Pope Benedict XVI's admirable decision to resign from the papacy may have inspired at least one of our elderly United States senators, New Jersey's Frank Lautenberg. On Thursday, Lautenberg, who is 89, announced that he would not seek re-election in 2014.
Voluntarily stepping down from one of the world's most demanding positions because of declining heath of mind and body is no shame. To quote Joseph Ratzinger, "I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."
Of the 100 senators, 21 are older than 70. The oldest, Lautenberg, is four years older than Pope Benedict. Lautenberg was recently seen teetering around with a cane. Had Lautenberg run and won — as incumbents almost always do — he would have served until he's 96.
The oldest ever in the Senate was South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, who died in office at age 100.
For months, Lautenberg has struggled with his decision. Reluctantly, according to insiders, he decided to step down to make way for the candidacy of Newark mayor Cory Booker, 43.
According to actuarial tables, a 90-year-old has only a 1 in 6 chance of living to 96. For those who do, the same data indicates that most will suffer from acute mental and physical decline.
What I'm working up to is that, since Congress has no term limits on its members and is not about to pass any, the responsibility for making a candidate's advanced age an issue — and it's a completely valid one — falls to the media. But, perhaps out of fear that readers will perceive direct questioning about longevity as mean-spirited, journalists minimize age regardless of how elderly the candidate is. A recent story about Lautenberg referred to him as "feisty" when the correct word is "crotchety."
California's Dianne Feinstein is second behind Lautenberg in age. In June, she'll turn 80. Despite nearly 45 years in elective office — San Francisco Board of Supervisors, San Francisco mayor and U.S. senator — Feinstein adamantly refused to debate her 49-year-old opponent, Elizabeth Emken, at least in part because she knew she would come off poorly on television compared to her younger challenger.
In 2010, 79-year-old Sen. Arlen Specter hoped to continue his Senate career, which began in 1980. Even though Specter had undergone several cancer operations, he entered the Republican primary but was defeated. Had Specter won, he would have died in office.
Appropriate lines of questioning from journalists to those of advanced age running again in 2014 — like 78-year-olds Carl Levine, D-Mich., and Jim Inhofe, R-Okla. — should include something like, "Do you think you can fully carry out your responsibilities over the next six years?" or "Don't you think someone younger could do a better job?" While direct responses are unlikely, the audience would have a chance to determine how intelligently the candidates reply.
The Senate's 70-plus membership has served an average of 20 years. They've achieved whatever fame or notoriety that accompanies a long congressional career. Their collective wealth is massive.
The average net worth for a senator is nearly $14 million. Lautenberg — $86 million — and Feinstein — $70 million — are the fifth and seventh wealthiest senators.
To those in Congress older than 70, follow Pope Benedict's example. Go home. Take up stamp collecting. Play with your great-grandchildren. You may not believe it, but the nation can get along without you.
Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. He has written frequently about national politics since 1986. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.