Opinion: In defense of elders in American political life

Gun Rights

photo by: Creators Syndicate

Jamie Stiehm

Public sentiment has turned against old leaders so much that a New Yorker cover art shows President Joe Biden, House Speaker emerita Nancy Pelosi, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and former President Donald Trump hobbling on walkers. Three are in their early 80s; Trump is 77.

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Reflecting on aging in politics, perhaps it should not be dismissed so easily. The three octogenarians bring a lot to the table, in wisdom and experience. Trump’s age is least of his flaws, accused of rape, fraud, election interference and more.

Recent news brought this point home. The Senate is losing two worthy elders, one from each party: the late Dianne Feinstein of California and Mitt Romney of Utah. The California Democrat was 90 and the Utah Republican is 76. The loss is real, palpable.

Feinstein, who died the day after taking her last floor vote Thursday, was carried home on a military plane, accompanied by her close friend Pelosi, also a champion lawmaker and a San Francisco Democrat. That is sisterhood, “the love that exists,” Pelosi said. She led a prayer and moment of silence on the House floor.

On the Senate side, a bouquet of white roses adorned Feinstein’s desk.

Speaking strictly for me, I can’t imagine the Senate without Feinstein and her regal dignity. There she was, resembling the prow of a tall ship, when I was a rookie reporter and she was a freshman senator causing waves.

Elected after the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings brought an outcry from women voters, Feinstein set to work on an assault weapons ban. Freshmen senators are meant to be seen but not heard. She took on the National Rifle Association and passed major legislation, earning the respect of every single member of Congress.

As is widely known, Feinstein tried to save the life of her colleague Harvey Milk, an openly gay San Francisco supervisor, when he was fatally shot in City Hall, along with Mayor George Moscone.

These two things are connected. Shattering gun violence was deeply personal and political.

In 1978, Feinstein became mayor of San Francisco and rose to national notice as she faced the AIDS crisis centered there. Her pattern of taking clear stands, based on study and homework, took hold. She lost a campaign for governor a dozen years later but swept into the Senate in 1992.

My favorite thing that she accomplished in later years was winning against the Central Intelligence Agency and a president of her party, Barack Obama.

The Agency didn’t want its ugly torture record to become known. Detainees on Guantanamo after the Sept. 11 attacks were subject to sensory deprivation in the dark, hypothermia and waterboarding.

Sen. Feinstein chaired the Intelligence Committee and took oversight of the CIA seriously. She gave floor speeches on the importance of releasing the CIA report on its own torture practices. Why? Once again, she did her homework and argued torture was no way to find the truth.

More fundamentally, she declared, torture violated “American values.” Her ship compass was unwavering.

Yes, Feinstein was frail physically and mentally at the end. That’s no secret. A woman who climbs that high in a man’s world has an iron will and won’t quit, period. Her generation of women was first to overcome professional barriers and discrimination, clearing a path for others.

Pelosi’s model of aging leadership stands out. Remaining in the House, she stood down as speaker to great applause, handing the House Democratic Leader reins to Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn Democrat in his 50s. She’s still there as a wise elder in an emergency. They happen often in the House.

Romney is stepping away as the only Republican who voted to convict Trump in two impeachment trials. He will retire after the 2024 election. That is too bad, because he is the most decent Republican, friendly to the other side.

On Jan. 6, huddled in the Capitol, Romney furiously turned on Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley for challenging election results to appease the Trump mob. Scanning younger Senate Republicans, he points to J.D. Vance of Ohio as a hypocritical troublemaker in a forthcoming book, “Romney: A Reckoning.”

Like tall ships and shady trees, wise elders deserve respect.

— Jamie Stiehm is a columnist with Creators Syndicate.

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