Receive free FT Magazine updates
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest FT Magazine news every morning.
About a decade ago, my daughters and I had a delightful lunch with Dianne Feinstein, one of the US senators representing California. She was vibrant, funny, whip-smart and offered me sage advice about my career. “Pace yourself!” she urged, as we discussed the logistics of my life as a working mother with young children. She was every inch the pioneering icon who has paved the way for other women in American politics.
Today, at 90, Feinstein remains a senator. But after suffering health problems in recent years, she cuts an increasingly frail figure. Following her prolonged absence from the Senate earlier this year, Ro Khanna, a level-headed Democrat congressman from California, pleaded with her to resign before her term is up, so that she can “end [her] service with dignity”. I am told family members have made similar appeals. Feinstein refuses to retire.
Her situation is not a one-off. There is currently speculation about the health of Mitch McConnell, 81, the head Republican in the Senate, who has “frozen” twice during recent press conferences. Meanwhile, the age of President Joe Biden continues to be the focus of scrutiny. A new Washington Post poll shows that 74 per cent of voters consider Biden, who would be 82 at the start of a second term, too old to run for the White House again.
White House officials blame this on a Republican smear campaign. They argue that Biden is well equipped to run, having scored some big legislative hits during his first term. He is also one of the few Democrats who can unite progressives and centrists. That is true. But participating in a meeting with White House officials and US business luminaries recently, I heard widespread concern among Democrat donors about Biden’s age, with some longing for a younger candidate.
One senior west coast executive told the meeting to “think about RBG”, seeing a cautionary parallel with the case of the legendary liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was still in office when she died at 87. Had she stepped down earlier, while Barack Obama was president, it could have avoided one of the vacancies Trump was ale to fill with a rightwing judge, thereby tipping the balance of the Supreme Court. “If Biden runs and something suddenly happens, it could hand the election to [Donald] Trump,” one donor told me. (Trump, who is 77, is considered too old to be president by almost half of voters.)
Looking at Congress today, one in five of its members is over 70, and the median age of the House and Senate is almost 60 and 65 respectively, after rising sharply in the past two decades. This is higher than any other G7 country. In the UK, France, Germany and Italy, the median age hovers near 50. Nancy Pelosi, the former House Speaker, has just announced plans to run for Congress again at 83. That seems odd, given that American society has a renowned obsession with youth. So what’s going on?
Perhaps the pattern is most clearly viewed as a symptom and consequence of some of the best and worst traits of America’s political economy. In terms of the former, advances in medicine are enabling some Americans to enjoy vigorous lives far beyond their sixties. Urban metropolises are brimming with ultra-healthy people in their sixties, seventies and eighties — even nineties — taking on new careers, social roles or philanthropic ventures.
The flip side of this is that it is primarily the wealthy who reap the benefits of these life-extending medical miracles, while poorer communities grapple with “deaths of despair”, the premature deaths caused by an epidemic of drugs such as fentanyl. And elderly politicians clinging on to power reveals another ugly reality: that winning office requires so much money that it heavily favours well-established elites.
US politics today is also so polarised that those holding power can be reluctant to relinquish it in case it benefits the other side. I am told by her colleagues that one reason Feinstein stays in office is due to fears her departure would hurt the balance of power in the Senate.
Polls suggest that most voters agree with the recent comment from Senator Mitt Romney, 76, that both Trump and Biden should “stand aside”. I applaud that idea. Or, to paraphrase Feinstein’s own advice to me: politicians must learn to “pace themselves”, not just when they start their careers, but when they end them too.
On that note, next week will be my final column in FT Weekend Magazine (I’ll still write in FT comment weekly). I am beginning a new role as provost at King’s College, Cambridge university. I have loved writing this column and will miss it but I’m excited for the next adventure and for what’s to come.
Follow @FTMag to find out about our latest stories first