Former Top Washington Post Editor Leonard Downie Jr. on Facing the Future at Age 80

From a Washington Post story by Leonard Downie Jr. headlined “What 80 feels like: I’m not ready to fear the future”:

“It’s official. I turned 80 at 4 a.m. today, while I was sleeping. I’m an octogenarian,” writes former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. in a journal he kept of his 80th year. He’s in good company: Some 1.3 million Americans turned 80 in the same year that Downie did. Prominent octogenarians include musician Paul McCartney, singer Barbra Streisand, actor Harrison Ford, Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson, journalist Lesley Stahl, civil rights activist and journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and, of course, President Biden.

For Downie, continuing to work and a happy marriage have been key as he has aged. Since leaving The Post in 2008 after 44 years, 17 of them as top editor, he has continued to write and joined the faculty of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where he teaches investigative reporting.

Aging brings its share of aches, pains and memory glitches, and the death of people you have known a long time. But, as Downie writes in his journal, selections of which are printed below, life is still very sweet: “I’m defiantly not ready to retire or to fear the future.”

Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022

I’m 79 years and 8 months old today. Of course, I’m already in my 80th year, but this is the first day of the year in which I will celebrate my 80th birthday on May 1. So I’ve decided to keep a journal. I was inspired by reading “Sixty: A Diary of My Sixty-First Year,” by Canadian journalist Ian Brown. It’s a good read. But 60? I was still running The Washington Post newsroom then, and I was just in the fifth year of my extraordinarily happy marriage to my wife, Janice. I was feeling much younger than my age.

In addition to recounting a still-full life, Brown writes about the growing evidence of his aging, from wrinkles and blotches on his skin, some unexpected health issues, and occasionally eccentric behavior. At one point, he writes, “God knows what I will be like when I’m eighty.”

Well, I will know now.

I can’t remember where I heard or read this, but it’s on my mind: “When you reach eighty, you’re playing with house money.”

Monday, Jan. 3

Nearly a foot of snow fell here today. In the past, I would have been outside right away. I would have pushed the snow off our cars and shoveled our walk and driveway. I would have walked through snow along the wooded, mile-long Battery Kemble trail near our home. But, not today. Except for carefully fetching our morning newspapers at the front gate, I’ve been forbidden by Janice from going outside for now. “You’ll fall,” she warned me.

Sadly, frustratingly, she could be right. I think of myself as relatively fit and active for my age. But I’ve noticed some balance issues. And I’ve fallen hard twice recently — once on the steep front steps of the brownstone where Janice’s son, daughter-in-law and grandson live in Brooklyn. And once onto the flagstone terrace in our small back garden. I sustained serious bruises both times. Fortunately, I didn’t hit my head, although I easily could have.

In good weather, getting outside and walking is important for Janice and me — around our neighborhood, on the nearby C&O Canal towpath along the Potomac River, and on parts of the paved Capital Crescent Trail, along a former railroad route from Georgetown past our neighborhood in Maryland. That was especially so during the worst of the pandemic. Janice and I both have been vaccinated and boosted and we wore masks whenever we were indoors (outside our house). Yet, being outdoors was — is — freedom.

Wednesday, Jan. 5

I came very close to succumbing to a computer scam today. It started when I clicked to read something on an unfamiliar website. My computer, with my work life on it, froze. The screen was covered with an ominous warning that I would have to call a specific phone number to get it fixed. Foolishly, I dialed the number. I did not give access inside my computer to the expert-sounding man who answered. But, apparently, he was able to use the software on my screen to make it appear that he was inside. He showed me what he said were lists of problems showing that my security software had failed, and that it needed to be replaced by an expensive security system, for which I would have to immediately pay him many hundreds of dollars.

The skepticism that fueled my entire career as an investigative reporter and editor finally kicked in. I told him that I would have to consult my computer expert, and I hung up.
anice, shocked at what I had already done, ordered me to call the technical support person at the Cronkite school. With Janice at the controls of my computer, he finally gained remote access to it and found a way to remove the malicious software. I was very relieved and very, very embarrassed. I’m such a technophobe that it could have happened to me in the past, but I know that older people are particularly susceptible to such scams.

Thursday, Jan. 13

Today, the Committee to Protect Journalists published an 8,000-word report I’ve written on the first year of the relationship between the Biden administration and the press. I worked on it most of that year. I also wrote CPJ reports on the Obama (in 2013) and the Trump (in 2019) administrations and the press. In 2020, published my seventh book, a memoir, “All About the Story: News, Power, Politics, and The Washington Post.” I’ve been happy to still be working so much.

Wednesday, March 16

This is senior citizens’ health week in our household. It began for me two days ago, with physical therapy for frequent pain in my right buttock, in addition to addressing my balance issues. I learned several exercises to do daily at home, between appointments.

Yesterday, Janice and I each had our back-to-back annual physical examinations at the nearby office of our wise and witty internist, Kristin Thomas. We both passed with flying colors, albeit dependent on continuing to take various pills, medications, our frequent walks and my physical therapy. I take more than a dozen pills each day during breakfast and dinner — among them vitamins and prescriptions for blood pressure and my prostate. I now need to take them with applesauce, so that I can swallow them more easily.

“The average life expectancy of people in our community is in the 90s,” Thomas said, referring to the relatively affluent neighborhoods of Northwest D.C. and nearby Maryland. That was more encouraging news than the statistical life expectancy for a typical 80-year-old American man: eight years.

Next are our simultaneous checkup appointments with our dermatologist. Usually, he freezes off numerous precancerous spots on my face and refers me for minor surgery to remove some that had become early skin cancers. This time, my face is pristine, owing to a month-long chemical ointment treatment he had prescribed for me. It turned my face a bright, burning red for the two weeks I had applied it, followed by two weeks of ugly, swollen spots on my skin, where it was burning things off.

Reacting to my burning face, butt pain, occasional leg cramps after long hikes, and stiffness and groans when getting up from chairs or out of a car, Janice said, “You’re a walking mess.” She said it in jest, but that is also the way I too often feel.

Monday, March 21

Walking in Battery Kemble Park this morning, I realized that I could not call up its name in my mind. Just as I couldn’t remember the name of our flowering star magnolia tree when I was writing about it earlier in this journal, until I asked our neighbor and ardent gardener, Lois — and it took a few seconds just now to remember her last name.

I frequently can’t remember names, although that’s been the case for many years. My brain now also blocks too often on words I’m trying to use in conversation, although happily that rarely happens when I’m writing.

Tuesday, March 29

I fell out of bed this morning. Just a little bruising on a wrist that hit my bedside dresser on my way down. I was reaching for my mobile phone on the dresser and leaned too far over. It would not be worth writing about here, except that I had just fallen harder on a playground basketball court in Brooklyn a few days ago. We were visiting Janice’s children and 7-year-old grandson there over the weekend. I was shooting baskets with my grandson when I fell forward and hit the ground on my hands and knees, bruising my knees. I’d lost my balance trying a jump shot, perhaps because of the extra-thick soles of my Hoka sneakers. I love them for walking, but they are clumsy for any kind of athletic activity. I will have to take an old pair of sneakers to Brooklyn next time.

Thursday, April 28

Time for a confession, prompted by a feature in today’s New York Times about how youthful Martha Stewart looks at 80, as she hawks expensive skin care and makeup products on TikTok. I’ve been telling everyone that I’m turning 80, just to hear them say, inevitably, how shocked they are and how I don’t look nearly that old. I’ve long appeared younger than my age, although, of course, I cannot claim credit for that.

I did it again Tuesday night at a birthday party for Don Graham, who was publisher and CEO of The Washington Post when I was the newspaper’s executive editor. In conversations with each of several people who have known me for years, I repeatedly let slip that I’d be observing my own 80th birthday this coming Sunday. The genuine shock on their faces, as they said they couldn’t believe it, was very rewarding. I should be ashamed, but I’m not. Who knows how long that reaction will last into my 80s?

Sunday, May 1

It’s official. I turned 80 at 4 a.m. today, while I was sleeping. I’m an octogenarian. The day itself feels like a bit of an anticlimax because I have been suffering from an unpleasant head cold. It isn’t covid; I’ve tested negative three days in a row. Except for wonderful birthday cards I received from Janice — plus cards, emails and phone calls from various other folks — it seems as though the actual day is somehow less meaningful than how I will be spending the rest of my 80th year and what I will learn about coping with it. Note to self: According to an analysis of census data done for the New York Times, 1.3 million people are turning 80 this year.

Friday, June 3

I felt unusually gloomy about mortality yesterday. Barry Sussman, a Washington Post editor who worked with me on the Watergate story, died suddenly at the age of 87, I was interviewed about him by telephone for obituary stories in The Post and the New York Times.

After hearing that news, I had one of my increasingly disturbing accidents. While standing over our open dishwasher and using a towel to dry a very large frying pan, it slipped out of my hands and fell onto a dinner plate in the dishwasher, chipping it. Why am I that clumsy? Why was I stupid enough to be standing over the open dishwasher?

Then, today, I phoned my insurance agent to inquire why the bill for our auto insurance had increased by $40, with no explanation. She called back to tell me it was because I had turned 80. Auto insurance rates, she explained, are higher for drivers under 25 and those 80 and over. Not a big deal financially. Still, evidence of the somewhat depressing side of this big birthday year.

Not all was bad, though. Near the end of my being interviewed today about Sussman, the New York Times obituary writer said he had looked me up on Google. “It said you were 80,” he told me, “But you don’t sound anywhere near 80. More like you’re in your 40s.”

That made the rest of my day.

Tuesday, June 14

A new postage stamp honoring Katharine Graham was unveiled today at a ceremony and dinner at the Library of Congress, where her papers are archived. Janice and I saw so many Post friends whom we had not seen for months — most of them not since a December memorial service under a tent at the Kennedy Center for Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, who had died of a sudden heart attack at age 66. It seems to be remembrances that bring us all together these days.

Friday, June 17

Unbelievably, today is the 50th anniversary of the break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate office building, another reminder of the passage of time. After working with Sussman and others on Watergate as a junior editor, I edited Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — and all of The Post’s coverage of the climatic Senate Watergate hearings — from early 1973 until the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon on Aug. 9, 1974.

Tuesday, June 21

Today, the summer solstice, is the longest daylight of the year. While trying to think about how many more summers I have left, I did notice that Paul McCartney, Barbra Streisand, Harrison Ford, Brian Wilson, Lesley Stahl and Charlayne Hunter-Gault were among those who also turned 80 in the past year. And they are all still working, too.

Tuesday, July 19

It’s a cliché that you are plagued by forgetting little things as you get older, but it’s true! Why did I come into this room? Where are my keys? In my case, it’s often the second or third thing I intended to do. Yes, I moved the wash to the dryer, but I forgot the thing I intended to bring upstairs from the nearby storage room. I did remember to bring in berries from the garage fridge when I took out the trash, but I forgot the kale that Janice also had asked for.

But yesterday, something weirder happened. Janice was leaving the house and could not find her mobile phone. I joined the hunt. I decided to call the phone from my mobile. I could hear its familiar ring — the theme from the old “The Rockford Files” television show — as I was walking into our bedroom. But I still couldn’t find it anywhere as I was walking around the room. While I was calling the phone for a third or fourth time, Janice walked into the room and asked, “Is it in your pocket?” It was indeed in the pocket of the shorts I was wearing. I forgot that I had put it there for her an hour or two earlier when it needed to be rescued from some inconvenient place I could no longer remember.

As we were getting into bed last night, I decided that I should write about the incident in this journal. I scribbled a bedside note: “pocket phone.” When I woke this morning, I could not figure out why I had done that. What pocket phone? Something I wanted to buy? Not until breakfast did I suddenly remember. So, I’m writing this quickly before I forget again.

Thursday, Aug. 18

A Washington Post analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that nearly 700,000 octogenarians are still working — 5.5 percent of our group of Americans. Some couldn’t afford to retire. I refuse to.

Sunday, Sept. 4

Labor Day weekend. There are abundant signs that summer is waning. The sun is setting before 8 p.m. daylight saving time. Some tree leaves are beginning to turn color and fall. Time generally seems to be speeding up for me. Often, it feels like the week had just begun, and then the weekend is upon us. Although the year is far more than half over, it seems as though I was just writing here about the advent of spring. Are my 80s going to accelerate toward my demise?

I’m increasingly pleased when I wake up each morning next to Janice. I hold her as tightly as she can stand. They say having a strong marriage or relationships can help you live longer. We shop for groceries together and take walks together. We work near each other at computers on desks in our home study. At night, we read, play word games and watch television together. We repeatedly declare our love for one another. Yes, we sometimes get on each other’s nerves, sparking brief arguments. But neither of us ever wants to lose the other.

Monday, Sept. 5

I decided on the spur of the moment, without properly preparing, to take a walk in Battery Kemble Park on a very hot and humid morning while Janice was out shopping. Without her there to remind me, I didn’t drink water before leaving the house, and I didn’t take any with me. When I reached the end of my walk along the park’s lower trail, I made another unwise decision and started to make the return trip on the steep upper trail. Going uphill, I began to feel increasingly unsteady, swaying backward as I reached for tree branches. When I came to a spot badly eroded into an uneven ditch, I lost my balance completely and fell hard onto my left side.

To my surprise, a couple walking a small dog came up from behind me to offer help. When I couldn’t get up, they pulled me onto my feet. As I forged ahead, I realized that I had become severely dehydrated and was still losing my balance. I fell again. This time, the man and wife insisted on holding me up until we reached the street outside the park. They sat me down on something along the driveway of a house, while the man went with the dog to their home a half-dozen blocks away and got his car to drive me home.

Janice, now back home, was unsurprisingly furious and unsympathetic about my dehydration, the falls, the small cuts and bruises on my left arm, and the blood on my clothes. “How could you be so foolish?” she repeated, scolding me, I knew, out of concern and love.

Friday, Sept. 23

Autumn arrived in the eastern United States at 9:03 last night. Right on time, the weather turned from sweaty hot yesterday to pleasantly autumnal cool and sunny today. Autumn is perhaps Washington’s most pleasant season, until the leaves fall, and the days become noticeably shorter and darker. Maybe the seasonal change accounts for my preoccupation with reading obituaries these days. I’m so familiar with the remarkable lives and careers of many folks in those stories. And I’m paying more attention to their ages. So many of them in their 80s — right around the corner from me. Even those who made it into their 90s were a mere decade or so beyond where I’ve already arrived.

I try not to dwell on it, but the unavoidable truth is that I’m in the late autumn of my life.

Sunday, Nov. 20

President Biden turned 80 today — the country’s first octogenarian president. “An 80-year-old today and an 80-year-old years ago represent different pockets of individuals; they are not directly comparable,” Dan Belsky, associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, told the New York Times for a story on Biden’s birthday. “Today, there are many physically active, cognitively healthy 80-year-olds, taking classes, running around, governing.”

Sunday Dec. 25

The Washington Post published on its editorial page a list of “22 Good Things That Happened in 2022,” along with all the bad news. Number 22 honored accomplishments of Americans “of a certain age.” Singer Tony Bennett won a Grammy at age 95. Singer Angela Alvarez won “best new artist” at the Latin Grammys at 95. World War II veteran Lester Wright, 100, set a 100-meter dash record for centenarians. It concluded: “Let them be your new inspirations.” Indeed.

Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023

We didn’t know it yet, but our daughter-in-law, Laura Whitman, died late last night in a Yale University medical center hospice at the so-young age of 61, after a three-year battle with cancer. Married to my 61-year-old son, David, a professor, Laura was an accomplished physician, teacher and leader at the Yale University School of Medicine. When we last visited them at their home in Southport, Conn., a couple of months earlier, Laura exhibited extraordinary strength in the face of what was becoming inevitable. Would I be so strong?

Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023

While in Brooklyn for our grandson Oscar’s eighth birthday, I finally decided to deal with my fear of falling while descending those stone steps outside the brownstone where I had fallen going up them months ago. Going up and down them scared me, a combination of my lifelong acrophobia, old-man balance issues and the low stone railing along them. Oscar’s father agreed to hold my left arm while I reached down to the low railing and descended the steps. I will continue to do that in the future.

Thursday, March 9

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is being treated for a concussion after tripping and falling last night in the Waldorf Astoria Washington D.C. on Pennsylvania Avenue, where he was attending a fundraising reception and dinner. The Kentucky Republican is 81. Although I believe I am much more physically fit than McConnell appears to be, this is exactly what I am afraid of happening with my occasional balance issues and fear of falling.

I am being increasingly careful while going up and down stairs or encountering uneven pavement and high curbs. when out walking. Inside, I hold tightly on stairwell handrails. When Oscar was here recently, I avoided steep staircases with low railings in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in favor of elevators. According to the National Institute on Aging, more than 1 in 4 people 65 or older are injured by falling each year.

It also is becoming noticeably more difficult for me to get up from chairs and out of cars — and then stand up straight without brief muscle soreness. Once up and moving, I’m on my way, but it makes me feel my age, and I resent it.

Tuesday, April 18

The Washington Post reported today that four octogenarians ran, jogged and walked the entire USA Track & Field 100 Mile Road Championships in Henderson, Nev., on March 3 and 4. The winner, 80-year-old David Blaylock of Draper, Utah, finished in 29 hours, 49 minutes and 29 seconds. As for me, I walked a couple of miles to, around and from the American University campus for the third day in a row.

Monday, May 1, 2023

My 81st birthday. I’ve entered the ninth decade of life. I’m reasonably healthy for my age and very happy. I’m busy with my teaching, research and writing. I’m defiantly not ready to retire or to fear the future.

This article is adapted from Leonard Downie Jr.’s new memoir, “80: An Octogenarian’s Journal.”

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