Ian Tyson warned us long ago, “Never hit 17 when you play against the dealer.” Leonard Cohen gave even blunter parting advice: “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.” Elderly politicians should take heed.
At 76, I’m no ageist. But I well understand the ills that old flesh is heir to: the sudden stroke or heart attack, the painless onset of dementia. After a certain age, as Tyson went on say, “You know the odds won’t ride with you.”
Those odds caught up the other day with Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old Robert Mugabe, replaced by the relatively youthful 75-year-old Emmerson Mnangagwa. But that only underscores a problem faced by many nations: gerontocracy, too many old men in power.
Like a lot of people in Canada and the U.S., I worry about how to get 71-year-old Donald Trump out of the game and how to replace him with someone with guts, brains and simple decency. So far, the pickings are slim — and way past their best-before dates.
Consider the Republicans. Mike Pence would be the obvious replacement for Trump, and he’s only 58. Whether through impeachment or application of the 25th Amendment, he could occupy the Oval Office tomorrow and be raring to run in 2020, when he’s only 61.
Pence’s problem is that he’s far too closely associated with Trump’s policies and actions. After all, Trump picked him. And then Pence had the poor judgment to sign on. Still, he’d be likely to succeed Trump unless one investigation or another shows he’s committed his own share of high crimes and misdemeanours.
Too decrepit to be credible
Other prominent Senate Republicans are simply too decrepit to be credible candidates: six are over 80 and nine are in their 70s. Marco Rubio is 46, but unlikely to recover from the beating Trump gave him in the 2016 Republican nomination campaign. Another possibility: Tim Scott, 52, a black Republican senator from South Carolina. He’s suitably reactionary and anti-labour, but unlikely to lead a party that’s gone full-out for white supremacy.
In any case, most Americans and Canadians are quite prepared to let the Republicans resolve their leadership issues while out of office for the next 10 or 20 years, enabling the Democrats to swing themselves and the country far enough left to at least reach the centre.
The Senate Democrats, however, also have a worrisome gerontocrat faction. Nancy Pelosi at 77 plans to run again for her House of Representatives seat. While her seniority may give her clout in some committees, she’s blocking some promising young progressive who might do more good in the job. Nine Democratic senators are in their 70s — 10 if you count Independent Bernie Sanders, who’s 76. And he’s the current favourite among Democrats for the 2020 race, when he’ll be 79. Hillary Clinton is now 70.
Much human history is the story of the mistakes of well-armed adolescent males ruling other, equally stupid young males. Old age was so rarely achieved that Rome created a Senate (from the Latin senex, old man) filled with elders in their 40s and 50s, to give the benefit of their long experience to the latest generation of young dolts in power. A fat lot of good it did for Rome, and a fat lot of good senates have done for the U.S. and Canada.
Some of us do survive into old age with our wits intact and some useful experience that could save the kids some grief… if they had the sense to listen. Still, knowing stuff isn’t the same as getting stuff done, and we should accept that obvious fact.
Youth not always the answer
Electorates express their understanding of that fact by electing young new rulers: Emmanuel Macron in France, Justin Trudeau in Canada, Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand. That doesn’t mean youth is the answer; Macron is already deeply unpopular, and Trudeau has burned through his political capital like most political heirs squandering Dad’s wealth. (Ardern is too new to assess.)
Canada’s own wunderkinder leave much to be desired. Andrew Scheer at 38 has little to offer beyond dimples and the sinister smirk of a schoolyard bully. Jagmeet Singh, also 38, has good taste in suits and great presence of mind when assailed by a heckler. Neither would serve him well as PM in his first Question Period. You can’t answer all questions with “love and courage!”
Contrast them with Pierre Trudeau, who was a novice in federal politics when he ran for the Liberal leadership in 1968. But he was 49 and had established a clear political philosophy in articles and books, not to mention serving a year as the minister of justice (“the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation”) in the last Lester Pearson government. His son has offered little food for thought beyond one feel-good book, largely written and edited by others. Scheer and Singh are doubtless commissioning hacks to produce their own pre-election books. But they really pin their hopes on social media as a quicker way to make voters feel good.
When the world depends on an old man’s aneurysm
The Reagan administration fizzled out in his advancing dementia. A generation earlier, Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency hung by the thread of his recovery from a serious heart attack. And 10 years earlier, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died on the eve of victory from a brain aneurysm that could have killed him years earlier — which would have put the outcome of the Second World War in doubt.
Yes, sometimes you get genetic wonders who keep their wits and energy into their eighth and even ninth decades, like Konrad Adenauer. Born in 1876, he rebuilt West Germany in the 1940s and ’50s, while the decrepit Joseph Stalin (born 1878) sank into senile paranoia and anti-Semitism. Thanks to modern medicine, we see growing numbers of centenarians with all their marbles. (I hope to be one, an endless demand on Canadian taxpayers, well into the 2040s.)
But the odds don’t ride with us old folks. Better that we retire, at best to the role of elders offering useless advice from another century.
Choosing leaders like astronauts
Canada might create a better process for choosing democratic leaders — perhaps one resembling the selection of commandos, firefighters or astronauts.
Let the voters choose the MPs they prefer, whatever their age or background. But any person seeking the leadership of a political party would be required to pass some rigorous tests.
First would be tests of physical fitness and mental health, conducted by impartial medical and psychiatric experts. That would disqualify countless narcissists, bullies and sexual harassers — and maybe some brilliant lunatics like Churchill, Lincoln and Kennedy. But it would also disqualify the Trumps and Dutertes.
Second would be a test of education: the aspiring leadership candidate should know considerably more about the country and its issues than a new Canadian citizen. Just having a gut feeling about the views of other Canadian ignoramuses would not suffice.
Third and last would be a rigorous security check of the candidate’s behaviour in previous elective offices. We should no more choose a non-politician to run the country than we would choose a non-aviator to fly us to Ottawa — least of all a business CEO or senior military officer. Nor should we choose a provincial or municipal politician who received large donations from wealthy corporations or individuals. (Just who would run such a security check, however, remains unclear. CSIS? The RCMP? Unlikely. Probably a special team from Elections Canada.)
Such a screening would certainly frustrate the media, who will forgive any incompetent who makes a good story. Those who survived such a screening would be as charismatic as the people who unplug our toilets and clean our gutters. But they would enable us to get on with our lives with less drama and fewer smelly overflows.
Maybe an occasional septuagenarian would pass all these tests, and we could gamble on their surviving to the next election. But most leadership candidates would be younger, fitter, smarter and far better prepared than most of the dolts the Western democracies have fallen for in the last 50 years. Given the disasters we face for the rest of the century, such candidates will be the only ones our children and grandchildren should have to rely on.
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