Dianne Feinstein doesn’t get it. How could she? She’s 85. Ancient. She has had too many decades to resign herself to the status quo, and she won’t be around to watch the fires rage and the oceans boil. Step aside, Granny. Sturdier legs will lead the way.
That was the subtext — actually, that was the text — of the California senator’s clash with schoolchildren in her San Francisco office last week, as they lamented her coolness to the Green New Deal and she pushed back that she knows a thing or two. She’s right. She does. And while that’s largely a function of smarts, it’s also a function of age. The building blocks of wisdom are experiences, which come only with the passage of time.
Nancy Pelosi is 78. There was a lot of hand-wringing about that in the buildup to the midterms. I participated in it, joining many younger Democrats who questioned her determination to become House speaker. How about some fresh energy and new blood?
Thank heaven she swatted us away, because she smacks down Donald Trump more effectively than any other politician, and the reasons include her poise and steel, the kind forged by many battles over many years. They accrue as wrinkles do, with prolonged exposure to the elements.
Is the Democratic Party too long in the tooth and gray at the temples? You bet. The leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination include Bernie Sanders, 77, Elizabeth Warren, 69, and — if he runs — Joe Biden, 76. That’s worrisome. In the past century, the country has never elected a first-term Democratic president over the age of 52. Plenty of pundits have noted that.
The No. 2 and No. 3 Democrats in the House — Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn — are 79 and 78. That concentrates one generation’s sensibility and perspective at the summit, and, strategically speaking, the optics aren’t optimal.
So it’s good that the party recently seeded the stratum just below them with younger lawmakers and that many newly elected Democrats are well under 50. With age as well as gender and race, diversity matters.
But the attention to age can go too far. It degrades the virtues of oldsters. It romanticizes the dewiness of youngsters.
Sure, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s youth (she’s 29) is crucial to the passion in her voice, the ambition of her ideas and her ability to rouse a contingent of young voters who too often go missing from politics. But it probably also contributes to her heedlessness — to how cavalier she can be with facts. (Not that we don’t have a 72-year-old president who surpasses her in this regard.)
At 37, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is the youngest of the candidates to jump into the 2020 presidential race, and he is trying to turn his age to his advantage, arguing that he grew up with mass shootings in schools and that his generation will inherit the full consequences of climate change.
But there was gun violence galore before Columbine, Newtown and Parkland. Feinstein can attest to that. She was at San Francisco City Hall on the November 1978 day when Mayor George Moscone and her fellow city supervisor Harvey Milk were fatally shot. She reached Milk’s body first, one of her fingers slipping into a bullet hole in his neck when she checked for a pulse. And during her quarter-century in the Senate, almost no lawmaker of any age has been a more insistent crusader for restrictions on firearms.
As for the notion that young voters and politicians care more about the future because they have more skin in the game: Show me even one decent parent who doesn’t vote with his or her kids in mind. Show me one decent grandparent. I can’t see how anyone would invest so much time, money and heart in a child’s tomorrow only to ignore that future in the political realm.
Characterizations of Congress as a gerontocracy are often accompanied by complaints about the ruinous gluttony of the baby boom generation, which encompasses people from about Donald Trump’s age down to mine, 54. We’re rightly charged with befouling the environment, running up the debt and letting the American dream slip away from the middle class.
But you know what else baby boomers did? Helped bring an end to the Vietnam War. Advanced the causes of equality for women, for black people and for LGBT Americans. Engineered the digital revolution. If we’re not the dynamos we once were, maybe it’s not because we’re sanguine or jaded. We could just be pooped.
Or we could just be seasoned, because part of what you discover on the far side of 50 is that aspirations and ardor carry you only so far. (“The Green Dream,” Pelosi dismissively called it.) Progress ultimately comes from a deep understanding of systems and a thorough familiarity with the most tedious details. That’s what Pelosi has, and it’s what she had nearly a decade ago, at 69, when she last served as House speaker and pulled Obamacare across the finish line. Could she have done that at 49?
It’s best to have plenty of younger politicians in the mix: It’s only from a multiplicity of perspectives that some problems — and some solutions — come clearly into view. And older generations need younger ones to reconnect them with their idealism.
But younger generations need older ones to turn that idealism into more than pretty words. They need the moral authority reserved for people who’ve done so much loving, so much losing and so much figuring out how to press on. They need the life lessons, which have grown from a pamphlet to an encyclopedia. What a waste not to read every last syllable of it.