Liz Cheney, Mike Enzi raise question: What’s the right age for a senator?

July 24, 2013
Liz Cheney speaks during a campaign appearance in Casper, Wyoming, Wednesday, July 17, 2013. Cheney, the elder daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, announced on Tuesday her GOP primary challenge to Wyoming's senior U.S. incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi. (AP Photo/Matt Young)
Liz Cheney speaks during a campaign appearance in Wyoming last week. (Matt Young / AP Photo)

How old is too old to be a senator? A congressman? A president?

The age-old question about age flared up again last week when Liz Cheney announced she is running against incumbent Mike Enzi for Wyoming’s senate seat next year.

“It’s time for a new generation,” said Cheney, 46.

Enzi, 69, begged to differ: “I’m absolutely not too old to be senator,” he told CNN. “I’d say that I’m kind of in the median age for this body,” meaning the Senate.

Age is the elephant in the room — or donkey, if you will — for so many politicians. Too young? Too old? Depends on the job: Let’s crunch the numbers.

When the Founding Fathers set age minimums for the House, Senate and presidency (25,30 and 35), the theory was that a certain degree of life experience and maturity was required. The average age of the delegates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention: 42 years old.

This July 2,2013 photo shows U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., speaks to constituents at a senior center in Pine Bluffs, Wyo. Enzi announced Tuesday, July 16, 2013, that he will run for re-election to the Senate. Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, said she will challenge him in the 2014 Republican primary. (AP Photo/Ben Neary)
Sen. Mike Enzi. (Ben Neary / AP Photo)

Two centuries later, the numbers have gone way up: The median age in the Senate is 62. At 80, Dianne Feinstein is the oldest; Chris Murphy, 39, the youngest. Enzi is the 25th oldest but not by much. A third of his colleagues are in their 60’s.

This group seems almost dewy compared to a few years ago. Strom Thurmond was 100 years old when he left office and Robert Byrd was 92. Frank Lautenberg was the oldest sitting senator when he died at 89 last month.

The House is younger — but not by much! The median age is 57. The oldest member is Texas’s Ralph Hall, 90; the youngest Florida’s Patrick Murphy, 30. John Dingell, the longest-serving member in congressional history, just turned 87.

We like our presidents young-ish. George Washington was considered an elder statesman at 57 when he was sworn in as the first president. The median is 54 years old: Teddy Roosevelt was the youngest at 42, the oldest Ronald Reagan at a few days shy of 70. (A point often mentioned at the prospect of 2016 bids by Hillary Clinton, who will turn 69 in October of that year, or Joe Biden, who would be running as a 73-year-old.)

In one of the most famous politcal quotes of all time, Reagan addressed his advancing years in the 1984 debate with Walter Mondale: “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” he deadpanned. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

His less famous addedum: “If it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state.”

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