Welcome to the gerontocratic nightmare (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

September 15, 2023   6 mins

You don’t have to be old to be confused. Years ago, when I was still a walk-over-hot-coals BBC reporter — or so I thought — I finished an interview, made a dash for the exit, and ended up in a walk-in closet. The closet of legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite.

I was in the penthouse suite he was given for life at the top of the CBS building in Manhattan. Feeling foolish, I stumbled around among the musty suits that so many Americans had once found so reassuring, eventually finding the handle in the dark, and stepped back out into the carpeted room I had recently, with such vigour and aplomb, vacated.

I needn’t have worried. The old boy had fallen asleep.

America is status conscious. If you make it to the top, you are generally allowed to stay there. A suite of rooms can be found. A private office. A Chevrolet Suburban to take you home at night. Nothing to do but plenty of “staffers” to help you do it. Respect: a glow that long outlasts the fire.

Look at the world of American political podcasting. Yes, there are some kids at it, but James Carville and Al Hunt? 158 years on this planet between them and both gurus to the Democratic mainstream.

Perhaps it’s understandable that a young nation, comprised of multiple generations of strangers, brought together and kept together through many acts of will, would cling to its past. They must build something that has not previously existed. They need foundations. They need shoulders to climb on. And America is a young nation in two senses: young as a construct but young too at the individual level; the median age is still well under 40. It has felt — at least until recently — as if there were time and space for all.

Perhaps this generation’s inability to chuck out their elders is down to the courtliness of America; even in the age of Trump, there is an elegant formality that just about holds the place together. But it is not cost-free, this veneration of the venerable. The problem is that not all has-beens have gone to that penthouse of irrelevance. Sure, Walter Cronkite retired in a dignified way, handing the baton on to Dan Rather before riding the elevator to the top floor. But for every oldie sequestered in a mahogany faux-situation room, there are dozens still in the actual situation room, and often fast asleep.

Before my encounter with Walter Cronkite, I interviewed Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Senator who was so old he was both a Democrat and a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. He made no sense, at least in our interview. We had to junk the whole thing. Meanwhile, Senator Byrd stayed put, dying in office five years later in 2010. Congress voted to send his salary for the next year to his family as a mark of respect.

It seems that over the years Senator Mitt Romney has come to see this danger. This week, he called for Trump and Biden to “stand aside” and make room “for a new generation of leaders”, as he discussed his own plans for retirement in 2025.

Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, continues to soldier on as the Republican leader in the Senate. At 81, two recent freezes in front of the cameras have drawn attention to his at least temporary incapacity. There is some embarrassment when his staff are forced to usher him away from the media to collect himself. But he soldiers on with nothing but warm wishes from high-powered Democrats.

Ninety-year-old Dianne Feinstein also refuses to go. A career in public life that started in 1970 is ending painfully for the California Democratic Senator, whose absence from the Judiciary Committee of the Senate for medical reasons has compromised the Democrats’ ability to get judges appointed. But still, nobody significant is telling her to leave.

Nancy Pelosi, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, has at least relinquished that role, but intends at the age of 83 to stand for re-election next year. The chief loser here: her own daughter Christine, who is understood to want to take over. Not so fast.

And of course, there is President Biden: still intending to run again in 2024, though very obviously increasingly infirm. His stories at the site of the wildfire disaster in Hawaii, in which he talked about a minor fire at his home years ago, seemed bizarre. He leaves and enters Air Force One on special stairs at the back. His rambling performance at a recent press conference in Vietnam projected the opposite of American power; it projected decay.

All of this has persuaded the Libertarian Party to launch a petition this week to put McConnell and Biden and the rest of them under what it calls a “conservatorship”. A kind of formal state of being looked after. The Libertarians accuse America’s elderly leaders of squatting in office, but their assessment of why this happens seems a tad trite. They say it’s about money.

It is true that American politicians — of both parties — can become very rich while in office. So can the news anchors and company bosses. There are financial reasons for their families to want them to keep their noses to the grindstone — even if the stone (or the nose) is not doing much work. But surely there is something more going on.

Americans agree on little, but poll after poll suggests they want to choose from different, younger candidates. A Gallup survey published this summer suggested that the proportion of Americans who said they had “a great deal or a lot of confidence” in the most important institutions was the lowest recorded, with the presidency experiencing the biggest drop — to 26%. But are they willing to see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (aged 33 this year) against Vivek Ramaswamy (now 37) in 2028? Or does something in the frontal cortex of the American mind worry that these vigorous individuals might also be highly dangerous? Do they, subliminally at least, fear the prospect of a younger, more volatile generation that could make Donald Trump’s rebellion against American life look pedestrian? Already, Americans are complaining that Biden has been too radical. Imagine what a younger president could do in his place.

This fear of change afflicts the young, too. Is young America ready to find solutions to America’s problems, instead of complaining about “Rich Men North of Richmond”? If so, they don’t show it. Young Americans are very keen on complaints — in particular about their sadness, their distress, which they blame on social media. But don’t they flock to the latest app? Aren’t they addicted to TikTok? There is an assumed lack of agency, and an actual lack of zest for getting stuff done.

That is certainly what the elderly folk assume. McConnell seems to be staying because he would be replaced by a Democrat appointed by his home state’s governor and that would be a disaster in the small world of Washington politics. Pelosi seems to believe her fundraising and organisational prowess is vital if the Maga threat to the Democrats is to be seen off.

And Biden? He thinks he can rescue democracy. He is clear that the choice before the American people is as stark as that. So all the talk now among nervous Democrats is about how the White House will deal with the age issue. Their initial efforts — to tell reporters that they struggle to keep up with energetic Joe — have been unconvincing.

If they don’t come up with a better idea, it is not inconceivable that Biden, persuaded perhaps by his wife Jill, will call it a day. He has to do it soon, probably within weeks, if the party is to have anything like an orderly competition for his successor. And of course, it would have knock-on consequences for the Trump campaign, perhaps persuading Republicans that they too need a younger candidate.

Biden’s decision to throw in the towel, even at this late stage, could cause as much havoc as his decision not to. Americans of both parties and none say they want him gone according to all the recent polls. But we know what transpires when a parent dies. You must take responsibility. You must govern in their place. Elderly American leaders do not think the nation is up for doing any of this. And they might be dead right.

The old don’t trust the young and the young don’t trust themselves. One or two have spoken out: Nikki Haley and Romney are probably the most prominent. Mostly, though, the old carry on and the young stay quiet because they don’t trust their generation to seize the future and make America better. They sense that they may be heading for the walk-in closet, with no way out. Perhaps Walter Cronkite was really asleep, or perhaps he was pretending, thinking to himself: “Heck, reporters these days. I had better stay still in case the young fella goes haywire.”

Justin Webb was the BBC’s North America Editor and presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four.