Cynthia M. Allen: Aging leaders like Biden, McConnell could take another path. This pope showed the way

Cynthia M. Allen, Fort Worth Star-Telegram on

Published in Op Eds

In February 2013, Pope Benedict XVI did something truly remarkable: He resigned the papacy.

In his letter of resignation he explained that physical strength “has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

At 85, the rigor and demands of his job were overwhelming — they would overwhelm a man half his age.

It was an honest, if not obvious, admission.

Popes, like other leaders, are typically older, if not elderly, when elected, and they serve until death.

No pope had voluntarily renounced the papacy in 800 years; it simply wasn’t done. Which made Benedict’s decision, in recognizing his own physical limitations, an act of great humility.

Ten years hence, his example is one for America’s aging political class.

To begin, there’s President Joe Biden, whose physical health and mental acuity are a frequent topic of conversation in the news media and around dinner tables across America. At 80, Biden is the oldest individual to hold his office, which is at least as demanding as the papacy.

If elected to the second term he is seeking, he would be 86 at its conclusion.

From an actuarial perspective, having survived in good health this long, Biden would probably live out his term — or at least come close.

But whether he would be able to effectively and coherently lead the free world is another serious question entirely.

Hardly a month goes by without video of the president physically stumbling or making a statement that is wholly indecipherable.

His noticeably light public schedule, with typically only afternoon events and weekends for rest, suggests Biden’s stamina is limited, despite the repeated and plainly mendacious claims of the White House press secretary that his staff can’t “keep up” with his vigor.

The American public is not convinced.

A recent Associated Press-NORC poll, found that 77 percent of the public, including 69 percent of Democrats, believe Biden is too old to be effective for four more years.

That’s a political problem for his party, as well as a concern for the stability of the nation.


But that problem extends across party lines.

Donald Trump, the GOP frontrunner, is no spring chicken. At 77, his age and health are a concern for about half of voters, although his primary liabilities as a public leader have more to do with things other than his age.

The physical health of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has posed some serious concerns within the GOP.

Last month, the 81-year-old appeared to freeze — becoming physically unable to speak — when engaging a gaggle of reporters. It was the second such occurrence in two months.

While McConnell was quickly cleared by his physician and has spoken publicly without incident in the ensuing weeks, concerns about his health remain.

His position is not nearly as taxing as that of the president, but from a political and public policy perspective, it’s still one of significance. His role is demanding, physically and mentally.

And McConnell isn’t even the oldest member of the Senate. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, at 90, takes that title. Her health has been in precipitous and obvious decline for years.

She has been incapacitated and unable to attend votes for long periods of time, yet she still sits on some of the most powerful committees in the chamber. Her ability to serve, however, really isn’t a question anymore. It is clear she cannot.

The health of our aging political class isn’t a novel concern. Politicians are notorious for overstaying their welcome, and voters are guilty for keeping them in office.

But with so many powerful leaders raising health concerns, renewed calls for an incapacity amendment for congressional leaders aren’t out of the question.

There of course is already one for the president, and it’s reasonable to wonder if it will be needed in the coming years, if Biden continues on his current political path.

Politicians, like popes, should be able to work with dignity, even in their waning years.

They would better serve their offices and legacies (not to mention the people they represent) if they followed the example of Benedict and went out on their own terms, with honor and humility.


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