The 30 seconds that shook the US gerontocracy

A recent incident in which Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell appeared to freeze up has fueled debate about whether Biden and Trump are too old to run for president

Top U.S. Senate Republican Mitch McConnell appears to freeze up for more than 30 seconds during a public appearance on Wednesday.
Miguel Jiménez

Mick Jagger is 80 years old and still fronts The Rolling Stones. Harrison Ford filmed the fifth installment of Indiana Jones at that age; he has now turned 81. Joe Biden, the first octogenarian president of the United States, intends to be re-elected and extend his term until he is 86. “Life begins at 80,” Donald Trump, who is 77, wrote last year on social media. He aims to surpass Biden as the oldest U.S. president. In the gerontocracy of American politics, Biden and Trump are far from lone figures. They could be the younger brothers of 20 senators and members of Congress. Many try to hold on as long as their body holds out... And even beyond, as Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republican group in the Senate, has shown this week.

McConnell, 81, appeared to freeze up on Wednesday at a press conference in Covington, in the state of Kentucky, which he represents. It happened just as he was asked if he was prepared to run for re-election in 2026, by which point he would be 90 years old. The video of the scene is striking. It captures the incredible tension of the 30-second moment. McConnell has a distant look, as if he were lost, while his assistant tried to get him to react. What’s more, the scene brought to mind a similar episode that took place on July 26 at the Capitol.

In March, the senator had a fall in the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Washington, and suffered a concussion. He was out of action for around a month. Although on other occasions McConnell has shown himself to be perfectly lucid, the Republican Party is now not only questioning his re-election, but also whether he can remain the minority leader in the Senate. But his assistants blame what happened on dizziness, and his doctor has said that he is fine now.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 90, also had a recent lapse in a Senate vote. Before that, her long medical absences blocked for weeks Biden’s appointments of federal judges on the judiciary committee, of which she is a member. She has announced that she will not run for re-election next year.

While he has not suffered anything as major, Biden has also had his lapses. The president takes care of himself, exercises and doesn’t drink alcohol — he even toasts with Coca-Cola at state dinners. His last medical examinations detected a small carcinoma that was removed and other minor ailments, but his doctors concluded that he was fit for the position. In June, after he appeared with marks on his face, it emerged that Biden had started using a device to help him breathe better when sleeping. The device — a continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP machine — treats sleep apnea, a condition that he has suffered from for a long time.

At his rallies, Trump often tries to ridicule Biden by showing videos of his falls and moments of confusion, maintaining that he has cognitive impairment. Trump’s message that “life begins at 80” was not a defense of the president. “There are many people in their 80s, and even 90s, that are as good and sharp as ever. Biden is not one of them, but it has little to do with his age,” he posted on his social media platform, Truth Social.

Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, the founder of Dreamworks and the Democrats’ star signing for Biden’s re-election campaign, advised the president shortly before presenting his re-election bid to embrace his age like Harrison Ford and Mick Jagger, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Perhaps that explains why in the following weeks, the president made various jokes about his age. In April, at an event at the White House, he was asked why he wanted to be president: “Well, you know, when I was younger, 120 years ago…” he said to laughter from the audience. But soon afterward, his memory betrayed him and he was unable to remember all his grandchildren. The next day, at a meeting with the military, Biden returned to the fray: “About 65 years ago, during the first remarks to the first class of the Air Force Academy, President Eisenhower — I wasn’t there — no matter what the press says.”

Biden continued the jokes at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. “You might think I don’t like Rupert Murdoch. That’s simply not true. How can I dislike the guy who makes me look like Harry Styles [the 29-year-old British singer]?” The media mogul is 92 years old. “I believe in the First Amendment and not just because my good friend Jimmy Madison wrote it,” he joked again, referring to the constitutional amendment that enshrines freedom of expression, written in 1791 by James Madison, one of the founding fathers of the United States.

Public rejection

The jokes, however, have not served to change citizens’ minds. According to a poll released last week by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, three in four Americans think the president is too old to serve another term. And when asked what words come to mind if they think of him, the top responses were “old,” “slow,” “confused” and “bumbling,” a term often used by Trump.

But Trump is not young either. Sometimes his movements appear clumsy, and nothing is known about his medical examinations. According to that same survey, 51% of voters think that he is too old to be elected again. In his case, the public does not associate him with the word “old,” but rather with “corrupt,” “criminal” and “liar,” but that is another story.

Marjorie Taylor Greene, a congresswoman and Trump’s faithful supporter, was one of the voices who spoke out against McConnell: Biden, McConnell, Feinstein, and Fetterman [a 54-year-old Pennsylvania senator who suffered a stroke] are examples of people who are not fit for office and it’s time to be serious about it,” she tweeted on Wednesday.

McConnell has been Trump’s declared enemy since he openly acknowledged Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. After his lapse on Wednesday, it was Biden who called him to inquire about his health, not Trump. While House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is held hostage by the Republican Party’s radical wing, McConnell has kept his group together. In the first half of Biden’s term, he played a key role in advancing a number of initiatives with bipartisan support, including funds for Ukraine and the infrastructure law. His fall would be celebrated by Trump.

“Americans do deserve to legitimately scrutinize our candidates to see if they are up for the enormous challenges and responsibilities,” wrote University of Utah Law School professor Teneille Brown, a health ethicist, in a 2008 essay, which he opened the debate on whether presidential candidates should be subjected to genetic tests.

When announcing her run for the Republican presidential nomination, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, 51, proposed requiring mental competency tests for candidates over 75 years of age, which would include Biden and Trump. “Right now, the Senate is the most privileged nursing home in the country,” she told Fox News last week.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, 44, also intended to play the young card when he entered the presidential race. In a recent interview, he pointed out that when he was born, Biden was already a senator. “You used to serve in your prime and then pass the baton to the next generation, and I think this generation has not really been as willing to do that. One of the reasons I’m running compared to Biden, I mean, my gosh, we need energy in the executive. We need some vigor, some vitality,” he said, carefully avoiding alluding to Trump. But even in that regard he has been overshadowed by billionaire entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, 38, the surprise hit of the Republican campaign.

But the cases of McConnell, Feinstein, Biden and Trump are not that uncommon. Nancy Pelosi presided over the House of Representatives until she was 82 and only stepped down when it seemed clear that the Democrats were going to lose the speaker’s gavel. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a justice of the Supreme Court, where the position is for life, remained in her position for 11 years even after undergoing surgery for pancreatic cancer. She remained on the bench until she died in 2020 at the age of 87.

Eight United States presidents have died in office: half were assassinated, while the other half died from natural causes. None of them, however, was over the age of 70. The eldest of them, William Henry Harrison, died of pneumonia in 1841, just a month after being sworn into office. In the history of the Senate, 301 senators have died while in office. Some were over 90 years old and had spent more than half a century in the Capitol. This list does not include Strom Thurmond, a senator from South Carolina, who remained in his wheelchair, almost unable to speak or hear, until he retired when he was 100 years old.

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