During the first day of hearings for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, Jeffrey Toobin, the lawyer, author, New Yorker contributor and legal analyst on CNN, essentially called the senior Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee doddering old fools. It was a patently ageist remark and as such, offensive. And yet, it was sort of true, too, in a very troubling way — if you’re a Democrat, if you’re not a Conservative, if you’re afraid of the impact Trump might have on the judiciary writ large and the Supreme Court, and if you’re inclined to call out ageism. Because in fact, the Democrats who proffered the first lines of questioning did not appear to be at the top of their game. Their questions were neither sharp nor well-prepared; they were often incoherent, and the senators delivered them as if they were not in control of all the facts or concepts they were addressing, as if, at times, their minds were wandering and/or words were getting lost. It was painful to watch, but I was still surprised when Toobin pointed it out, and even more surprised that I nodded affirmatively when he said it, because, actually, I agreed with him.
This is not to discount the myriad contributions these folks have made over the years, and, yes, continue to make. It is simply to concede that an 83 year-old woman (Diane Feinstein) and a 77 year-old man (Patrick Leahy) may no longer represent the Democrats best foot forward, especially at this critical time in the history of our democracy. Not that they don’t have anything to say; it just might be better if they weren’t the ones giving (shaking, gravelly) voice to it. Age-wise, the rest of the Democrats serving on the Judiciary committee clock in at 70, 71, 66, 62, 57, and 54. Not to put too fine a point on it, but, really, an entire population that qualifies for AARP membership?!! Though I guess that’s to be expected, given the stature and the seniority required to serve on the Judiciary Committee. It is a plum assignment. But prunes? I don't think so.
When the foibles of age become a distraction to the work that needs to be done — any work —they invite ageist critiques, and suggest it is high time to give some thought to one’s effectiveness in a chosen role. My father, for example, having trained with surgeons in their prime and witnessed others who were past it, vowed to retire from surgery by age 60. Not from medicine entirely, but from surgery where he realized any vicissitudes of aging could be deadly. These kinds of decisions will be deeply personal and highly individual, some of them as mundane and, really, petty, as they are painful: when do you switch from tennis to golf, from heels to flats, from blond to gray, from marathon-running to walking? And how do we, as a body politic, balance wisdom with energetic vision? What responsibility do we take for “training up” the generations that come after us, for filling that proverbial pipeline with men and women willing and able to stand on our shoulders?
It’s particularly complicated in politics — complicated by power presumed and inherited, by seniority rules and important alliances, by one’s perception of one’s own highest and best use and the need for prudence or leadership or courage in a particular community or political environment. Questions were raised about Hillary Clinton’s stamina — and based on her performance, I thought they were patently unfair (although based on my own experience as a woman exactly her age, I, too, wondered how she had the energy to do all she did!). It also irritated the hell out of me that the same questions were not raised about her 70 year-old male opponent. We must, of course, measure our individual strengths and weaknesses, energy and exhaustion, physical and mental abilities, and passions, along with our opportunities to do good and do it as well as it can be done. This is not a call to put aging senators out to pasture; but it is a call to all Democrats in Congress to make sure they bring their A-Game to the tasks at hand — because every single challenge to our once-ageless democracy demands the best possible response.