Used to be, when people got to a certain age, they were supposed to follow the example of old elephants who - at that certain are - slowly walk out into the forest, lean against a tree and wait for the Grim Reaper. Then came “60 is the new 50,” “70 is the new 60,” and so forth. More exercise and better drugs, I guess.
These aging thoughts were brought to mind recently by a demographic survey done by the National Conference of State Legislatures and an outfit called “Stateline.” Ranked by the age of its members, Idaho’s Legislature is the second “oldest” in the country. Average age: 63. Oldest individual member: 80. Only New Hampshire averaged older: 66.
Our neighboring states came in quite a bit younger. Washington’s legislature averages 58 years with a general population average age of 47. Oregon’s lawmakers average 58 years with a population average of 46. Residents of Idaho average 47. If you’re thinking about average years of a member of Congress, it’s 59. Both parties are about identical. Democrats just seem older.
At the youngest end of the legislative spectrum, Puerto Rico and Michigan tied at 50 - with Florida third at an average of 51 years.
Now, before anyone hits the “reply” key to accuse me of “ageism” - whatever the Hell that is - let it known I am the same age as Idaho’s oldest member: 80. You may be thinking of this discussion of the elderly in terms of older folks. I’m talking about peers. And younger.
While the studies didn’t survey occupations, Idaho’s legislature has always had a high proportion of retirees. Nothing wrong with retirees, I guess, if they don’t hang around too long.
Case in point: Idaho’s late Rep. Don Maynard - a retiree from Sandpoint - who was in his 70's at the time. He spent most of the 1960's in the House. His one distinction: he never debated. Never. Nor did he sponsor any bills. He showed up every day, kept his mouth shut and voted when the bell rang. Until the final day of one particular session.
It had been unusually long that year. Lasted nearly till May. On the final day, the body got into a wrangle over something. Debate got heated. And long. Then, Rep. Maynard stood up and reached for his microphone - a microphone he never once used. The chamber fell silent - waiting to hear Maynard’s wise contribution to the lengthy discussion.
“I ask the members of this body to reach a quick solution to this issue and let the Speaker pronounce we are adjourned,” the ever-silent Maynard pleaded. “My wife is waiting in the ante room and the slot machines at Jackpot are getting colder.”
As members laughed, I was thinking at the press desk, “Four months of silence and this is his first contribution to debate? What the Hell has he been thinking all these years?”
People retire at different times and for different reasons. The way it should be. But there’s clear evidence many in politics hang around too long and become less of a representative of the people and more of a problem. Senators Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond come to mind. In later years - as they attempted to set some sort of record as “longest serving” - neither man could find his way from his office to the Senate chamber. And neither - despite previous legislative accomplishments - was contributing much but added payroll for on-the-job caregivers.
Commercial pilots are age-limited. In some states, so are other occupations. Cognitive abilities make no difference. Issues of risk and public safety take priority. Well, what about public good?
It’s doubtful there could ever be a qualification for public office because of advanced age. Certainly not for intelligence or common sense. But issues facing legislative and congressional bodies these days are complex, moving at a pace we’ve never seen before. More information faster and in larger amounts. Many our 70's and 80's may think we’re still able to keep up but, often, we really can’t. Just as our other, slower, age-related reflexes affect our athletic efforts or such things as our ability to drive as safely, our intellectual prowess isn’t as reliable, either.
For the last 30 years or so, Idaho’s legislature has suffered from arrogance, ignorance and outright stupidity dealing with some issues. Proof of that is found in the millions and millions of tax dollars paid to attorneys after losing cases involving legislative bone-headed decisions made while ignoring competent legal advice. And other millions awarded to individuals and organizations because of unconstitutional and illegal actions pursued - again, after being warned.
While some of that may be charged to nutcase, right wing political blackout regardless of age, I’d guess some older, not as sharp minds contributed as well. Not understanding the issues, not wanting to appear so to peers and more easily swayed by illegitimate arguments.
Taking stock of one’s physical and mental abilities in later years is not only wise, it’s absolutely essential if you want to enjoy that period you’ve been working and planning for. Endurance as a senior - physical and mental - is highly individualized and differs greatly. And, for some, stepping aside for younger folks not as experienced is hard to do.
But doing so is, more often than not, the right thing. And it should happen long before the overwhelming desire to play shuffleboard. Or go to Jackpot!