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OPINION

Statesmen Know When to Hang It Up

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Joe Biden was a hoary, four-decade Washington veteran when he ran for president in 2020, more than three decades after he first threw his hat in the ring for the office. Early in the campaign, President Obama himself worried that his former vice president would come across as “a tragicomic caricature of an aging politician having his last hurrah,” according to Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes in their book, Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency. 

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Right off the bat, in the third Democrat Presidential debate of that race, Biden validated Obama’s fears when he famously channeled his groovy, disco-era roots by declaiming, “Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the, the — make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school, a very poor background, will hear four million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.”

Now, more than halfway into his term, the enfeebled octogenarian Biden makes the 1970s Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev appear lucid by comparison, with his staff resorting to piping in jazz music, Oscars-style, to shut him down as he trips over his words yet again at a brief news conference in Vietnam earlier this week.

It doesn’t take a neurologist to recognize that Biden’s cognitive function is deteriorating by the day, and world leaders are well aware that there is no longer anyone at the helm of the most powerful country on the planet. Indeed, last week, a Wall Street Journal poll found that 73% of voters in all parties say he is “too old to run again.” 

No less a Democrat political stalwart than James Carville channeled the Apollo 13 crew from 1970 – two years before Biden was first elected to the Senate, believe it or not – declaring last week, to CNN of all outlets, “I’m sure the White House knows this, by the way. They don't need to be told that the president has an age problem.” Houston, we have a problem indeed.

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Washington has long had a problem with gerontocracy in both Parties. Two months ago, 90-year-old Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein of California had to be rescued by a staff member when she rabbited a prepared script instead of simply casting a vote at a committee hearing. Her former Democrat colleague Senator Claire McCaskill stated the obvious to MSNBC, that Feinstein was “doing some real damage to her legacy which is extraordinary as a United States senator.”

Unfortunately, it is not so extraordinary to do real damage to a senator’s legacy – or those of other high public officeholders. Senator James Jeffords of Vermont, a Republican-turned-Democrat, confused his own colleagues in 2005 when the addled Green Mountain State septuagenarian wandered into the House chamber instead of the Senate to cast a vote. He switched plans to run for re-election later that year, admitting in his retirement speech, “My memory fails me on occasion…” Good for him, but it never should have come to that point.

For his part, my former boss, Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia – a former Navy Secretary and Marine veteran widely respected by senators of both parties for his three decades of service in the Senate – was heavily favored to win a sixth term in 2008 at age 81. 

Despite his chronological age, Warner was sharp as a tack, as former President Trump himself demonstrates in his current campaign in the many long-form, no-notes interviews he gives several times a month. Indeed, many of us half Trump’s age who served on his campaign or in his administration had trouble keeping up with him. It’s not about chronological age; fitness for public office revolves around energy and overall mental acuity.

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At the top of his own game and clearly fit to serve another term, Warner nevertheless chose an entirely different approach from that of Feinstein and Jeffords and other of his Senate colleagues who faced undeniable cognitive challenges while in office.

As recounted by a seasoned reporter from his home state, Warner “acknowledged [in the summer of 2007] that he was keeping a diary as he pondered his decision [on running for re-election the next year], recording the days so he could reflect on the demands of the job and his desire and willingness to keep up his pace through another term. He had watched the long decline of South Carolina [Senator] Strom Thurmond and insisted for years that he would leave the Senate while his mind was still sharp and his body healthy. He had even told journalists they should confront him and write about his health if they saw him slipping. He still feels strong, Warner insisted…and came through a recent trip to Iraq ‘just as well as when I was in boot camp with the Marines.’ But a doctor had admonished him that ‘the 80s are your golden years – enjoy them,’ he added.”

Standing in front of the University of Virginia Rotunda shortly thereafter in a late August 2007 news conference one year before his upcoming re-election, Warner surprised his constituents and even his staff by announcing he would retire from the Senate. In his short speech, Warner quoted the university’s founder, President Thomas Jefferson: “There is a fullness of time when men should go and not occupy too long the ground to which others have the right to advance.” Warner concluded, “So I say with great humility and thankfulness in my heart, I yield that ground so that others can advance.” 

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It’s time to retire the gerontocracy in Washington in both parties –especially for the highest office in the land, whose current occupant, like him or not, conveys a frailty unbecoming of his predecessors and one that emboldens our adversaries.  Statesmen know when to hang it up, and it shouldn’t take music playing a President off the stage for Biden and his handlers to recognize it’s that time. 

Mr. Ullyot is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and served as a senior staff member in the U.S. Senate and Deputy Assistant to the President.

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