Sunday, January 19, 2014

When Should Aging Politicians Retire?


Texas Congressman Ralph Moody Hall was born a few weeks after Warren G. Harding died in office, Vice President Calvin Coolidge had been sworn in and the Republican Teapot Dome bribery scandal was shaking confidence in the Republican Party. He was ten when FDR was first elected and an adult when there was an President in office not named Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Other than John Dingell (age 87), Hall is the last living congressman who fought in World War II. An attorney, he was elected to the Texas state Senate in 1962 and then to Congress in 1980. He was an ultra-conservative Democrat, helped found the Blue Dogs, voted to impeach President Clinton, supported Bush over Gore and finally switched to the GOP in 2004. He's now not just the oldest Member of Congress, he's the oldest person to ever serve in Congress. Last June, smelling food and hearing the familiar refrain of I Will Survive, a confused Hall wandered into a Gay Victory Fund celebration in the Rayburn Office Building. Although he is a cosponsor of all kinds of homophobic GOP legislation, he was welcomed warmly by his LGBT colleagues and given "refreshments." Later when Roll Call mentioned that the doddering Texan had "let his hair down," a snappy staffer wrote a quote for him: "I would just say that while I do have a good head of hair for a 90-year-old, I do not have the quantity of hair, nor the inclination, to let it down."

Nor does he have the inclination to retire from Congress, despite 5 primary challengers, including one from well-funded ex-US Attorney John Ratcliffe. Hall's age is the key issue in the primary and Hall is begging voters to give him just one more term.
“There’s going to be a transition that’s inevitable,” Ratcliffe said. “I provide a good alternative for voters to consider right now.”

Ratcliffe, 48, a partner at a law firm headed by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, embraces Hall. In 2005, he donated $2,000 to Hall’s campaign. And their positions differ little-- both consider themselves conservatives but not tea party representatives.

Ratcliffe sees himself more as Hall’s successor than opponent, and many Republicans in Rockwall would agree. The question is whether voters will unseat Hall after more than three decades in Congress.

“He’s like everyone’s grandpa or great-grandpa,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant in Texas. “It’s pretty hard for a lot of people to feel like he’s being ‘fired.’” … Ratcliffe said that rather than asking those loyal to the 17-term congressman to choose, he hopes to seek out new, younger voters. He plans to make social media a key part of his campaign, a contrast to Hall’s habit of sending handwritten notes.

…Matthew Orwig, who preceded Ratcliffe as U.S. attorney, said the race will be one of the energetic vs. the sentimental. Age is a factor for voters, he said.

“He is the oldest member ever to serve in Congress,” Orwig said of Hall. “Of course people are talking about his age.”

…But both candidates have vowed to say nothing negative against each other. Ratcliffe called Hall before he filed to tell him he was running. The incumbent said he told Ratcliffe he wished he wouldn’t but didn’t try to talk him out of it.

“He’s a friend of mine and a strong supporter,” Hall said. “I think he got tired of waiting.”
Hall skydives. And there's an unspoken conspiracy in Congress and in the media to make believe he isn't senile and that he can still function. An aide told the media “He’s a dynamo." The media reprinted it. Hall's office said he would swim the 21-mile English Channel-- but added it would take too long since he would have to swim one mile a day. “I may swim down to Cuba,” he said. “I’d be swimming downhill.” The media printed it. No one prints that he's not up to the job any longer. Hall is a devout non-believer in Science and Boehner and Cantor had a little joke when they made him chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Laughs over, he was gently pushed aside by a more lucid-- and more venal-- Texas colleague, Lamar Smith and now has the non-position position of "Chairman Emeritus."

Another member of the Science Committee is middling Democratic backbencher Eric Swalwell, who successfully primaried Pete Stark in 2012, ending the illustrious career of a Bay Area legislator who is a decade younger than Hall, but who was in Congress for nearly a decade when Hall first arrived. Ironically, Stark grew up as a Republican and switched parties because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. He beat a fellow Democrat, a man in his eighties in a 1972 primary, claiming his opponent had been in Congress too long. Swalwell used the same argument to defeat him 4 decades later and went after Stark a lot less genteelly than Hall's opponents are going after him. Currently, we have a similar situation just to the south of Stark's old district where a wealthy political opportunist, Ro Khanna, smells blood in the water and is relentlessly attacking 72 year old Mike Honda. Hall and Stark may well have been losing their facilities; Honda isn't. And 72 isn't necessarily an age when people should be pushed aside.

Last week, a fully lucid George Miller, age 68, announced his own retirement. He is one of labor's most avid and effective advocates and the hammer behind Nancy Pelosi's leadership. (His announcement has led to plenty of speculation that the 73 year old Pelosi will also be retiring.) One of Congress' best Members, Miller says he felt 40 years was enough. Perhaps he remembers how Pete Stark unceremoniously defeated the other George Miller in 1972, based on him having overstayed his time in Congress. Or maybe not. This George Miller was reelected in 2012 with 70% of the vote-- 2% better than Obama did in his East Bay district. "I was never," he told journalists at his announcement, "in awe of the 'indispensable man theory.' I tried that once on my high school football coach. And I sat on the bench for most of the year."

Within days, 75 year old Buck McKeon, as big a detriment to honest and effective governance as Miller was a boon, also announced his retirement. Good riddance! Earlier, a very ill, 82 year old Howard Coble announced his long-anticipated retirement, as did 74 year old Frank Wolf. When the longest-serving Republican in Congress, Bill Young announced he was retiring last October, he was 82 years old and died within a few days. Today, the oldest Members of the House are:
Ralph Hall (R-TX), 90
John Dingell (D-MI), 87
John Conyers (D-MI), 84
Louise Salughter (D-NY), 84
Charlie Rangel (D-NY), 83
Sam Johnson (R-TX), 83
Howard Coble (R-NC), 82- retiring
Sandy Levin (D-MI), 82
Don Young (R-AK), 80
Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), 78
Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), 77
Alcee Hastings (R-FL), 77
Grace Napolitano (D-CA), 77
Jim McDermott (D-WA), 77
Lois Capps (D-CA), 76
Hal Rogers (R-KY), 76
Buck McKeon (R-CA), 75- retiring
Maxine Wayers (D-CA), 75
Steny Hoyer (D-MD), 74
Frank Wolf (R-VA), 74- retiring
Joe Pitts (R-PA), 74
Henry Waxman (R-CA), 74
John Lewis (D-GA), 74
Tom Petri (R-WI), 73
Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), 73
David Price (D-NC), 73
Jim Clyburn (D-SC), 73
Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX), 73
The entire Democratic leadership is among the most elderly. Boehner just celebrated his 64th birthday, while Cantor is 50 and McCarthy is just about to turn 49.

There are only 7 Members under 35, Patrick Murphy (D-FL), 30, Aaron Schock (R-IL), 32, Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), 32, Eric Swalwell (D-CA), 33, Joe Kennedy (D-MA), 33), Justin Amash (R-MI), 33 and Jason Smith (R-MO), 33.

So why am I sharing all this congressional demographic information? Let's go back to George Miller for a moment. The earlier George Miller, in an adjacent district, was defeated in an ugly primary when he was 83 by Pete Stark, who was then defeated in an ugly primary 40 years later when he was 81. The current George Miller, decided he'd served enough years in Congress and announced his retirement at age 68, still in firm control of his facilities. Is it possible he felt he had given enough? I know it's possible.

I was still in my 50s when I retired as president of Reprise Records, making an incredible salary and still getting a great deal of satisfaction out of my work, despite some very unpleasant changes in the business of the Music Business. I had no need to buy a private jet or homes in Europe or leave my heirs vast fortunes that would spoil their lives. I had other plans-- giving back to society that had been so generous to me and enjoying life more and stressing about work less. And I felt that it was a positive example to make room for younger people to climb the career ladder below me. The music business-- like the politics business-- needs a mix of old people and young people in decision-making positions. The music business was even more unbalanced in favor of very old people than Congress is. There were peers of mine who didn't "believe" in computers… no, really. One gentleman not quite as old as Ralph Hall, told me, when I suggested he start using a computer, that he had a secretary to do his typing.

When George Miller announced his retirement, an e-mail list I take part in began a virtual wake. There was rending of garments and tearing of hair… an awful lot of shrieking and ululation. When I tried explaining the normal cycle of things, I was accused of not understanding the greatness of George Miller. Yeah, right.

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At 7:15 PM, Anonymous me said...

Buck McKeon ... announced his retirement

What a travesty. He should be in jail.


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