Elderly public figures making a difference


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

What do Queen Elizabeth (95), Janet Yellen (74), our president (78) and the pope (84) have in common?

How about (Pennsylvania governor) Mike DeWine (74), Jerry Brown (83) and Lamar Alexander (80)?

They are all public men and women who are making major contributions in what once would have been thought their dotage.

They are not only hanging on, or “still going strong,” but, arguably, doing their best work.

The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at 87, but was working full tilt, fully employing her little gray cells, up until almost the very end.

George Will is 80 and better than ever.

All this is not only cheering news for geezers themselves, but it suggests a special contribution can be made by the veterans among us.

A geezer has often honed his or her knowledge, his or her passions, and his or her anxieties and insecurities.

What historian Jon Meacham has said about Mr. Biden is that this is a man who has known tragedy and who thought his political career was over. He no longer sweats the small stuff.

When Jerry Brown returned to the governor’s mansion in California after 28 years he said he was the longest active public figure in the Western Hemisphere next to Fidel Castro. It was a joke but he was not far off. He was 73 at the time and got into politics in his 20s. He is 83 now and left office just two years ago.

Unlike Castro, Mr. Brown learned from his youthful errors and had grown relaxed and wise. He didn’t need a pollster or a handler to tell him what to say in a press conference or how to cut his hair.

And he did a fine job on his second tour of duty.

Europeans, traditionally, have had more respect for the elders of their culture and politics and were more willing to invest them with power. Think Konrad Adenauer in post-World War II Germany. He came to power, as chancellor, at 73 and held office for almost 17 years.

Charles de Gaulle was president of France from 1959 to 1969. He was 69 when he took office and was viewed as an old man. He had long been a national legend after leading the Free French in the war. His greatest chapter was to come.

Churchill was returned to No. 10 Downing Street at the age of 77.

He was not in great shape physically. But Churchill at 50% was worth most men at 500%.

You don’t have to be able to play touch football to lead. You need to know something.

Barack Obama played basketball as president, which Joe Biden can’t do. But Mr. Biden understands the Republicans, and the Hill, and the shelf life of a presidency far better than Mr. Obama did.

What gave him those gifts? Simply his years.

Mr. Brown was also the son of a governor. Someone asked him once, “What did you learn from your father?” “I learned how to make the moves,” he said.

There is no tutor like a father with experience, and no teacher like experience.

We know this is so in the arts. Look at Willie Nelson (88) or Bob Dylan (80). Both are still recording.

And is there a better, or more prolific, film director than Clint Eastwood? At 91 he is about to release a new film he also stars in. Clint is looking around for his next project.

No finer cellist ever existed than Pablo Casals at the end of his days.

Here is what the old may offer: A certain calm. Fewer fluctua tions of the mind. Less likelihood of going down rabbit holes. An ability to focus on the long view and things that really matter. Winnowed learning. A true aim.

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