Houston Matters

When is an elected leader too old to serve? Surprise — the answer depends on your politics

History professor Nancy Beck Young says health — not age — should decide that question. But how voters see it depends on their side of the political aisle.


The late U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein pictured next to Sen. Mitch McConnell
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
The late U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein served until her death at the age of 90. And Sen. Mitch McConnell, age 81, has frozen twice in front of reporters.


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Sen. Dianne Feinstein was in poor health when she passed away last week at the age of 90. Sen. Mitch McConnell, age 81, has frozen twice recently in front of reporters, suggesting some sort of health challenge.

Of course, these are not the only examples of elected officials under the microscope due to age, health, or both. It's also not a new phenomenon.

In the audio above, Nancy Beck Young, a professor of history at the University of Houston, shares with producer Joshua Zinn some examples of times from our nation’s history when questions about the age of our elected leaders has been a concern.

For one extreme example, she points to the historic vote for the Civil Rights Act in 1964. At the time, one of California’s U.S. Senators, Clair Engle, was ailing and near death. In order to break the fillibuster of that historic legislation, he had to be brought in on a stretcher. He was unable to speak so, during roll call, when his name was called he pointed to his eye to indicate an “aye” or yes.

Beck Young says conventions about age are different now, citing the saying that “6o is the new 40,” meaning people are living and working longer than they did in generations past. When it comes to a politician’s fitness to serve, she says it’s possible for an elected official to serve into their 80s or even 90s, as was the case with Sen. Feinstein — as long as they’re healthy enough to do so.

“I think health is a more important determinant of fitness for office than age,” she said.

But does the voting public see it the same way? Beck Young says, like so many things these days, it depends on your politics. A staunch Democrat might say it’s time for Sen. McConnell to step down while still supporting the reelection of Pres. Joe Biden, who is 80 years old and, when he took office, was the oldest person to do so.

“Whereas, for Republican voters, there is very little questioning of former Pres. Trump’s age and quite a bit of negative rhetoric about Pres. Biden’s age,” she said. “So, I really do think it’s more partisan than it is legitimately analytical.”

Michael Hagerty

Michael Hagerty

Senior Producer, Houston Matters

Michael Hagerty is the senior producer for Houston Matters. He's spent more than 20 years in public radio and television and dabbled in minor league baseball, spending four seasons as the public address announcer for the Reno Aces, the Triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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