9 min read

Why elderly pols hang on

As Mitch McConnell freezes once again, thinking through why so many politicians choose to spend their twilight years in the public glare.
Why elderly pols hang on
The world’s most powerful nursing home. (DALL-E)

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For the second time in two months, Mitch McConnell froze yesterday.

It happened in his home state of Kentucky, where the Senate Republican leader was answering questions from reporters after delivering a speech. During the Q&A, McConnell was asked if he planned to run for re-election to an eighth Senate term in 2026.

McConnell never answered the question — except maybe he did. “What are my thoughts about what?” he asked, prompting the reporter to repeat their question. After the reporter did so, McConnell chuckled and began to launch into a response, but then suddenly appeared to freeze.

An aide quickly approached McConnell, asking if he heard the question. “Yes,” the senator mumbled, before again going quiet. When another staffer asked if he wanted to step outside, McConnell said “I’m okay,” gripping to the podium and seemingly unable to move or speak at length.

In total, the episode lasted about 30 seconds. McConnell then went to the next question; for the rest of the press conference, he was able to speak, but still appeared to have difficulty hearing and answering the questions. An aide loudly repeated each question into his ear before he answered.

Here is a video of the incident, which is frankly alarming and hard to watch:

The moment is, of course, eerily similar to when McConnell froze for about 19 seconds on Capitol Hill last month, also while answering questions from reporters. Video from that press conference is here if you missed it.

Both times, McConnell’s aides said afterward that their boss was merely feeling “lightheaded” — an explanation that seemed dubious the first time, but is now even harder to believe after the same thing happened twice. After the first incident, two neurologists told the New York Times that it appeared McConnell could have been having a mini stroke or partial seizure.

McConnell, who has long had an unsteady gait stemming from his childhood brush with polio, spent nearly six weeks away from the Senate earlier this year after falling at a D.C. fundraiser in March. The senator sustained a concussion and a fractured rib.

His office did not disclose two additional falls in February and July, which only became public when CNN reported them after McConnell’s first freeze-up. Per NBC News, McConnell has also recently begun using a wheelchair to navigate crowded airports; his aides have not offered a full explanation of why such an accommodation is necessary.

McConnell quickly circled the wagons, speaking on the phone after yesterday’s incident with Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-SD), Senate Republican Conference chair John Barrasso (R-WY), and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), according to Politico.

Cornyn, a former whip, no longer holds any formal leadership position; his inclusion on McConnell’s call sheet is seemingly a nod to his status, along with Thune and Barrasso, as one of McConnell’s possible Senate GOP leader successors. The “three Johns,” as they are known in Washington, all stood by McConnell on Wednesday, expressing their support.

Although Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) issued a call for McConnell’s resignation, no Senate Republicans — even internal critics like Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), who challenged McConnell in a leadership race late last year — joined her.

McConnell, 81, is just one member of an aging generation of powerful pols who simply refuse to quit. In the Senate, he is joined by his 90-year-old colleague Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who also spent an extended period away from work this year, due to a shingles diagnosis.

Like McConnell, Feinstein’s office was less than transparent about the full extent of her health issues; it was reported after her return that she suffered more serious complications from the virus than had been known publicly. She has repeatedly appeared unable to perform the functions of her office, expressing confusion at votes in committee and on the floor.

And then, across Pennsylvania Avenue, there is President Joe Biden, 80, who expressed concern for his friend McConnell on Wednesday. Biden’s aides have reportedly been adjusting his schedule and behavior to account for his age, especially since he tripped over a sandbag on stage in June. An AP poll released this week found that a whopping 77% of U.S. adults believe Biden is “too old to effectively serve another four-year term as president,” including 69% of Democrats and 89% of Republicans.

When the Senate returns from its summer recess next Tuesday, McConnell — and the entire Senate Republican conference — will surely face a swarm of questions about how long the Kentuckian plans to stay on as GOP leader.

Those questions will likely be batted away, but another one — too impolite to ask out loud — will be hanging in the shadows: Why stay on?  

It’s the same question that could just as easily be asked of Feinstein, Biden, and several other members of the Silent Generation. Put aside, for a moment, your personal feelings on any of these politicians. Forget even that they are all, to varying degrees and in varying ways, showing their age and some are struggling with health problems.

A simple glance at an actuarial table tells you that, even assuming they are perfectly healthy, they only have so many good years left. (The average American 80-year-old, per the Social Security Administration, is expected to live 7.7 more years. The average 90-year-old is projected to live 3.7 more years.) Why do these politicians want to spend their twilight years under the public spotlight, subjecting themselves to punishing schedules when they could be relaxing in retirement, surrounded by their family and not a phalanx of advisers?

None of these politicians will have the exact same answer. In many cases, they are simply stubborn; McConnell, Feinstein, and Biden are all famously so.

Remember: Mitch McConnell held open a Supreme Court seat for more than a year by sheer force of will. (His memoir was literally called “The Long Game.”) Dianne Feinstein shepherded an assault weapons ban through the United States Congress. Joe Biden ended America’s longest war, against the advice of nearly every general and foreign policy expert in Washington. These are people who are long accustomed to pushing through and getting their way.

For many of them, it is clear they also feel a sense of mission, a civic duty to stay on. McConnell’s last stand was captured expertly in a recent piece by Politico’s Jonathan Martin, who chronicled the Senate leader’s “determined campaign” to protect aid for Ukraine and leave his beloved Republican Party as internationalist as he found it.

“This is the defining, final battle of his career, keeping the party away from this new flirtation with isolationism,” Scott Jennings, one of his closest advisers, told Politico. Indeed, with his House counterpart Kevin McCarthy and newer senators like J.D. Vance singing a different tune, it’s very possible to imagine future Ukraine aid packages facing insurmountable obstacles without McConnell there to usher them through the process.

Biden’s mission — his raison d’être for spending his 80s in an endless whirl of intel briefings, press conferences, and grip-and-grins — is similar, but broader: keeping Donald Trump away, not just from Ukraine policy, but from the White House. It is clear that Biden, having done it once before, believes he is the only Democrat who could beat Trump in 2024. Perhaps he is right, perhaps not, but this belief — which also counts as an implicit lack of confidence in Kamala Harris — is clearly driving his bid for a second term.

A similarly urgent mission is harder to divine for Feinstein. As a Democrat from California, she is utterly replaceable, even if she doesn’t see it quite that way. Her cognitive struggles have already lost her her leadership posts (and sources of influence) in the party, including her chairship of Judiciary and her spot in the presidential line of succession. Maybe, as the New York Times has speculated, she is staying on to ensure that Gavin Newsom does not appoint Barbara Lee to her seat, instead of Feinstein’s preferred successor Adam Schiff. (Or, really, as the Times has also suggested, maybe that’s why Nancy Pelosi — who also prefers Schiff — has placed her daughter by Feinstein’s side and ensured the senator stays in office.)

Beyond the internal politics of California, Feinstein — or, again, the people around her — might also think Republicans would not allow her seat on Judiciary to be filled if she resigned, making her a necessary vote to confirm Biden’s judges. (Republicans have said they would allow Democrats to fill the seat, however.)

Feinstein’s lack of an obvious overriding reason to continue working at age 90 brings us to another possibility: for some of these pols, this is all they know. Feinstein and Biden have held political office almost uninterrupted since 1970 and 1971, respectively. By comparison, McConnell is a late entrant to the political stage, having joined the Ford administration as an assistant AG in 1975.

That’s about 50 years, give or take, that all of them have been in politics. Feinstein is the longest-serving female senator in history; earlier this year, McConnell notched his long-sought goal of surpassing Mike Mansfield as the longest-serving party leader in the history of the Senate. Biden, meanwhile, has dreamed for years of sitting in the Oval Office; having finally gotten there, he isn’t going to give it up now.

Even if they were to quit, they sometimes don’t have much to go back to, or many people to tell them when it’s time. A life in politics can be taxing and leave one without many close friendships. Feinstein’s husband, sadly, passed away last year; he was reportedly one of her only confidants. (Her daughter is now engaged in a messy battle with her stepchildren over the late husband’s fortune.)

McConnell has a vast orbit of political aides who — in Politico’s words — are akin to “surrogate sons,” but it is unclear what his circle is like outside of people reliant on him for their careers. He has his wife, two-time Cabinet secretary Elaine Chao, but, according to reporting by the New Yorker in 2020, he is isolated, at least politically, from his three daughters. His youngest, Porter, is a progressive activist whose pinned tweet rages against “white supremacy, patriarchy and oligarchy.”

Here, Biden is an outlier, with a fulsome family life and six — wait, seven — grandchildren.

Still, after years of working your way up the food chain, it can be hard to hang it up when you’re at the apex of your career. The types of lofty positions that Feinstein, Biden, and McConnell hold can offer a pretty good life, or at least a comfortable one: drivers ferrying you to the office each morning; aides attentive to your every need; in Biden’s case, access to Camp David and Air Force One. These are creature comforts that some politicians find it hard to just give up.

These three are hardly the first to face this problem. There is a long history of Washingtonians developing cases of “Beltway fever,” that intoxicating pull towards power. Strom Thurmond stayed in the Senate past 100; Robert Byrd died in office at 92. In a different era, John Quincy Adams collapsed on the House floor and died in the Capitol building, having stayed in Washington to serve in Congress even as an 80-year-old former president.

But, as lifespans expand and America ages, it will only become more common for octogenarian and nonagenarian politicians to wrestle with whether to stay or go. Feinstein, Biden, and McConnell are a preview of that graying future — and perhaps also of how future politicians will answer that same question.

More news to know.

Clarence Thomas Supreme Court financial disclosure shows travel paid for by GOP megadonor / CNBC

Judge holds Giuliani liable in Georgia election workers’ defamation case for withholding information / AP

New York AG’s office alleges Trump inflated his net worth by as much as $2.2 billion in 1 year / CNN

Kids in many states wrongly removed from Medicaid, U.S. officials say / WaPo

Trump fundraising spikes after Fulton County mugshot, surpassing $20M in August / Fox

House Republicans Want Joe Biden’s Air Force Two Records / The Messenger

Emulating Trump, Ramaswamy Shows a Penchant for Dispensing With the Facts / NYT

The day ahead.

White House: President Biden and VP Harris will receive their daily intel briefing together this morning. They have nothing else on their public schedules.

Congress: Both chambers of Congress are out all week.

Supreme Court: The justices are out until October.

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