing that a genuine commitment to public service—as manifested by publishing “takes” on the opinion page of The New York Times and other papers of records—transcends physical abilities and remains relevant throughout one's life (783B-783C).

Plutarch also explores the intergenerational dynamics of politics. He acknowledges the value of youthful energy and the need for new ideas—two factors my father would downplay, believing them overrated (“Those rat bastards are as lazy as the rest of us!”)—but cautions against dismissing the insights of older generations. Plutarch’s discourse reflects a belief in the complementary roles of the young and the old in governance, advocating for a balanced approach where experience and innovation coexist.

In essence, Plutarch's treatise offers a timeless commentary on the role of age in politics. It challenges the modern preoccupation with eternal youth, advocating for a more inclusive understanding of political competence. This perspective is pertinent in the context of Biden and Trump’s ongoing fitness challenge—stay alive until the election, or else!—reminding us that the criteria for assessing political leaders should extend beyond physical prowess to include wisdom, experience, and the capacity for judicious decision-making.

For Plutarch, the participation of the elderly in public affairs shouldn’t be seen as a burden but as an opportunity to blend the enthusiasm of youth with the sagacity of age. This blend, he suggests, is crucial for effective and wise governance. His insights encourage a reevaluation of our current political discourse, which often overly emphasizes physical vitality at the expense of experience and wisdom.

Of course, the history that Plutarch spent much of his own career examining (or, as was sometimes the case, manufacturing) furnishes a host of counter-examples. Several ancient politicians and leaders met unfortunate ends, often exacerbated by the strains of prolonged political careers. The case of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a Roman general and statesman, further underscores the perils of extended political power. His reign as dictator, although initially effective in reforming the late Roman Republic, eventually led to excessive exertion and declining health, culminating in his resignation, dissipation, subsequent death, and yet another dictator-installing civil war. This illustrates the potential dangers of prolonged tenure in office, both for the individual and the state.

Turning to Greek history, the story of Solon, the Athenian lawmaker, offers a contrasting perspective. Renowned for his wisdom and moderation, Solon deliberately chose to limit his own power. After instituting his famous reforms, he supposedly left Athens to ensure that his laws took root without his direct influence. This self-imposed limit on his term in power—proverbial it might’ve been—not only preserved his legacy but also helped stabilize Athenian politics.

The need for term and age limits can also be seen in the case of Pericles, the influential Athenian statesman. While his leadership during the Golden Age of Athens was marked by a host of significant cultural achievements, his long tenure at the helm of the ship of state also coincided with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. The stresses of this prolonged and devastating war and the plague that hit Athens contributed to Pericles' own demise due to that epidemic, highlighting the genuine risks associated with extended terms in office.

With these historical examples in mind, the argument for term limits gains substantial weight. The physical and cognitive demands of political office are considerable, and the risks of health crises, such as the hypothetical scenario of debilitated 81-year-old Mitch McConnell “stroking out” on the Senate floor, are non-trivial. While the concern of undue lobbyist influence on the resulting less-experienced politicians is valid, it’s a lesser risk compared to the potential consequences of prolonged reigns by aging leaders who’ve not only ceased to think about the future but, hovering in some sort of liminal senility on death’s doorstep, no longer possess the faculties to do so even if they wished.

The establishment of term and age limits for members of Congress—measures doomed GOP primary candidate Nikki Haley continues to champion, for whatever that’s worth ($0)—still strikes me as a prudent move, not only to preserve the health and well-being of politicians but also to ensure the political system remains in the hands of people who must live, at least for a time, with its mistakes. As history has shown, even the most capable and resilient leaders are not immune to the “wracke and ruine” of time. Instituting term and age limits could result in a slightly more dynamic and responsive governance structure, where fresh perspectives and renewed energy continually rejuvenate the political landscape—and the spectacle of two enfeebled grandees shuffling their feet as they stumble up ramps and expectorating as they read from teleprompters is relegated to the dustbin of history.


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