In a classic "Saturday Night Live" skit, Molly Shannon plays Sally O'Malley, an aging would-be Rockette, whose audition involves prancing around the stage doing the Can-Can while shouting proudly, "I'm Fifty!" I've been thinking of Sally over the past few weeks as longtime senator Arlen Specter made his fierce but ultimately doomed bid for re-election. For O'Malley, age was a badge of honor. What interested me most about Arlen Specter's "audition" to keep his Senate seat was the fact that the man is 80-years-old and, in his case, age wasn't even an issue.
Apparently, 80 is the new 50. If Specter had succeeded in his bid for re-election, he would have been approaching 90 by the end of his next term. Even at that age, he would not have been the oldest-serving Senator, or even close -- you may remember that Strom Thurmond celebrated his hundredth birthday while still in office, though some would question his effectiveness at that point in his career.
Not so many years have passed since debate raged over whether or not a person could be too old for elected office. When Ronald Reagan was running for re-election in 1984, critics questioned his ability, at 74, to keep up with the requirements of the job. Eventually, Reagan cleverly diffused the criticism by remarking, during a debate with his challenger, former Vice President Walter Mondale, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." He won, of course, by a landslide.
Think what you like of Reagan's presidency, but the fact that Americans are growing older, and remaining healthy longer, affects what happens in our government and also influences how we, as individuals, view our "Golden Years." People are retiring later and often remaining active for decades longer than their parents did. At my local grocery, the guys who haul the baggage carts in from the parking lot are no longer just high school kids; many are energetic men in their sixties and seventies. In the past, it seemed that a requirement for flight attendants was that they be young single women; these days, they're almost as likely to be "empty nesters"--older Americans whose kids have grown up and left home. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who is retiring this year at 90, still plays tennis three times a week.
I wondered, during the Pennsylvania primaries, if complaints about Specter were masking an unspoken, and less acceptable, criticism that the senator is old now and needs to retire. It's possible that constituents worried about his age and took those worries into the voting booths with them. It's possible, too, that the strain of anti-incumbency that we keep hearing about in this election represents, among voters, a more cyclical sense that it's time for the younger generations to have their turn in office. After all, when Utah's Republican Party rejected the re-election bid of 76-year-old Senator Bob Bennett, the local Deseret News pointed out that "Utah has a long history of dumping ageing senators." But it's equally possible that age had nothing to do with it.
In any case, now that Specter has lost his job, we shouldn't expect him to go quietly into retirement. At 80, he could still have a fruitful career as a grocery store bagger or Washington lobbyist. And if Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln, who is only 50, loses her bid for reelection, she could go into those fields, too. Or, she might try to get a job as a flight attendant. Or a Rockette.