Knowing when it’s time to go home

I first had the pleasure of meeting U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in Scottsdale, Arizona, roughly six months into his first term. McConnell was energetic, vibrant, quick-witted, and very thoughtful in his public policy position statements.

McConnell is now the U.S. Senate Minority Leader, and he has led the GOP Senate Caucus since 2007. While still a brilliant political strategist and tactician, and after a fall and reasonably severe concussion that resulted this spring, the senator is clearly missing a step. Though given a conditional clean bill of health by the U.S. Senate physician, McConnell is pale, appears fragile, speaks slowly and in a softer timber and in addition to the two highly documented “freeze” moments, some of his public speaking has been on occasion non-sensical.

That said, McConnell is a friend, a fraternity brother of mine from another school, and I have had the opportunity to have supper a few times with the senator and his wife Elaine Chao, a former U.S. Secretary of Transportation and former Director of the U.S. Peace Corps. Love or loathe their politics, this power couple is devoted to our nation, and both are decades-long public servants.

Power and fame are two very highly addictive as well as fleeting circumstances in life for some. Letting go of either voluntarily is challenging, and perhaps even harder for those who become accustomed to that life, is knowing just when it is time to go home.

I started this column discussing Sen. McConnell though the effective service warranty and date of expiration on Pres. Joe Biden has been blinking red hot for well over a year now. Yet McConnell (81) and Biden (80) appear as young pups next to Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) at 90 and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) at 89. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) is 83 and announced last week that she will again be seeking re-election as a member of the House Democratic Caucus in 2024.
I don’t believe in term limits and there is almost no place where more value is placed on seniority than on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., but when senior moments become daily or weekly occurrences, it also becomes time for some self-evaluation and medical assessment.

Congressional staff often tend to be closest, even making policy decisions in the White House or on the Hill for aging and failing elected officials. But that is not representative democracy. There is some incredible staff in government at all levels, but staff members’ desire to maintain their own power and position does not justify propping up public servants who also endanger their own health by staying past their effective expiration dates. No matter how much coddling one might receive from staff and some party officials, public life is no picnic. The hours are long, and the schedules are demanding.

Here in Georgia, Sen. Johnny Isakson resigned when his Parkinson’s disease had too fully compromised his ability to serve. And for several years after his diagnosis, he put in 10 miles every day on a treadmill.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, after receiving a cancer diagnosis, decided to not seek re-election and to focus on his family and remaining time, which thankfully has likely been years more now due to stepping back to that lighter and less demanding lifestyle and schedule.

Not suggesting that we codify age limits, particularly as modern medicine and new treatments slow or in some cases roll back the advancing clock. But as with periodic tests for the re-issuance of a driver’s license largely about keeping our roadways safe, we need to consider basic fitness and competency tests for continuing service after a benchmark birthday, such as 75.

I am a big believer in the many values of proven performance and experience, but there comes a time when the best leaders realize it is time to step aside or focus on shaping and building that next leadership team. At least to my knowledge at this point, none of us live or can perform at near-optimum levels in perpetuity. To slightly misquote Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler-” You got to know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em, know when to walk away and know when not to run.”

Thank you, Sen. McConnell, Pres. Biden, and others for your decades of public service, please consider making the smart choice before a stroke or possibly worse makes that selection for you. It is time to plan for your successor; get your affairs in order, and then take the long road home.

 

Bill Crane is political analyst and commentator in metro Atlanta, as well as a columnist for The Champion, DeKalb Free Press and Georgia Trend. Crane is a DeKalb native and business owner, living in Scottdale. You can contact him or comment on a column at bill.csicrane@gmail.com.

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