Watching Robert Mueller’s halting, tentative, sometimes fumbling responses to being grilled for hours by highly charged (and much younger) congressmembers today, I was struck anew with my increasing conviction that past, say, age 70, people should no longer try to become leaders of their country.
Call me ageist if you will, but my reasoning is not that I don’t think elderly people have much to offer the world (so long as they keep their wits about them). It’s just that ideally, they move into a senior advisory role, a steadying hand, a source of wisdom and historical perspective in the ear of younger, more energetic leaders who benefit greatly from their senior confidantes.
Mueller, just short of 75, looked and sounded somewhat lost a good deal of the time yesterday over a grueling 6-hour stretch as he faced two different committees, half of their members hostile and yelling at him from the get-go, the other half praising his service to his country and craftily trying to corner him into saying things that would be damaging to President Trump. (While all the while, Trump stomped around his bedroom firing off increasingly desperate tweets after having told everyone he really wouldn’t be paying much attention.)
It was a tad shocking, I must admit. Within seconds of tuning in, my immediate impression was, “He looks really uncomfortable,” as in, “He would rather be on a rack having his eyeballs forcibly removed than be listening to yet another vein-popping Jim Jordan harangue.” (Someone get that man a sedative!)
From there, things seemed to get only worse for this public servant of impeccable integrity who “deflected or declined to answer questions 198 times” through the two hearings, according to NBC. (A big huzzah here for the intern charged with reviewing the tape and keeping count.)
Watching Mueller grope for everyday words, unable to command his thoughts, vocabulary and elocution…was a stark reminder that while age itself tends not to make anyone dumber (unless they were dumb to begin with), it makes almost everyone slower.
Mueller seemed to have trouble following the rapid-fire questioning, often asking inquisitors to repeat their question, sometimes apparently not hearing what was said, other times seemingly not able to process the proceedings quickly enough to gather a meaningful response.
Admittedly, it was not a fair fight, the panel members reading rapid-fire off of prepared scripts while the defendant, er, the “testifier,” had to field and quickly respond to their queries while they drummed their fingers, itching to zip ahead to their next statement, er, “question,” given the strictly enforced five-minute time limit each of them labored under.
You could feel their impatience as every one of Mueller’s “Uh…uh”s and “Could you repeat the question?” requests cut into their precious time.
Nevertheless, watching Mueller grope for everyday words, unable to command his thoughts, vocabulary and elocution in rising to what the occasion demanded of him, was a stark reminder that while age itself tends not to make anyone dumber (unless they were dumb to begin with), it makes almost everyone slower.
I feel it myself in both my writing and my talking (not to mention my running). The advantage of the former is that I have time to wait for the word or phrase or historical anecdote that I know best fits a particular need, but which I can’t recall readily from the groaning, increasingly crowded circuit board of my memory. But I can viscerally feel what the word or phrase is, and also when I am getting closer to it. And then it comes, freed from the cobwebs where it had been snared and trying to wriggle free, urged on by my intention.
A happy moment, that, repeated many times every day.
But on-my-feet talking or sitting and conversing is a different matter. There, one lacks the luxury of time to gaze at clouds and trees waiting for a stubbornly hiding word or image to reveal itself. Whether in conversation or an address, one can’t ask a partner or audience to hold on for a few minutes (“If you have to go to the restroom, this might be a good time!”) while one gathers thoughts or gropes for a word. After a few “…Uh, uh”s, listeners’ eyes glaze over.
This is not a big deal when with loved ones, but in front of a congressional panel, or a cabinet meeting discussing what to do about Iran’s latest ship seizure, or on the phone with the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff who has just informed you missiles appear to be headed toward our mainland from North Korea, it is highly beneficial to 1) hear the words well, 2) readily process the information you’re hearing, and 3) be able to size up the situation and come to a sound decision about it without a potentially damaging or fatal delay.
And the plain fact is that most 75-year-olds and above don’t match up to their 45-to-60-year-old selves in any of these matters.
Older people have less stamina, their brains are less plastic, and their short-term memory is a source of constant, in-their-face frustration. (It would be an interesting data collection for me to count which occurs more frequently in the course of a month: where I set down my keys, where I left my wallet, or how many times I walked purposely to another room only to forget why I did so. And I’m still milking a couple more years of my 60s…)
All of this is to say, that after due deliberation, I think neither Joe Biden (78 next inauguration day), Bernie Sanders (79), nor Donald Trump (74) should be vested with the most powerful position in the world. (Trump, of course, for infinitely more reasons than his age.)
On every level sans possibly their experience and whatever wisdom they have managed to accrue from that, they are diminished from what they were as younger men—slower of thought, less energetic in body, and subject to steadily more rapid diminishment as age takes the toll that it always does. Mueller’s performance yesterday spoke volumes on this matter.
While it is true that 75-year-olds today are not the equivalent of what they were a generation or two ago, most of that change is cultural, as we have continued to push the boundaries of what is “acceptable” as adults. Going on bike rides with cronies at 70 years old and then repairing to a beer joint? Who would have conceived of such a thing in 1960? (Of course, such activity must be followed by a nice long nap.)
No doubt old people in many professions—including politics—continue as gifts to their workplace and world. From the methodical, scrupulously careful nature of the report that bears his name, it is evident that Mueller can still oversee an investigation and bring it home. And a huge part of his own competence is revealed in knowing how to assemble a team and letting them do much of the heavy lifting on it.
So I do not at all mean here to shortchange the quality of the investigation Mueller oversaw. But anyone watching today had to notice that he was anything but crisp and confident in its presentation and defense.
Nancy Pelosi (79), doesn’t seem to have slipped much if at all. Big job she’s got there—but it’s still not the presidency of the United States, a job with such burdensome responsibilities and demands on one’s time, attention and spirit that it can buckle even the most youthful occupant.
Though on the face of it we might think it discriminatory to put an age limit on the presidency, we could say the same thing about the minimum age requirement of 35. Why is that in place, given that 21 is considered legal adulthood and countless people accomplish tremendous things in the subsequent 14 years?
Apparently, we think that despite being adults, those through age 34 simply don’t have enough life experience to manage the burdens of the presidency.
Why is it that far less energetic, potentially doddering 75-or-80-year-olds get a free pass on the other end of life, when experience might hold them in good stead but their bodies and brains betray them and reveal certain deficiencies that do not marry well with the most powerful and influential job in the world?
The young Neil Young, singing to an old man!
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