Are We Still So Comfortable with Septuagenarian Leaders?

Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden talk during the Democratic primary debate in Charleston, S.C., February 25, 2020. (Randall Hill/Reuters)

The presidential election is going to be in a holding pattern until summer, and maybe until autumn; the national and global fight against the coronavirus just makes anything that Joe Biden is doing less important, at least for now.

At least for now, Bernie Sanders does not sound like a man who is interested in suspending his campaign, even in these extraordinary circumstances. He told John Nichols of The Nation on April 1:

The bottom line is that there are people within our movement who say, ‘Look, you know, it’s probably a good idea to sit down with Biden and try to work something out.’ There are other people who say, ‘You know, you’ve got to fight this to the last vote in the convention.’ God knows what the convention will look like, you know? It’s not going to probably be a real convention, it’ll be a virtual convention. . . . Believe me, we are spending a lot of time talking to people, trying to get my supporters’ perspective on what is the best path forward.

In other words, the person who takes the oath of office on January 20 is probably going to be a man who turns 74 in June (President Trump) or a man who turns 78 in November (Biden), with a miniscule outside chance that the person taking the oath will be a man who turns 79 in September (Sanders).

We head into this crisis, up against a virus that is particularly dangerous to the elderly, with a particularly elderly class of political leaders. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell turned 78 a few months ago, and House speaker Nancy Pelosi turned 80 last month; House majority leader Steny Hoyer turns 81 in June. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer turns 70 in November. President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate Chuck Grassley, fourth in line to the presidency, is 86 years old.

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Vice President Mike Pence is the relative kid among our nation’s leaders, turning 61 in June. And House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is the baby among our political leaders, at a mere 55 years old.

Had coronavirus struck a year earlier, or even six months earlier, isn’t it likely that the Democratic primary would have progressed differently? The emergence of Biden and Sanders as the last men standing represented the voting public’s expressing confidence in the physical and mental health of men in their 70s.

But the burden of leadership looks different today than it did just a few months ago. As of this writing, British prime minister Boris Johnson is “responding to treatment” in an intensive care unit in St. Thomas Hospital in London. We’re all hoping and praying he pulls through. Johnson is 55 years old, and had said recently that he wanted to lose some weight, but otherwise seemed to be in good health. He doesn’t smoke, although back in 2014 he joked that, like Winston Churchill, he could drink a lot at lunch and keep working. Johnson is significantly younger than all of our leaders except Pence and McCarthy.

We’ve still got a long road ahead — another 12 to 18 months until a vaccine is discovered, manufactured, and distributed to the public. This problem will not be gone by Inauguration Day 2021. But it appears that one way or another, a man in his 70s will be taking the oath that day.

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