Is it possible to be over the hill on the Hill?
There is an epidemic of politicians short-circuiting. Either that or having 80-somethings running the most powerful country in all of human history is starting to show its limitations. Over the weekend, a video emerged of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell freezing when asked if he would seek reelection. After an excruciating pause, an aide appears to help shuffle him away. Anyone who’s spent time with an elderly relative knows intuitively the look on his face, confused and flustered, as he stares off into space.
It would be easy to chalk it up to a momentary lapse if Sen. McConnell hadn’t experienced a nearly identical episode just a month ago. In August, it emerged that Senator Dianne Feinstein had given up power of attorney to her daughter. She also had to be told which way to vote by an aide. President Biden himself seems to be reaching a point where no amount of prepared questions or spin can hide his cognitive decline. It begs the question of who is running the country when he naps.
Now, there’s no reason an elderly person can’t be an adept legislator. Still, it’s hard not to see an analogy for a decrepit empire in every shuffling and befuddled leader paraded out. It goes beyond trying to explain technology to people who think the internet ‘is a series of tubes’ to core governance competencies. There are currently nineteen members of Congress in their 80s or 90s, and it is by far the oldest it’s ever been.
The competence of youth
Contrasting this with America’s most significant technological achievement, the Manhattan Project, is interesting. Christopher Nolan’s spectacular summer blockbuster “Oppenheimer,” tells this spellbinding story with verve. And there are some excellent books on the project, particularly American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin and 109 East Palace by Jennet Conant. Forgotten is the relative youth of the leaders in the race for the bomb.
The lead scientists and military commanders were exclusively in their thirties and forties. J. Robert Oppenheimer was thirty-eight when work began, and Ernest Lawrence was forty-one. Klaus Fuchs, Edward Teller, Glenn Seaborg, and Hans Bethe were in their thirties; Richard Feynman was twenty-four. Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard were in their early forties, and James Conant and General Leslie Groves were the elder statesmen at forty-eight and forty-nine, respectively.
Maybe this is all a coincidence, but when Heisenberg and the Nazis had a significant head start, and America set out to achieve perhaps the most incredible scientific breakthrough in human history, they didn’t choose men based on seniority. It’s not hard to imagine a present-day Manhattan Project led by Baby Boomers, picked for their experience, and mired for decades in bureaucratic meetings.
The Trinity test was a culmination of some extraordinary effort and talent, helped in no small part by Nazi racial laws that caused many of the best physicists in the world to switch sides. It’s incredible the entire project only cost 37 billion in today’s dollars; that’s what we send our Ukranian allies every few months. This isn’t meant to indict age or spark intergenerational animus. It is merely to point out that when faced with civilization-level problems, sometimes youth and new forms of thinking can be an advantage.
Our present-day leadership seems to have no interest in enjoying their golden years with their families, spending the hundreds of millions they’ve accumulated. Power is an elixir hard to put down. Science seems poised to step in with Ponce de Leonian remedies to mortality, with genetic manipulation, stem cell injections, and blood transfusions from the young. Why relinquish power when life-extension tech can keep you spry and grafting for years to come? As the 2024 election approaches, where an eighty-one-year-old man will likely run against a seventy-eight-year-old, one can only dream of a different world.