Our political culture has come to a sad state when the simple act of retiring before obvious disability intervenes is an act of rare responsibility and courage. We are at that sad state, however, so the announcement by 83-year-old Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, the longest-serving Republican senator in American history, that he will not run for re-election in 2018 is worthy of salute. Hatch will leave the Senate at the end of his current term, after 42 years in office. He is giving up power, something so many find difficult to do.
Hatch has power now: he is the chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. He played a pivotal role in passing the Trump tax reform bill that passed before Christmas, and decided that it was a fitting way to crown his historic Senate career. It isn’t exactly Ted Williams hitting a home run in his final at bat; for one thing, there is another year to go before Hatch’s term is up. Nonetheless, he is doing one of the hardest things for a p0werful figure to do, especially, it seems, today’s Senators in both parties,
More than half of the 18 Senators up for reelection in 2018 will be over the age of 65. If they win, another six years in office would put Senators Feinstein, Nelson, and Sanders well into their 80s. By the 2020 elections, 21 of the 33 Senators running for reelection will be 65 or older. This is neither healthy for the country nor responsible, and the problem extends beyond the Senate. Over the past three decades, the average age of a member of Congress has steadily increased. In 1981, the average age of a Representative was 49 and the average of a Senator was 53. Today, the average age of a Representative is 57 and the average of a Senator is 61. House Democrats are especially antediluvian: the average age of the Democratic House leadership is 72 years old, in contrast to the average age of Republican House leadership, 48 years.
When my father reached his 80th birthday, he called me on the phone and said cheerily, “Well, son, I’m in the red zone!” He meant that at that advanced age, he could,as he put it, drop dead any second. (Dad made it to 89, but he did, in fact, drop dead.) The average life expectancy for a man at 80 is about 7 years. The Senate term is six years. That’s playing it irresponsibly close. This year we already have the unpleasant spectacle of Senator John McCain, not only in his 80s but battling brain cancer, still refusing to resign in favor of a healthier replacement.
“When the president visited Utah last month, he said I was a fighter. I’ve always been a fighter. I was an amateur boxer in my youth, and I brought that fighting spirit with me to Washington,” Hatch said today in a video statement. “But every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves. And for me, that time is soon approaching.”
No, every good fighter doesn’t know when to hang up his gloves. Joe Louis didn’t, and ended his career being defeated by opponents who wouldn’t have lasted five minutes with him in his prime. Muhammad Ali didn’t, and crippled himself as a result. Political leaders who don’t know when to hang up their metaphorical gloves do even more damage, for they harm their constituents and their country with their diminishing vigor and mental acuity.
My favorite fact about Orrin Hatch is that he is a professional pop composer and lyricist, having written songs recorded by the Oakridge Boys, the Osmonds, Gladys Knight and others among his more than 300 musical works. Three of his songs made it into Hollywood film scores, like the one above, written for his friend Ted Kennedy. It was used in “Oceans Twelve.” Last year, Senator Hatch reported $39,092 in royalty earnings on his songs; most pop lyricists would consider that a great year.
Maybe now Hatch will devote himself to his music full time.