Profiles in Courage

07/27/2010 04:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Maybe there is some merit to electing to high office senior citizens whose better days in public service are supposedly behind them. Former civil servants in their "golden years" might be a little slower on the uptake. But at their age, many of them feel they have nothing more to prove and thus, boldly promote their favorite, oft controversial causes without worrying about rubbing anyone the wrong way.

We often associate bold action with youth, yet the weight of years can often free senior citizens to be much more adventuresome than younger generations wedded to conventional thought in the quest for social status.

The latest example of this phenomenon is 95-year-old Ken Hechler, a former liberal Democratic congressman from West Virginia, who in the 1970s', sought (unsuccessfully) to ban the environmentally destructive practice of strip mining. Hechler, who is still active in writing books, has entered the West Virginia Democratic primary for the seat left vacant by the death of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

You might say Hechler is a one issue candidate. In a carryover from his earlier congressional crusade, he is vehemently opposed to mountain top mining and the environmental havoc it is inflicting on the natural resources of West Virginia and the rest of coal-producing Appalachia.

"I'm not really running for Senate," says Hechler, who faces two other candidates in the primary, including the favorite, current West Virginia governor Joe Manchin. "I'm running to enable the people of West Virginia to register at the polls their opposition to mountain top mining."

According to recent polls, West Virginians by a two to one margin favor abolishing the practice of removing the tops of mountains to get at coal seams and then dumping the contaminated spoil into the streams and valleys below.

Might it be such a bad idea for West Virginians to send this razor-sharp nonagenarian to fill the remaining two years of Senator Byrd's term? Senator Byrd, by the way, late in his career experienced an environmental epiphany and belatedly criticized some coal industry environmental practices he had previously supported.

Hechler is not alone in making waves at an age normally reserved for more placid endeavors. Former congressman Pete McCloskey, R-Calif., left his small ranch and came out of retirement at the age of 78 to challenge powerful House Natural Resources Committee chairman Richard Pombo in the 2006 Republican Primary. McCloskey was a major force in the passage of the landmark Endangered Species Act back in the 1970s'. He was prompted to take on Pombo because of the latter's efforts to weaken the law. McCloskey didn't win, but he diluted Pombo's support enough for a more environmentally-friendly Democrat to prevail in the general election.

Overseas in the 1970s', two renowned elder statesmen, Sicco Mansholt (one of the principle architects of today's European Union) and Aurelio Pecci (founder of the famed think tank Club of Rome) anticipated future environmental challenges while their younger compatriots were either too bogged down with daily trivia or dared not venture beyond immediate economic concerns. It took two decades for European leaders to catch up to the visionary thinking of the two seniors, who were widely dismissed as eccentrics at the time they espoused their theories on population, energy use and sustainability.

What it all boils down to is this. At least in some instances, could it be that strong, decisive leadership like good wine needs aging?