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Where Age and Power Go Together

By John F. Harris, Washington Post

March 29, 2005

Of the U.S. Supreme Court justices, only one -- Clarence Thomas, 56 -- is not old enough to collect Social Security. 

These numbers make it plain that the top tier of the federal government remains the most welcoming arena in American society for people who want to keep high-powered jobs late in life. Aged and influential is such a common combination that most of the time it draws little notice. 

This winter, however, a confluence of events -- most prominently, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's battle with cancer at age 80 -- has put new focus on the phenomenon of Geriatric Washington. Experts on retirement and leadership succession said the capital accepts infirmities in important officials far beyond what is typically tolerated in the highest-level jobs in the private sector. 

The difference between top jobs in Washington and those in most other fields is simple: The Constitution says legislators can stay as long as voters agree, and justices can stay as long as they want. 

Deciding whether this is good or bad, experts on aging say, is more complex. History offers plenty of examples of prominent officials for whom age and wisdom rose in tandem. There are also plenty of examples of people who cleaved to prestigious jobs long after physical and mental declines were obvious to colleagues, and became the stuff of capital gossip. 

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale University management professor whose book "The Hero's Farewell" is about leadership succession, said that Washington, even more than major corporations, attracts ambitious people who are "consumed with a quest for an immortal legacy" and have let their jobs become central to their self-identity. Government, no less than corporations or universities, needs procedures that allow "oversight as to when somebody is no longer fit to serve," he said. 

As a practical matter, such procedures may be hard to envision. But career patterns in Washington mean that questions are likely to increase about whether some people are staying in jobs past what corporate governance expert J.P. Donlon calls their "sell-by date." 

Take the Senate. The average age in that institution typically varies a bit after each election, but the steady drift has been toward more senior citizens. In the Senate class of 1981, for instance, 20 senators were older than 60 and none was older than 80, according to the almanac Vital Statistics on American Politics. In the current Senate, 54 senators are older than 60 or will reach that milestone this year. The same trend has been less pronounced in the House. 

'Self-Policing' Urged 

Nell Minow, editor of the Corporate Library research group, which has studied Fortune 500 CEOs, says Washington has always had aged figures on Capitol Hill, on the high court and occasionally in the executive branch who are no longer near full capacity. For the most part, she said, there seems to be an informal understanding among colleagues and the news media to avert their gazes. 

Minow said age limits or term limits are not the answer, because these would exclude many capable and experienced people from jobs in which they are needed. The status quo is "not a good system, but it's better than the alternative," she said. "Self-policing is the way to go." 

One of Washington's most important senior citizens, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), essentially agreed. After turning 78 last month, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee said he feels nearly as energetic as -- and far more knowledgeable than -- when he was first elected to the Senate in 1978. But he acknowledged that at his age people should "watch me and see me" in action to judge for themselves. 

Warner said it is natural for senators to wish to serve a long time because it typically takes a long time before a person is in line for a coveted committee chairmanship. 
"I've made it very clear to my constituents, I believe in the old-fashioned honor system" in which he will leave voluntarily if his mental and physical capacities are no longer up to the job, he said. In the spirit of being "absolutely straight" with the public, he added, his office issues news releases when he has even minor medical procedures, such as recent shoulder surgery to repair a rotator cuff. 

The problem, skeptics say, is that some powerful people do not see their own infirmities clearly, or they have reasons to overlook them. In the early 1990s, for instance, Supreme Court watchers said Justice Thurgood Marshall was obviously frail and failing in the last years of a historic career, but he was determined to stay on the court long enough for a Democratic president to pick his successor. He did not meet his goal and retired in 1991, allowing President George H.W. Bush to name Thomas as Marshall's replacement. 

Issue Not Unique 

Although official Washington may be getting older on average, as life spans increase, there is nothing historically unique about current circumstances. Many noted Donald H. Rumsfeld's age -- he will turn 73 in July -- when he returned in 2001 for a second tour as defense secretary. But the energetic Rumsfeld is still younger than the man who served in the equivalent post, secretary of war, throughout World War II. Henry L. Stimson, born in 1867, likewise held the job twice, once in his forties and again in his seventies. 

The most well-known case of a Washington figure in his dotage in recent years was the late Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who was the longest-serving senator in history when he retired in 2002 at age 100. For many years during his later Senate service, he chaired the Armed Services Committee in ways that committee aides said showed only minimal awareness of the business at hand, reading prepared opening statements while staff members hovered anxiously nearby. 

In the corporate world there are familiar customs for nudging out an obstinate leader, such as big retirement bonuses, continued clerical services and use of the company jet. Recently, one of the oldest Fortune 500 CEOs -- Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, 79, of financial services giant American International Group -- was elbowed out of the top job by AIG's board of directors. AIG is facing scrutiny from several regulatory inquiries. The company announced last night that Greenberg, a company legend who has been in charge for nearly four decades, is expected to resign this week as chairman. 

For top Washington jobs, there is no equivalent of these customs, leaving it up to individuals to decide when they are no longer capable of dispatching their duties. 
This past winter, there was widespread speculation among interest groups that Rehnquist would imminently announce his retirement, potentially setting off a monumental nomination clash for whomever President Bush named as a successor. So far, however, Rehnquist has kept mum about his plans. Last week, he presided over the court's oral arguments for the first time since mid-October. 

If Rehnquist does step down, the man who will take center stage during confirmation hearings for his successor is Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), 75, who also has cancer. Specter said the illness and his treatment will not require him to give up his chairmanship. 

While not commenting on the specifics of Rehnquist's or Specter's cases, Sonnenfeld said the closest analogy to how Washington figures often stay in their jobs after physical and mental capabilities have begun to erode is Pope John Paul II, who will turn 85 in May and was recently hospitalized for emergency surgery, raising questions about whether he is capable of fulfilling his duties. 

"The timing is weirdly parallel," Sonnenfeld said, referring to how Washington and Rome are both in the grip of speculation about important figures who are growing old. 
Like Minow, he emphasized that the solution to this problem is not settling on a specific retirement age. Many top diplomats, including W. Averell Harriman, have served with distinction into their eighties, he noted. More recently, retired Wall Street executive William H. Donaldson, 73, has performed vigorously as the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. There are other examples. The Supreme Court's oldest member is Justice John Paul Stevens, who remains a dynamic presence at age 84. He asks incisive questions at oral arguments and still plays tennis and golf. 

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, possibly the nation's top economic policymaking official, is 79 and has been in his job since 1987. For the most part, though, commentary about his long tenure focuses not on his age but on the potential risk to the economy if he were to leave the job. 

How Long Is Too Long? 

Making judgments about when influential officials have stayed too long is hard because of the ambiguous nature of aging, said Timothy Salthouse, a psychology professor who is the director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Virginia. Studies indicate that by age 85, as many as 45 percent of people have some kind of age-related dementia, he said, and much earlier than that nearly all people have less "ability to remember isolated pieces of information" and perform other kinds of mental tasks. On the other hand, he added, most top government positions put a premium on other types of judgment, shaped by "experience and knowledge," that do increase over time. 

Randy Jayne, with the executive consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles, said the questions about older people in government have more to do with human nature than anything unique to Washington. "All of us run the risk of when we do something a long time of simply getting jaded," he said. "Unfortunately, the ability to recognize this is not something that's demonstrated by a lot of us when we find ourselves in the 'I've been in this X years' situation." 

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