By Jim Towey
In his song, “The Gambler,” Kenny Rogers famously sang, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” The announcement of the retirement of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who is stepping down from the bench at age 83, raises the question of how to decide to leave positions of prominence before inevitable decline defines you.
It isn’t just a question for the active elderly. NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady (age 44) and Aaron Rodgers (38), face this dilemma today – and both just finished peak-performance seasons and are the frontrunners for the league’s most valuable player award! Brady and Rodgers want to avoid the mistake that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made. He played one season too many (and retired yesterday).
Judicial, papal longevity
If it’s advisable for aging football stars to time retirement correctly, it’s an imperative for those individuals of advanced years who hold high office. Breyer felt it was time for him to vacate his chair on the High Court, and like his judicial opinions, he surely was influenced by precedent. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg never retired and died on the bench at 87. Oliver Wendell Holmes was almost 91 when he hung up his black robe and John Paul Stevens was 90 when he retired.
Supreme Court justice longevity has nothing on popes. Pope Leo XIII presided as pontiff until he died at age 93. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who was the oldest ever elected when he first sat in Saint Peter’s chair at age 78, resigned seven years later. This April he turns 95. So if the “Jeopardy!” television show host asks you, “This man was the oldest pope in history,” get a clarification!
Congressional, presidential longevity
In the U.S. Congress, it is not uncommon for octogenarians or nonagenarians to serve in office. Congressman Claude Pepper, one of the greatest advocates of the elderly to ever live, never retired. He died in office at age 88. At 91 when he retired, Ralph Hall of Texas was the oldest to serve in the House of Representatives. On the Senate side, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond became the first centenarian to serve in that august body, leaving office just after he turned 100.
Only recently has the age wave hit the White House. Maybe William Henry Harrison spooked everyone. Harrison was inaugurated just after his 68th birthday, becoming the oldest U.S. president to be sworn in. His presidency lasted all of one month before pneumonia claimed him. Ronald Reagan was just shy of 70 when he first took the oath of office, and Donald Trump left it at 74. Joseph Biden, our 46th president, is now 79. He is junior to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who turns 82 in two months, just after Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell turns 80.
How old is too old?
So, how old is too old for one to serve in high office? Or is age irrelevant? Anthony Fauci, the Covid czar, turned 81 on Christmas Eve. At what point will he hand his responsibilities over to someone else, like Justice Breyer just did? (My prediction is that he will step down in 2022 if the mid-term elections in November continue to look like a Republican rout). Candidate Biden felt the issue of his age was fair game. During an interview on “The View,” he said, “It is a legitimate question to ask about my age. Hopefully I can demonstrate not only with age has come wisdom and experience that can make things a lot better.”
Quarterbacks retire even when they still can throw the football well. They do this for their team, fans, and own good. Let’s hope the wisdom and experience of our elders in high office are equal to the challenges our nation faces today, and that they relinquish authority when they should. If they don’t, there may be a societal backlash against all senior citizens. Ageism will emerge if the younger generations feel its aging leaders should have retired but instead selfishly stayed on too long and failed to make things a lot better.