The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It is time for the old guard to step aside

Rudy Giuliani, a former mayor of New York and onetime lawyer for President Donald Trump, in 2020. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
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Just when it seemed there was nothing left to criticize about the oft-maligned baby-boom generation, along comes David Gergen with a new book, “Hearts Touched With Fire: How Great Leaders Are Made,” and the painful truth: It’s time for boomers — and some political folks who are even older — to let go of the baton.

Gergen, who has served as an adviser to four presidents from both parties, has been making the book-tour rounds with an important message: Age is an issue. “I just turned 80, and I can tell you, you lose your — you lose a step. You’re not as sharp. You are more forgetful. You’re not quite sure where you’re going,” he recently told “PBS NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff, who is 75 and retiring at the end of the year.

“You can’t — that’s too old to be in the presidency,” Gergen added.

Neither Gergen nor Woodruff appeared to be off their respective games during this conversation. Both have had spectacular careers and will continue to work in some capacity. But their decisions to let younger people step up is admirable and appropriate. No one wants to stay too long at the party or force others to cringe in pity when a once-bright star begins to dim.

Thus, I’ve made a pact with a friend, a younger Washington reporter from Texas. Abby Livingston cites what she calls “The Giuliani Rule,” which will guide her in deciding when to tell me it’s time to pack up my keyboard. The rule refers to a news conference the former New York mayor conducted in November 2020 when his dark hair coloring started running down his cheek in rivulets of sweat. Such an ignominious end to a once-heroic career. With Abby’s help, my tasteful blond highlights will leave the stage intact, along with my dignity.

Gary Abernathy: Imperfect as they are, leaders with age and experience are worth keeping

It’s hard to know or admit when you’re “too old,” or, say, too Giuliani. Gergen warns against people trying to hang on to power. But other factors might matter as much if not more. We are what we do. When we cease doing something so essential to our identity, then what are we? Just old? Or, a fate far worse to Washingtonians, irrelevant?

Gergen is surely correct that a younger generation should be allowed the opportunity to lead. Inarguably, it’s their right. But boomers, whom Gergen broadly describes as a “disappointment,” won’t or can’t quit. Today, boomers constitute 53 percent of the House and 68 percent of the Senate.

And then there’s Nancy Pelosi, 82, and Mitch McConnell, 80, the speaker of the House and minority leader of the Senate, respectively. Both are considered without peer in performing their jobs. So why should they retire — and who would be more effective?

Answer: Because they’ve had long turns, it’s the fair thing to do, and no one’s irreplaceable.

Gergen is equally, if gently, unsparing toward Donald Trump, 75, and Joe Biden, 79, both of whom are threatening to run in 2024. Oy. Please not again. If Biden were to win reelection, he’d be 82 at the start of his second term. Already, he’s showing distinct signs of age that are, with all due respect, plainly worsening. Perhaps Biden doesn’t really intend to run again and is only trying to steady the troops. But another run in 2024 likely would be a painful and possibly sad spectacle. The forced jog up Air Force One’s steps is already nerve-racking to watch.

If he prevailed, Trump would be 78, a year younger than Biden is now. Halfway into his term, however, he’d be 80 and a ripe 82 before he finishes, assuming he does. Perhaps, he, too, is swaggering simply to keep himself in rallies and headlines — and to keep MAGA unified. But who would wish to be governed by an even-stranger elderly Trump through another terrifying four years? (It’s a rhetorical question; please don’t answer.)

The retirements of Pelosi, Biden, McConnell and Trump wouldn’t be enough to break the boomer curse. (Only Trump is actually a member of the post-war baby-boom generation; the other three, being born in the early 1940s, are members of the silent generation.) Nor would their departures soften their broader cohort’s legacy, which Gergen describes as “crisis upon crisis that we haven’t solved, actions we haven’t taken” and a path that’s “unsustainable.” But a group farewell would be welcome to a tired country. The same ol’ same ol’ is no way forward.

Thanks to Gergen, the seed has been planted. The question is whether his contemporaries can embrace their highest purpose — to ensure that the next generation has the skills and tools to lead the country toward a more-perfect union. We’ll all blow kisses.

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