When did politics become the Blue Plate Special Early Bird Meal? Every leading figure in Washington should, by rights, be president of a condo board in Boca Raton, not running America.
Joe Biden is 77. President Trump, 74. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, 78. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 80; her deputy (deputy!) Steny Hoyer is 81.
This is all weird. Our current gerontocracy came upon us suddenly, following a quarter-century in which it was far better politically to be young than absolutely old. In 1992, Bill Clinton was elected president at the age of 46. George W. Bush was 54 when he was elected president; Barack Obama was all of 47.
They used their relative youth as a weapon, too. Obama said his 2008 rival John McCain (71 at the time) was in danger of “losing his bearings,” thus implicitly raising the potential danger of McCain’s senior status.
Bill Clinton ran effectively against the elder Bush (age 68 during the ’92 campaign) and Bob Dole (73 when he ran in ’96) with barely disguised messages about how they’d soon be off to the glue factory. Happily, the now-97-year-old Dole is still with us, as is Clinton — who, as it happens, is younger now, 20 years after his two terms in the White House, than either Biden or Trump (two months older than Clinton).
What on earth is going on here?
The key to understanding the seniors’ vice grip on power is this: They were all once young at the right time.
They were born just before or entirely within the population surge known as the baby boom, which is said to have begun in the immediate wake of the American victory in World War II in 1945.
Even those who aren’t baby boomers as a matter of pure demographics (Pelosi, Hoyer, McConnell and Biden all predate the surge by a few years) nonetheless grew up in an America whose youth found themselves from the 1950s onward possessing unprecedented purchasing and cultural power.
The country revolved around its young in a way no country ever had before, in part because there were just so many of them and in part because their lives and fortunes and psyches seemed especially precious to our growing and increasingly prosperous country in the wake of the horrendous period that preceded them — the period of the Great Depression followed by a monstrous world war.
So self-confident were they in their own value and virtue that by the time the 1960s rolled around, they were ready to demand power at a younger age than prior generations — first on college campuses, where students systematically violated and destroyed sclerotic old ways, and then on the ramparts of American politics.
Youth movements roiled both the GOP and the Democratic Party. The first successful intraparty insurgency came at the Republican convention in 1964, when Barry Goldwater harnessed the power of grass-roots youth to claim the party’s nomination. That was followed in 1968 by Democratic youth going right at the sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, in his bid for a full second term — and driving him from the race.
This helps explain how Biden has been in politics for nearly 50 years now. He got himself elected to the Senate in 1972 as a hotshot 29-year-old. He won because of his youth — Biden spent the campaign attacking his 63-year-old rival, a sitting Republican senator, for his advanced age. He bragged about being the sixth-youngest person to serve in the Senate.
Trump, of course, only formally entered politics in 2015, but he became famous in his 20s as a glamorous real-estate player supposedly injecting new life into a dormant industry. A New York Times profile from 1976 began this way: “He is tall, lean and blond, with dazzling white teeth, and he looks ever so much like Robert Redford.”
Nancy Pelosi became a player in California politics at 26, the same age Mitch McConnell began working as a Senate staffer. Steny Hoyer was first elected to a state seat in Maryland 54 years ago at the age of 27 and to Congress 39 years ago.
They’re still in power old because they were once part of a generation that was told they’d been born to rule the world. And now that it’s past time for them to pass the torch, they’re grabbing it and holding on to it for dear life.
Like a walker.
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