The last time House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) got a question about her age -- she's 74 -- and her leadership position, it didn't go well for the reporter who asked the question. There were boos, shouts of ageism, and questions about whether soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), now 72, was getting the same questions. (McConnell will be taking over from Harry Reid, who is 74.)
Well, it happened again on Thursday.
"What I said to the most recent person who asked is....'What was the day that any of you said to Mitch McConnell when they lost the Senate three times in a row … Aren't you getting a little old, Mitch? Shouldn't you step aside?' Have you ever asked him that question?" asked Pelosi in response to a reporter's question. "I don't understand why that question should even come up. I'm here as long as my members want me to be here ... I'm not here on a schedule...I'm not here for anything except a mission to get a job done.":
The question of age and politics does often come up, and despite what Pelosi says, it's not just women who get that kind of scrutiny. In Kentucky, McConnell's opponent referred to him as the "senior Senator," not just because of his title, but because of his age. (McConnell's opponent -- Alison Lundergan Grimes -- is in her mid 30s.) Running for re-election, Ronald Reagan got the same question, but Reagan being Reagan, he turned it around in a famous debate moment with Walter Mondale.
In 1996, Bill Clinton running against Bob Dole, who was 73, got in an age dig, by saying that he didn't think Dole was too old to be president, it was the "age of his ideas," that was worrisome.
And then there was this (h/t Karen Tumulty):
So, no, it's not pure sexism that makes Pelosi's age become an issue. But her response today does raise this question: Do women face a higher penalty for an issue that men might face as well? Sure, McConnell, Dole and Reagan got some scrutiny for their age, but older, white men in positions of power -- in and out of politics -- is standard fare.
For women, barriers are still being broken, and there hasn't ever really been a huge space for powerful women of a certain age to be out front in leadership positions. Pelosi is a first. Hillary Clinton, should she run for president and be elected, would be a first. (Watch Fox News' Neil Cavuto go after Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul for implying that Hillary Clinton was not up to the rigors of a White House bid.)
And it is still true that for women, age is a different kind of issue then it is for men. This saying does not exist: "Never ask a man about his age." For women, age has always supposedly signaled a kind of decline. Men don't face this judgement.
But really, Pelosi was trying to make a much broader point about women, saying she was on a "mission for women on this score."
"When we won the House, and that was largely an initiative that I started around 2000 to take us to a place where we would win the House, that was a big thing. I was never on the front of Time magazine, even though I was the first woman. Wasn't that a curiosity?," she asked. "Republicans win, John Boehner is on the front of Time magazine. Mitch McConnell wins, he's on the front of Time magazine. Isn't there a pattern here? But as a woman, it's like, is there a message here, is it something that we're missing."
It's easy to accuse Pelosi of having sour grapes over magazine covers. Or to dismiss her questions about scrutiny (or lack of) over McConnell's age as an easy deflection. But it's harder to think about whether Pelosi might just be right. And that women in politics and beyond face harsher scrutiny when they fail (or age) -- and also get less credit when they win. These are good debates and conversations to have, and Pelosi should keep at it.