Politicians Love to Talk—But Not About Their Health

From a Wall Street Journal story by Annie Linskey headlined “Politicians Love to Talk. Just Not About Their Health.”:

When then-Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid injured himself with exercise equipment in 2015 at age 75, his office issued a sunny statement assuring that he was ready to get back to work. Years later, he confessed that the accident was far worse than he let on and ended his political career.

Now Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, 81 years old, is facing pressure to fully explain two mysterious freeze-ups during public appearances this summer, both coming after he was sidelined earlier this year by a fall that led to a concussion. In the latest episode, the Kentucky senator, when asked Wednesday if he planned to run for re-election, stood motionless for about 30 seconds. His office later attributed the lapse to his feeling momentarily lightheaded.

The incident provided the latest example of a malady afflicting Washington: When politicians get too old or too sick to do their job, they won’t cough up what’s wrong—or step aside.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein turned 90 this year and has ignored calls to resign before her term ends in 2025 despite signs of diminished mental acuity and an absence because of shingles.

“There’s a history of political candidates and leaders hiding their illnesses or outright lying about them,” said Teneille R. Brown, a law professor at the University of Utah who has written about presidents concealing maladies including cancer.

The lack of honesty is one reason for voters’ ebbing trust in their elected leaders and Washington. Sixty percent of voters said they don’t trust the federal government to handle domestic problems, according to a Gallup poll from last year, among the worst ratings since 1972, when the firm first started asking the question.

Polls show most voters think President Biden, 80, is too old to run for a second term in 2024. The president has at times spoken with halting cadence and physically stumbled. He is the country’s oldest serving president and, should he win re-election, would be 86 years old when his term expires. Even some of his his allies say he isn’t as sharp as when he served as vice president, though the White House rejects any notion that he isn’t up to the job.

His likely Republican opponent, Donald Trump, trails him in age by three years. The 77-year-old former president has in the past been cagey about his health. Trump initially played down his Covid symptoms weeks before the 2020 election, right up until he had to be admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Biden, during a visit to the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters, told reporters that he had spoken with McConnell earlier Thursday. “He was his old self on the telephone,” Biden said, referring to the senator, who is also his former Senate colleague, as a friend. “I’m confident he’s going to be back to his old self.”

Presidents and congressional leaders, who are entrusted to make decisions that affect war and peace, the global economy and the rights of millions of people, aren’t always clear eyed about when it is time to step aside from their high-powered jobs.

“Politicians are like all human beings, and nobody likes to admit weakness and fallibility,” said Colin Reed, a longtime Republican strategist who is working for a super PAC aligned with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a GOP presidential candidate. “But they all have larger egos than most everyday people” making it “a hard thing to admit.”

The U.S. is becoming an older country as the baby boomer generation moves into its golden years. One in 6 Americans is 65 or older, according to the 2020 census, up from 1 in 8 a decade earlier. The number of people who were 85 or older has risen 15%, and the number who are 100 or older has climbed 50%.

The average age of House members at the beginning of the current term was 57.9 years old, and the average age of senators was 64, both down slightly from the averages of the previous term that began in 2021, the oldest Congress on record, according to data compiled by the Congressional Research Service.

Since 2003, the average age of a House member has increased by four years. The increase is slightly larger on the Senate side, where senators are, on average, 4.5 years older than the members were 20 years ago.

It is harder for politicians to hide health issues than it was in the past, said Brown, the Utah law professor, because they are recorded appearing in public far more frequently now. “The problem is aging politicians who have neurodegenerative disorders,” said Brown, who added that such conditions can hurt their judgment even before it becomes apparent in televised appearances.

These older or declining leaders can surround themselves with what she called “entrenched inner circles” of aides and allies who can disguise the extent of their bosses’ mental decline.

Americans are expressing discomfort about the frailty of their leaders. Seventy-seven percent of Americans said Biden is too old to serve effectively for another full term in office, according to a poll conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Nearly all Republicans held the view, but so did 69% of Democrats.

About half said Trump is too old for another four-year term, with 51% of respondents saying he couldn’t perform effectively. That includes 71% of Democrats and 28% of Republicans.

Biden regularly releases information about his annual physicals, with the most recent letter from his doctor made public in February, when he reported that Biden “remains fit for duty.” In Biden’s November 2021 annual physical, his doctors noted that his gait had noticeably stiffened, attributing it to age-related changes to the spine.

On Thursday, the Senate’s physician issued a letter saying that McConnell “is medically clear to continue with his schedule as planned.” The letter added that “occasional lightheadedness” isn’t uncommon after a concussion.

“It is a strange world we live in when people reach a certain age and believe they still have gas in their tank,” said Donna Brazile, a former acting chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, referring to the broad collection of aging U.S. politicians. “It’s a personal thing. Many of them believe that while they are physically slowing down, they think that they are mentally still fit to serve. They are stubborn.”

Many of the current crop of leaders, Brazile said, began their careers in the turbulent times of the 1960s and 1970s. “They came into public service during a moral crisis. There was a calling,” she said. “But transitioning to that next phase of their lives is a difficult one.”

The phenomenon of playing down health problems isn’t limited to the old. As a senate candidate in Pennsylvania, John Fetterman waited several days to disclose that he was hospitalized and had a stroke—which occurred in the last few days of his primary campaign. The team never allowed the Democrat’s doctors to be interviewed despite multiple requests.

The Fetterman campaign did release several detailed letters from his physicians and, after a recovery period, they held a series of events and interviews where voters could assess his health first hand. Earlier this year, when he was admitted to Walter Reed for depression, his team immediately notified the press.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at age 82 decided to give up her leadership post when her party lost the House in the 2022 midterm elections.

She didn’t make the decision amid any significant decline in health. Speaking about her choice on the House floor, she said: “For me the hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus that I so deeply respect.”

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