The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Imperfect as they are, leaders with age and experience are worth keeping

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) attend a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony on May 18. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2020, William Chopik, an associate professor at Michigan State University who authored studies on ageism, summed up a thought I have often had: Noting how older adults in the United States are stigmatized, he said it was "interesting — that we would treat so poorly a group of people that we’re destined to become someday.”

I’ve been reminded of that observation as longtime pundit and adviser to presidents David Gergen, promoting a new book, has suggested in interviews that not only is President Biden at age 79 too old to run again, but octogenarians Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell should likewise retire. Gergen included former president Donald Trump, 75, in the aged-out category.

Yes, many of our national leaders are old. According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, the average age of members of Congress was 58.4 for House members, 64.3 for senators — older than the three previous Congresses. But having older leaders at the national level is good. In a nation that remains sadly dismissive of its elders, it remains true that longevity typically brings wisdom and maturity — although there are exceptions, such as Trump’s frustratingly adolescent behavior.

America’s “youth culture” began to take root after World War II, when teenagers gained more disposable income. Eventually, the 18-34 demographic became the target of Madison Avenue. Today, old people typically are not only considered irrelevant, they’re fair game for public mockery. Being a racist, misogynist or homophobe is considered appalling, but ageist put-downs are common from comedians to greeting cards.

Growing up in rural Ohio, though, I was fortunate to have many older relatives as positive influences. My paternal grandparents were an almost daily presence on our small farm, which had originally been theirs. In his mid-80s, not long before he died, “Papaw” insisted on climbing on the tractor. He’d navigate it across the rough earth as it pulled a plow, his frail frame bouncing up and down. We could have insisted that he forgo the more physical aspects of farming for his own safety. But the decision was his, and he proved he could continue to contribute and teach by example. I’m glad he did.

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Sometimes, age or illness claim wisdom and experience too soon. A few months ago, a close friend and farmer, age 68, was on his deathbed after a long illness. A neighbor was harvesting his crops for him, but my friend was still devising ways in which he could climb atop his big combine to do it himself. He insisted to anyone who would listen that if a bucket truck would just lift him onto the seat, he could grab the wheel and take it from there. He died without realizing that dream, but only because mortality stepped in, not because someone pushed him aside.

No, being a farmer is not the same as being president or a member of Congress. But several decades packed with lessons learned is an asset in all walks of life.

Gergen, recently turned 80, was not disparaging older Americans in general. But in an interview with PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff, he insisted that at his age, “You lose a step. You’re not as sharp.” That’s truer for some than others. While Biden, for instance, sometimes trips on his words or walks a little slower, his supporters argue that the more important trait is his ability to lead. They’re right. Biden’s politics are not mine, but I try to give him the benefit of the doubt that his slower approach in both word and deed is as much a reflection of increased wisdom as of aging.

Certain members of the House are frequently in the news for outlandish or provocative behavior. Unsurprisingly, they tend to be younger than the average congressional member. It’s hard to imagine Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), 32, posting an online video of herself bizarrely whispering into her phone about socialism when she’s 50. And the immature ignorance of Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), 26, manifested itself in several episodes — including wild claims of invitations to Washington orgies — and undoubtedly played a part in his primary defeat at the hands of 61-year-old Chuck Edwards. Many younger House members know how to get attention, but they’re clearly not ready to lead.

In contrast, McConnell — even in the minority — often dictates events and frustrates Democrats with a mastery of Senate rules and procedures. And Pelosi still rules her majority caucus with an iron fist as she keeps the most radical elements of her party at bay.

The next generation of leaders will take the wheel soon enough. In the meantime, let’s take full advantage of those with age and experience — even if they occasionally need some help hanging on through the bumpy ride.