In the winter of 1794, President George Washington was one year into his second term — and he was feeling his age. Twenty years in the country’s service had transformed the once virile figure most Americans remembered admiringly from the Revolution into a slow-moving, slow-talking, dried-up old man. A friend, recounting a recent visit with the president, described to a colleague how frail Washington had grown, his face “cadaverous” and his voice “thin and whispery.” Washington had wanted to step down the year before, but the fledgling American republic might not have survived his departure. So, he soldiered on, years after he should have retired from public life.
Most voters understand from personal experience that physical and cognitive abilities diminish precipitously with advancing age and yet, in election after election, voters give aging political candidates the benefit of the doubt and elect them anyway.
Anyone doubting this need only recall that senators Charles Grassley, Orrin Hatch and Patrick Leahy, Judiciary Committee members who were at both the Brett Kavanaugh-Christine Blasey Ford hearing Thursday and the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearing in 1991, are 85, 84 and 78 years old, respectively. President Donald Trump, 72, most recently raised doubts Wednesday at a rambling, 81-minute news conference variously described in headlines as astonishing, outrageous, strange and wild.
A maximum age requirement would help
How old is too old to run for office? We have all seen thetime-lapse photos of presidents that show the aging effects of the job on their physical features. Sometimes the signs are less obvious. President Ronald Reagan, for example, was 73 when he ran for re-election in 1984 despite showing signs of creeping cognitive decline. According to hisformer communications director Tom Griscom, at the beginning of the second term, incoming White House chief of staff Howard Baker was so concernedabout Reagan’s mental acuity that he ordered an evaluation of the president to determine whether Reagan was fully capable of governing.
In some ways, the life of a CEO resembles that of a president. Both have punishing schedules and enormous 24-7 responsibilities. Both types of leaders are blamed for the mistakes of subordinates when things go wrong and get all the credit when things go right. They are each answerable to their own particular version of a constituent.
But take a moment and search your memory for the last time you read about a CEO of a Fortune 500 company over the age of 70. Actually, don’t bother. There aren’t many. In the corporate world, advancing age is often viewed as a disqualifying factor when considering a candidate’s elevation to CEO.