Doubts on how long the old guard of US politics should remain in office have been elevated after Senator Mitch McConnell, the longtime Republican leader who has appeared increasingly diminished and frail after a series of falls and a serious head injury this year, froze up suddenly during a news conference.
McConnell, 81, was taking reporters’ questions on Wednesday when he seized up for about 30 seconds, stared into space and did not respond. The Senate minority leader also needed the question – about whether he would run for office again in 2026 – repeated several times. The incident marks the second time in about a month that McConnell, one of the most powerful men in the US Congress, froze during a public appearance. US media claim other similar unreported incidents.
McConnell, elected to his seventh term in 2020, subsequently released a letter from the attending physician of Congress pronouncing him “medically clear” to continue his planned schedule but, having brushed off past questions about his health, speculation is swirling again about what would happen if he retired in the middle of his term.
McConnell’s health issues have inevitably prompted comparisons with his fellow octogenarian, President Joe Biden, who will be on the cusp of turning 82 by the time of the US election next year.
The constant coverage of Biden’s stumbles, gaffes and slips of the tongue illustrate just how potent ageism has become as a weapon in contemporary American politics. More fervent proponents are not above using ageism to shoot their own: for instance, Republican representative Marjorie Taylor Greene – who is aligned with Donald Trump and not a fan of colleague McConnell – took to social media, captioning a video of his freeze moment as an example of “people who are not fit for office”.
Such Sturm und Drang is notably absent from Australian politics where we prefer our political leaders young. Robert Menzies might have stayed on until 71, but was only 54 when he started his second prime ministership. Our oldest serving federal MP, Bob Katter, is 78.
By way of comparison, Washington is littered with old hands. Apart from McConnell, 19 members of Congress are over 80. Californian Democrat senator Dianne Feinstein was absent from Washington for months this year with a bout of shingles. She’s 90.
But the presidential race is a different story. The debate over the president’s age is not new. In 1980, Ronald Reagan, at 69 the oldest person to assume the US presidency at the time, cleverly rebutted questions about being too old to serve a second term saying he would “not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy were also subjected to ageism: Eisenhower at 62, for being deemed too old; Kennedy at 43, for being too young.