When 83-year-old New Jersey congressman Bill Pascrell shared a photo of American lawmakers meeting a Chinese trade delegation in Washington in 2018, he probably didn’t expect it to go viral on Weibo. (You wonder, rather cruelly, if the congressman is familiar with the term ‘viral’ at all.) But it did go viral — gleefully and potently viral — on Chinese social media. Why?
The picture showed two delegations at a table. The Chinese look young, or at least they do when sat opposite the Americans. They look grizzled in the original sense of the word: like gray-haired old men. This image was cannily juxtaposed on Weibo with another one, taken in 1901 in Beijing, at the close of the Boxer Rebellion. In the black and white photo it is the Chinese envoys of the Qing dynasty who look ancient, and the Americans who look vigorous. The symbolism was as blatant as an air horn. ‘Over the past 100 years, American officials have gone from young to old, and Chinese officials have gone from old to young,’ a Weibo user wrote. One country was on the rise, and powerful; one country was on the slide, and weak.
No, there is not a fig leaf big enough to cloak the problem: America is a gerontocracy. The governing class in America is old, and showing its age, hence all that tittering in China. Congress is majority baby boomer; almost half of senators are over the age of 65; 16 governors, too, are aged 65 or over. In the year of the plague, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is older than both, at 79. The House Speaker is 80, the Senate Majority Leader is 79, and the Head of the Senate Finance committee is a sprightly 86. Members of the Silent Generation (b. 1928-1945) outnumber millennials (b. 1981-1996) in the House and the Senate. So far, the DNC has hosted speeches from John Kerry, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Jim Clyburn, all of whom were alive at the time of the Marshall Plan. The Deep State is the gray state: as Politico reported two years ago that nearly 30 percent of the civilian federal workforce is over 55.
Then there is the very summit of political life. John Lukacs once, half-jokingly I think, wrote that there were two elected monarchies in the world: the US presidency and the Roman papacy. Today, the former is starting to look as venerable as the latter. Donald Trump is 74. He entered office as the oldest president ever inaugurated. Joe Biden is 77: if elected he will be inaugurated as the oldest-ever commander-in-chief at 78. Should the debates go ahead this fall, neither Trump nor Biden will be able to quip, as Ronald Reagan did in 1984, that they will not exploit their opponent’s youth and inexperience. In different ways, both men are horribly experienced, and both are grandfathers. In 2020 the question that fills the electoral sky is not whether you would trust one of these guys with the economy — it’s whether you would trust them to drive all the way to the grocery store.
Is it tawdry, and unfair, perhaps even ageist to say that? Despite Trump’s well documented troubles with walking down ramps, he still appears (moodily) energetic to me. The notion that he was a lunatic, or going feeble, always appeared to be a convenient fiction, one warmly comforting to Resistance Twitter, but untethered to reality. Still, some are convinced by the idea. ‘Dotard’ was the classily antique word Kim Jong-un used to describe Trump in 2017, an insult that means ‘old fool’. Or in Korean: ‘늙다리미치광이’, where it literally translates as ‘old lunatic’.
Biden, on the other hand, does seem more candidly discombobulated. There is a what day is it again, chuck purity to his hapless confusion, even when he’s trying to stick to his scripts, that puts one in mind of the most aged of aunts. Is it dementia? Some other garden-variety senility? In fairness, Biden’s career is bestrewn with gaffes, slips, mishaps and misremembered names. He is a known stutterer. From his earliest days as a senator, he was discursive and verbose. If the question of age is broached with Biden, as it was earlier this month, and on the campaign trail, he tends to launch a ferociously whimsical defense of his brain — IT WORKS, Biden will say, before aggressively questioning his interlocutor in turn, or challenging them to a push-up competition, or a 50-yard dash. It’s easy to imagine the Chinese Politburo, in a haze of stogy smoke, screening these clips for post-lunch entertainment, richly and loudly chuckling.
Is it just to set an age bar on political leadership, as Jimmy Carter suggested last year? Winston Churchill was a pensionable 65 when World War Two started. Older still was William Gladstone, who became Prime Minister for the final time at 82. The most majestic elderly statesman on record is Doge Enrico Dandolo (1107-1205). Almost blind, at the improbable age of 88 he personally stormed Constantinople’s towering bastions during the Fourth Crusade. Dandolo returned to Venice with cargoes of gold, precious gems and sacred relics — a landmark victory for the republic. ‘Oh for an hour of old blind Dandolo!’ Lord Byron wrote pompously a few centuries later, ‘th’octogenerian chief, Byzantium’s conquering foe!’ Earlier still, the Roman period saw many concrete examples of elderly leaders who commanded respect and participated in government. The old had a duty to be useful to society, according to Cicero: ‘by means of their counsel and practical wisdom to be of as much service as possible to their friends…and above all to the state.’ There is no reason why old statesmen necessarily make ineffective ones.
America’s problem is not the presence of one or two withered leaders, holding a few important positions, but the development of a true gerontocracy. Not like Cicero’s Senate, but Brezhnev’s Kremlin. Shouldn’t it be a bipartisan national embarrassment that 2020 has been labeled ‘the dementia campaign’? The fact of gerontocracy — its members are statistically more at risk from COVID-19 than most — may explain, as Julius Krein argues, the indiscriminate use of lockdown orders during the pandemic. Krein’s answer to the gerontocratic question is straightforward:
‘Current political officeholders over the age of 70 should have the good sense to resign, and the Constitution should be amended to include maximum ages in addition to minimums.’
Such a turn of events seems unlikely, ‘good sense’ not being an easy commodity to come by recently. Even less likely, should Biden win in November, is a poet hailing him, centuries from now, as ‘th’octogenerian chief’. There’s no risk of that. More pertinent is the fate of those aged Qing envoys. The dynasty they served collapsed not long after that photo was taken — those who shared it on Weibo, no doubt, expect the same thing to happen to America soon.