Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), center, is helped by fellow GOP senators after he froze mid-sentence while addressing reporters Wednesday.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has spent years facing questions about her mental capacity and fitness for office, got some unwelcome company in the health spotlight this week.
In a moment that cast a grim light on America’s aging class of political leaders, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) froze mid-sentence during his weekly news conference Wednesday, standing unblinking with his mouth pursed for a full 20 seconds before his colleagues escorted him away from the microphones and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) crossed herself.
McConnell, 81, is not much older than President Biden or former President Trump. A severe health crisis for any of them could change the direction of the nation. But none of America’s oldest leaders show any signs of stepping away anytime soon, despite a long history of lawmakers who can’t resist running for just one more term and end up remaining in office through physical and mental decline.
Age isn’t just a number. The older people are, the more likely they are to face health problems. And McConnell’s scary moment wasn’t the only sign this week of the risks of electing — and reelecting — aged lawmakers.
Feinstein, 90 and the Senate’s oldest member, has repeatedly appeared confused and forgetful since returning to the Senate last month after an extended stretch away to recover from a bad bout with shingles. Feinstein’s office said she would return to California for the Senate’s August recess; she had declined to travel home over lawmakers’ Fourth of July break.
Her recent performance won’t alleviate concerns about her mental fitness.
On Thursday morning, Feinstein attempted to deliver a speech during a standard roll-call vote on the Senate Appropriations Committee, reading from prepared remarks in support of an amendment. An aide quickly jumped up to whisper in her ear, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told her to “just say aye.” “OK. Just ...” a confused-looking Feinstein began to ask Murray. “Aye,” Murray replied with a thumbs-up. Feinstein declared, “Aye,” sitting back with a grin.
Not long afterward, as an aide wheeled her toward the Senate floor for votes, I approached and asked whether she had any thoughts on McConnell’s apparent health scare.
Feinstein may have misheard or misunderstood the question, so I began to explain what had happened with McConnell at Wednesday’s news conference — a topic that was the central focus of most senators’ and reporters’ conversations on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
“I didn’t know that. I didn’t see that,” she said.
An aide jumped in. “I don’t know if I gave you an update on that, Senator, so I’ll give you an update. It was happening when there were some votes happening,” the aide said.
“Oh, I know what you—” she interjected. “Well, I wish him well. He’s a strong man and this is really when that kind of strength comes in. So: Say a prayer, cross my fingers, do it all.”
The aide then wheeled her onto an elevator.
Before Trump, Ronald Reagan had been the country’s oldest president, leaving office just before his 78th birthday. He’d joked about his age during his reelection campaign, quipping during one 1984 debate that he was “not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Reagan announced in 1994, nearly six years after leaving the presidency, that he had Alzheimer’s disease. One of Reagan’s sons has said that his father started showing signs of the disease’s impact on his cognition before his second term had begun, and reporter Lesley Stahl had a similar experience with Reagan seemingly glazing over and not remembering her during a meeting in 1986, more than two years before he left office.
Were Biden or Trump elected to a second term next year, Reagan would be young by comparison.
Biden, 80, is the oldest president in U.S. history, and if reelected he’d be 86 by the time he left office. He broke the record for the oldest person to assume the White House, held by Trump, his most likely 2024 opponent, who is now 77.
Biden retains the traces of a childhood stutter and has long been prone to gaffes or verbal stumbles. But the president renewed concerns about his health last month when he tripped over a sandbag onstage at the Air Force Academy’s graduation ceremony.
In the weeks since the episode, Biden has repeatedly used the shorter staircase when boarding Air Force One and has kept a lighter evening schedule than previous presidents. He faced criticism for skipping a dinner during the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, last month and a dinner with foreign leaders during the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, in November.
Dr. Kevin O’Connor, the president’s physician, said in February that Biden “remains fit for duty, and fully executes all of his responsibilities without any exemptions or accommodations.”
Still, the question of his age has dogged him, and Republicans have highlighted every miscue and stumble. A June NBC poll found 68% of registered voters said they have major or moderate concerns about Biden’s mental and physical health to serve as president, compared with 55% who felt the same way about Trump, who leads polls for the 2024 GOP nomination. Similarly, only 33% of U.S. adults said Biden is in good enough physical shape to serve as president, while 64% said the same about Trump.
Republicans have been making hay out of Biden’s age and sharpness since the 2020 election campaign, and last year dozens of House Republicans sent an open letter demanding that he take a cognitive test.
Some Republican presidential candidates have tried to make an issue of Trump’s age — but that’s gained far less traction in a GOP primary field dominated by aging voters.
“America is not past our prime — it’s just that our politicians are past theirs,” former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley declared during her campaign launch early this year, before calling for “mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old.”
Many younger lawmakers are clamoring for a more robust generational change. But that doesn’t mean they’re thrilled to talk about it.
“I would just say that our greatest generation loves to serve — and we are grateful for their service,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), 56, said with a tight grin when asked about her aged colleagues.
Although Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), age 43, opposed McConnell’s reelection as Senate leader and has called for a generational change in the GOP, he stressed that his opposition to McConnell wasn’t about the leader’s age or health.
Is age a problem for Trump and Biden?
“It’s true. Our leadership is very old,” he said. “It’s a problem for the current occupant of the White House, clearly.”
“Not that we’ve seen right now, but what is he, 78?” Hawley told The Times, overestimating his age. “ I mean, just as a factual matter, all of these guys are old.”
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont), one of the few California Democrats who called for Feinstein to step down, said young people “want a new generation of leadership.”
“After Biden beats Trump, there will be a needed clearing out of politicians who have clung to their positions for decades and a chance for bold, imaginative, dynamic leaders to solve problems that have plagued us for decades,” he said.
But Khanna is backing 77-year-old Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) for Senate, and he was a national co-chairman on the 2020 presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is 81.
He said that Biden was necessary to beat Trump.
“With the threat of Trump’s return — one of the biggest brands in modern American life — Democrats know we need a brand Americans trust to win, and that’s why we are going to support Biden and not gamble on the new thing,” he texted The Times.
“Do I believe it’s time for generational change? Yeah, I do,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas). “Leadership from the baby boomer generation and shortly thereafter has been in charge for a helluva long time. And I mean, honestly, they’ve been screwing up the country long enough.”
Roy said that’s part of why he is one of the few lawmakers who has endorsed Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis for president instead of Trump.
But lawmakers are very delicate about talking about age given the sensitivities of the issue and their personal relationships with their congressional colleagues.
“Whether it’s Sen. McConnell, whether it’s Sen. Feinstein or anybody else, it’s a very individual decision to continue to serve or are you going to step away,” said Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), a onetime Feinstein staffer.
McConnell, the longest-serving party leader in Senate history, returned to the microphones a few minutes after his Wednesday freeze-up, and insisted, “I’m fine,” telling reporters that he’d felt lightheaded.
He spoke on the Senate floor later that day and was at work on Thursday. He later told reporters that he’d received a call from Biden to check in, and joked that he told Biden, “I got sandbagged” — a reference to Biden’s fall at the Air Force Academy graduation.
McConnell suffered a bad fall of his own four months ago, and was hospitalized for a concussion and fractured rib. He was absent from the Senate for six weeks.
He’s also reportedly had other recent falls, including one during a trip to Finland in February and at Reagan National Airport two weeks ago . He reportedly got up and continued on with his day after both falls. McConnell, a survivor of childhood polio, has long walked slowly and cautiously. But since returning to the Senate he has moved more slowly, occasionally using a wheelchair.
A McConnell aide pointed out that McConnell had delivered a floor speech after the news conference, but declined to say whether the episode was connected to McConnell’s earlier fall or tell The Times whether McConnell had seen a doctor since the news conference.
The House was once a bastion of gerontocracy. But former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), 83, and her octogenarian deputies, Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), stepped down last year. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), 52, Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), 60, and Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands), 44, took over.
“What we have seen in the leadership from Speaker Pelosi and Leader Hoyer and Jim Clyburn has been helpful to the Democratic caucus, and I think it’s been viewed incredibly positively by the members,” Aguilar told The Times. “We revere and hold up the work that they have done and continue to do. But, you know, we have benefited from a Leader Jeffries at this moment.”
There isn’t a direct line between age and health.
Freshman Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), 53, suffered a stroke just days before the Democratic primary during his 2022 run and has since been treated for depression. Then-Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) had a stroke that sidelined him from work for a full year at 52.
And not every octogenarian has slowed down. Sanders, the Senate’s third-oldest member, seems just as sharp in conversations than when he first won a race for Congress in 1990, two years before Feinstein’s Senate election.
Sanders told The Times that he hoped voters would “look at the whole individual, not just age.”
“Age is a factor. Experience is a factor. Most important is what your views are and what you’re doing for your constituency,” he said. “Age is one of many factors that should be taken into consideration, but I hope we don’t become an ageist society.”
But the risk of major medical problems rises dramatically with age — especially those that affect cognitive ability.
Multiple senators of both parties said that McConnell had seemed normal in interactions on Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), at 89 the second-oldest member of the Senate, said he’d had a conversation with McConnell at almost 10 p.m. on Wednesday, and hadn’t seen any signs that McConnell was struggling. He dismissed questions about whether age was a concern for the Senate leader.
“I’m a rising 90-year-old,” he said with a smile as he walked with a slight limp to the Senate floor. “Age is just a number.”
Congress has a long history of lawmakers sticking around well past their primes.
Sens. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) both died in office, after years of declining physical and mental health. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) death at 77 cost Democrats uncontested control of the Senate and stalled President Obama’s legislative agenda in 2009.
And Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Miss.) cognitive decline was a campaign issue during his 2014 primary. Days after he won that race, he got lost on the way to the Senate’s weekly GOP lunch, tried to walk into the Democrats’ lunch instead, then needed my help to find the way to a room he’d visited countless times before — which was just around the corner. Four more years passed before Cochran retired. He died soon after.
Times staff writers Courtney Subramanian and Owen Tucker-Smith contributed to this report.