The noise created recently by accusations that Senator Dianne Feinstein, long-standing Democratic U.S. Senator from California, is experiencing cognitive problems at 88, has compelled me to wonder about the impact of advanced age on performing at a high level in politics, as well as other career sectors.
When a public official paid by taxpayers begins to suffer the ravages of old age, should that person retire immediately and avoid assertions of unintentional incompetence? I believe that the answer is easier if those making the observations have no political agendas.
Our 79-year-old president, Joe Biden, has endured age-related skepticism after his predecessor called him “Slow Joe” during the 2020 presidential campaign. The image stuck of a cognitively challenged president, though the source of this sophomoric quip is a man who uttered more than 30,000 lies during his fatuous four-year term.
I am hard-pressed to characterize Nancy Pelosi, the 82-year-old Speaker of the House, as inept or mentally declining. Some believe that U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, the 88-year-old Iowa Republican, is suffering cognitive degeneration. I believe, however, that he has always talked slowly, unable to match the verbal acuity of some of his colleagues.
When I retired at 65, I decided that I did not want to be pushed aside or simply tolerated because of past achievements. I wanted to determine my future the best I could. I believe that others should do the same.
Paid handsomely by American taxpayers, politicians ought to be particularly sensitive to the effect of aging, to understand and appreciate that one’s mind may operate more slowly, if not more forgetfully. Close advisors may need to stage an intervention, a fraught action at best.
Our aged politicians should step aside in response to serious cognitive issues. They should acknowledge that they are ill serving their constituents by remaining in place.
Sen. Feinstein has brushed aside derogatory comments about her declining capability, blaming her forgetfulness on personal distress caused by the recent death of her husband. While I am loath to minimize the impact of emotional misfortune, I think that Feinstein should not ignore objective observations, however hurtful.
Every day, this 76-year-old makes embarrassing mistakes often apparent only to me and my wife. Nonetheless, these minor mental hiccups signal to me some diminution of my brain—though I would be far too critical. I refuse to lie to myself. Were I an elected official, I might question my efficacy and resign. My ego would be secondary.
As we all know, personal weakness is tough, if not impossible to own and act upon. Claiming your infirmity and consequent reduction of independence are emotionally wrenching. Add an individual’s commitment to his or her job—particularly in public service when you might believe erroneously that no one is as capable as you—or the enjoyment of power is just too intoxicating—and retirement is anguishing to contemplate.
At the outset of this column, I mentioned Sen. Feinstein, the long-serving California senator and assertions made by close observers that her memory and focus are diminishing. She refutes these claims. Someone objective like a family member or trusted advisor might be the proper judge.
Too many examples exist among friends, family and politicians of failing cognitive health. They cannot be ignored or denied. Reality is often sad and depressing.
Several years ago, I watched with dismay as State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, former governor and Baltimore City mayor, served while coping with advanced age and a bluntness that was unfortunate at times. He was a political hero of mine for more than 50 years. Watching his decline was painful. In one instance at a Board of Public Works (BPW) meeting, he uttered an unfortunate remark that drew excessive media attention, to Schaefer’s detriment and the substance of the BPW meeting. Under heavy pressure, he apologized later to the person whom he insulted.
Aging is necessary and disabling. The impact on public policy and leadership can be harmful.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.