“Bias Makes You Stupid,” Senior Edition

That’s Dustin Hoffman in “Little Big Man” above, which he narrates as “Jack Crabbe,” a 121-year-old survivor of Custer’s Last Stand.

It is amazing to me that anyone seriously argues that elected officials, judges and other individuals with challenging jobs should NOT be required to retire at a reasonable age. [Yes, I omitted “not” in the original post. Idiot.] Many do so argue, however, especially those who are past that reasonable age, whatever it may be. Here’s a letter in the New York Times today; let’s call the writer “Jerry”….

ReBiden Facing a Big Decision on His Future” (front page, Nov. 14):

Yet another article casting doubt on President Biden’s fitness to run again because of his age: 80 this coming Sunday. On the front page no less, as we celebrate his key role in dodging the predicted red wave.

Next month I turn 84. I still work at my computer every day, practice yoga regularly and ride my bike 10 to 20 miles a week. For sure, I can’t run as fast, or recall every name with the same ease, but in my mind I still feel young most days. And I’m far from alone among my cohort.

Eighty is the new 60. We need to get used to it as the baby boomers begin to turn 80 in just three years.

When we pick a presidential candidate, age is less important than character, experience, wisdom, judgment, kindness, resilience, mental health and track record, to name a few. Every candidate will have his or her flaws, but it’s insulting and foolish that someone should be disqualified simply based on age.

Using Biden as support for his argument makes me question Jerry’s competence at 84. Anyone can see and hear that Joe Biden’s cognitive skills have declined precipitously; it was obvious years ago, and Joe was hardly the sharpest knife in the drawer at 30. Biden was too old to run in 2020, and he’s too old to serve now: he gets confused, he’s clearly guided and manipulated by aides and his wife, and his judgment from moment to moment cannot be trusted. The older one is, the greater the chance that one’s abilities will go the way of Joe’s. That’s not an opinion, it’s destiny. There are definitely massive variations among individuals, and, just like with great athletes, the truly brilliant can decline in old age and still be better than most people. The problem is that with advanced age, as with Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get, and when you might get it. Just this week, a reporter revealed a disturbing exchange with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). inexcusably still in office at 89. Feinstein completely forgot that she had said last month that she did not want to become President Pro Tem of the Senate. When he raised the issue again this week, the Senator said that she had never considered the issue. An aide had to remind her that she had made the earlier statement to the Washington Post, and this exchange with Feinstein followed:

“That’s what you’ve told reporters”

“I don’t know what you’re saying,”

“This is about the Senate Pro Tem position.”

“Well, I haven’t said anything about it that I know of.”

“You were asked about it over the break, and you put out a statement saying that you had no intention of running for it.”

“Okay, well, then, I guess it’s out,” Feinstein finally said.

Maybe Feinstein still works at her computer every day, practices yoga, rides a bike 10 to 20 miles a week, and feels younger than springtime. It doesn’t matter. She’s too old, and is showing her age. True, it won’t help matters if you replace her with a young idiot like, say, Eric Swalwell (just to pull a name out of the air), but that reasoning is employing Rationalization #22: that there are younger pols who are less able than an age-diminished Diane Feinstein isn’t justification for allowing Feinstein to serve until she needs a drool cup. (We actually saw a Senator hang on that long, with the horrific example of Strom Thurmond).

The examples of obvious decline that the public or a once stellar individual refused to acknowledge are legion. Ruth Ginsberg couldn’t say awake during oral arguments in her last years on the Supreme Court. Justice Scalia’s opinions at 80 became increasingly shrill and cranky. Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett were croaking by the time they finally stopped singing. One minute Bob Hope could deliver wisecracks off of cue cards reasonably like he could do in his prime, then suddenly he couldn’t, and was left mute and blankly staring during a tribute to his career. Great baseball players stagger to the ends of their careers. Watch Ronald Reagan deliver his dazzling performance in 1964 arguing for Barry Goldwater’s Presidential run, and compare it to the Reagan we saw in 1985.

Biden is too old. Trump is too old. Clarence Thomas is too old. Nancy Pelosi was too old years ago; so was Bernie Sanders. Just like Jerry, rare are the seniors of former brilliance in their chosen fields who have the courage, integrity and self-awareness to quit before age-related decline has real and devastating consequences, rather than after. Now and then we see a star—the phenomenon of staying too long is a sub-category of “The King’s Pass”—who bucks the trend. Cary Grant famously quit acting when he decided that he no longer could credibly “get the girl,” and, he pointed out, “Cary Grant always gets the girl.” Joseph Cotton quit acting saying that he used to be a good actor but no longer could say that. More typical is the sad case of Bruce Willis, up until recently accepting roles at inflated salaries despite catastrophic cognitive decline.

Jerry is right that “age is less important than character, experience, wisdom, judgment, kindness, resilience, mental health and track record,” but age affects many of those qualities, especially judgment, resilience, and mental health. Setting reasonable limits on service that might vary with the job wouldn’t be necessary if everyone could overcome their own biases and fear to accept the fact that it is irresponsible to continue in challenging positions until you drop. But most people can’t; it’s like accepting death.

And death is one of the primary reasons we need mandatory retirement ages. The United States, as it almost always has been, got extremely lucky when Harry Truman became President after the death of FDR. Roosevelt knew he was dying, knew his body and mind were giving out, but he ran for a fourth term anyway and allowed Truman, a life-time hack politician, to be made his Vice-President though Roosevelt barely knew him. Our longest-serving President died at a crucial point in World War II, and against all odds, Harry was up to the challenge. It shouldn’t have come down to luck, however, just as the horror of Kamala Harris becoming President should not be left to luck.

Those with great responsibilities and who must be trusted mustn’t be permitted to base the decision on whether they are too old for their jobs on how they feel, Satchel Paige (and others) notwithstanding. Far from proving Jerry’s contention, President Biden shows why Jerry is dangerously wrong.

8 thoughts on ““Bias Makes You Stupid,” Senior Edition

  1. We don’t even know what “Jerry” does for a living. There’s a huge difference between a probable retiree like “Jerry” and someone running the country – ostensibly – like Biden.

    Your statement about challenging jobs is quite apt when it comes to the President of the United States.

    As an aside, it appears that Dustin Hoffman’s autograph is up there on the photo. Is that really how he signs his name? As a collector of autographs – I attend conventions regularly – it always irks me when someone scribbles an unintelligible word on a photo that I could have done myself (I’m looking at you, William Shatner, master of the autograph hieroglyphic) instead of a legible signature.

  2. Just turned 80 and agree with your assessment, Jack. (Hope I got your name right — usually remember someone’s name about 10 hours after I wanted to know it. ).

  3. Right on, Jack! (How’s that for a dead giveaway of one’s age?), Coming up on 83, I am increasingly proud of having followed the advice of a sports platitude: “Quit while you’re ahead.”

    The hard question is how does one know when that is. One thing I learned is that if you wait for someone else to tell you – and that includes your doctor and your best friend – you’re already well on the downward slope. How fast or easy the slide depends on you. Mostly. Maybe 50/50, maybe. (Another thing I learned was … way too much to try to explain here and now, but I am keeping track, yes, I am: someday I’ll get around to writing That Book.)

  4. “age is less important than character, experience, wisdom, judgment, kindness, resilience, mental health, and track record,” that is true. However, someone with “character, experience, wisdom, judgment, kindness, resilience, knowledge of his health, and aware of his limitations should be wise enough and kind enough to step aside.

  5. Jack: “ It is amazing to me that anyone seriously argues that elected officials, judges and other individuals with challenging jobs should be required to retire at a reasonable age.”

    I think you meant “NOT required.”

    I agree with politicians. We have age limits to let them in. I have no principled objection to having a mandatory retirement age.

    With Judges, particularly federal ones, there should not be one. The basis for the protections in the Constitution were raised in the Declaration of Independence. You could say that we fought the Revolution to make sure Judges could not be forced to retire. Judges are supposed to be the least political branch and should be insulated from politics in even this way.

    Having said that, without a rule, the decision to retire should be considered an ethical obligation. When the center of your job is to use “judgment,” anything that affects a judge’s judgment should be a reason to consider retirement.

    Of course, judges in the state system can be treated differently for all I care. I think my state has judges retire at 70.

    -Jut

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