Continental Divides

Moses Didn’t Lead for this Long

Whereas the Constitution directs that no person shall be elected president of the United States more than twice, the nation’s guiding charter doesn’t concern itself with aging leaders

By John McCaslin

Debate persists over whether 80-year-old Joe Biden is too “senior” to serve a second term as president. The embattled Donald Trump is no spring chicken either, weighing in at 77.

As the polar opposites’ internal clocks continue to tick however feebly towards Election Day (mind you, still 15 months away), we painfully watched 81-year-old Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell freeze in mid-sentence during a recent news conference, only to get led away from the podium.

That same week, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, currently the oldest member of Congress at age 90, became so confused when it came her turn to vote that she began to recite her earlier statement.

Whereas the Constitution directs that no person shall be elected president of the United States more than twice, the nation’s guiding charter doesn’t concern itself with aging leaders — only budding ones, stipulating that presidential candidates must be at least 35.

Members of Congress, meanwhile, needn’t worry about term limits, but like presidents they are free to grow as old in office as they (their maker and the voters) please. Similarly, a senator must be at least 30 years of age and a representative 25.

A book I wrote a few years back surrounding Washington politics includes a chapter on term limits and aging lawmakers, among them elder statesman Robert C. Byrd, who died in office in 2010 at age 92. Despite having one foot in the grave, the West Virginia senator had no intention of leaving Capitol Hill.

In fact, shortly before the Senate fell two votes short of forcing a vote on a constitutional amendment to limit a senator’s time in office to 12 years, Byrd stepped up to the podium and argued:

“For to whom is the inexperienced legislator to look for guidance if all of his colleagues are inexperienced? Moses would not have led the Israelites from Egypt through the wilderness to bring them to view the Promised Land — he led them for 40 years — if there had been a limit on service. He would have been out a long time ago.”

Doing some quick math, I realized that the senator’s reference to Moses’ 40 years was the exact span of time that he had represented his West Virginia constituents (all told, Byrd spent 58 years on Capitol Hill, first as a congressman).

Byrd by no means was the only lawmaker to hog his seat. Then-Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota recalled the day he first set foot in the Capitol Hill office of Sen. Claude Pepper, then the oldest member of Congress (he died in 1989 at the age of 88). On the Florida senator’s wall, Dorgan said, “I saw something I have not forgotten.”

Behind Pepper’s desk “was an autographed picture of Orville and Wilbur Wright making the first airplane flight. And it was autographed, ‘To Congressman Claude Pepper,’ by Orville Wright. Then, hanging just above that was a picture of Neil Armstrong setting his foot on the moon, autographed, ‘To Congressman Claude Pepper.’”

I won’t forget the day 80-year-old Tennessee Congressman James H. Quillen explained why he decided not to seek an 18thterm in office — somehow adding in the same breath that he supported term limits.

“Leaving is a sad day for me, but 34 years is long enough,” Quillen quipped. “My career in the House has convinced me that term limits are appropriate — and I think 17 terms should be the limit.”

Finally, there was the colorful South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, a neighbor of mine who at the time of his death in 2003 was the longest serving senator in history, spending 48-plus years in office (he would turn 100 before retiring, six months before his death).

I’d often run across the notoriously flirtatious senator (he didn’t live long enough to contend with the #MeToo movement) at a local watering hole, where deep into his 90s he would routinely slurp three-dozen raw oysters in one sitting. Given oysters are packed with zinc, which speeds up the production of testosterone, Thurmond’s impressive appetite provided some persuasive fodder for my syndicated newspaper column.

Hormones aside, during his final years on Capitol Hill the enduring centenarian was described by one congressional colleague as barely being there, fading in and out, unable to focus on one particular subject.

Removing a senator from office, however, requires a two-thirds majority vote, which has occurred numerous times in the past for the crime of treason, but never because a lawmaker was blessed with longevity.

Bloomberg’s Al Hunt once wrote a feature about Arizona Sen. John McCain (as it happened, two years before the senator’s untimely death in 2018 from brain cancer), pointing out that it would probably be McCain’s final term in office. And for good reason:

“In 2002, riding up to the Senate, [McCain] spotted Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, then 99, being wheeled into the office building, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. ‘If you ever see me like that,’ McCain said, ‘shoot me.’”

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.

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