What could I say? I stared at the younger man seated opposite a few months ago and was dumbfounded. In fact, it was the only time since I departed politics that I can honestly say I was offended. “The last thing we need right now is old bald men standing in the way. You’ve had your chance at politics and it’s time you moved aside to let the younger generation in.”
There was something obviously brash about the statement, but it was the sheer arrogance of the attitude that came across that might not bode well for politics. Opinion and ideology have become the new vocabulary of the modern political structure, offering way more heat than light. It reminds me of Jon Krakauer’s insight in Into the Wild:
It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God given right to have it.”
And yet his urgency that day had much truth to it. Politics at all levels is most populated by older folks who seem stuck in some kind of partisan time warp, incapable of leading their communities, or their countries, out of the life of diminishing returns so common today.
But I wanted to ask him why he thought I was one of those who stood in the way of his peers? What was wrong with having seven kids and four grandchildren? Was being a 30-year professional firefighter not a good thing? I would presume that freeing slaves in Sudan had to add some different and urgent perspective to one’s CV? I was smart and lucky enough to marry a terrific humanitarian. I survived a cancer scare and kept my wits about me. Being a board member of Emerging Leaders surely should say that I’m not blind to the resources the young can bring to community life, shouldn’t it? Can spending my waking moments working on community development behind the scenes really be a bad thing? And as a politician, I spent most of my time trying to provide access to those Gen “X”ers, “Y”ers and Millennials to the corridors of power so that they could introduce their keen insights and ideas to the broader world.
Please don’t misinterpret me here; I’m not looking for praise. But do such things automatically disqualify me for public service because of my age? Is the issue not really one of putting one’s community first instead of merely holding on to power for power’s sake? I know politicians, men and women, under the age of 40, who are even more partisan and jealous of office holding. The reality is that most of those in office are in their older years – a demographic reality. But the great problem with politics is the absence of good people who put their ridings before their reputations and that isn’t an age-specific trait.
I recently finished Walter Isaacsons’s book Benjamin Franklin, in which he does a masterful job of showing how the generations needed to come together if America was to survive. In the sweltering summer of 1787, representatives gathered in Philadelphia to negotiate a constitution that would become the most successful in history. Looking at the delegates, Thomas Jefferson noted, “If it does not go well, it will show that we have not the wisdom among us to govern ourselves.” They were largely young and their success hardly assured. At 81, Franklin was the oldest by 15 years and exactly twice the average age of the rest. Oh yeah, and he was bald.
By this vast experience it was suspected that Franklin would take on the role as leader. He declined and instead nominated George Washington, in a move that would see the latter become American’s first president. Then things got down to business and soon enough the young leaders crossed swords over all sorts of differences. But at pivotal moments Franklin intervened, his wit, experience and sagacity often responsible for obtaining numerous compromises from all sides.
Virtually every delegate at the constitutional convention held little confidence that the average citizen was capable of self-government. As the oldest in attendance, Franklin was nevertheless the most youthful in spirit when it came to capabilities of the emerging citizenry. He embodied the spirit of the Enlightenment and human potential. He held the convention together though his experience and wisdom, and when the impossible was accomplished many said it was through his vastness of spirit and mind that the Constitution was attained. It was Franklin who coined the phrase E Pluribus Unum – Out of the Many, One – and he had lived long enough to pave the way for the next generation of leadership.
Are such things impossible these days? Are old bald men no longer as useful? Could it be true that the great error of the younger generation is to believe that their intelligence is an adequate substitute for experience? Of course. But the mistake of the older generation is the opposite: believing that experience is a proper substitute for intelligence.
My time to leave is not quite yet. There is work to be done, for experience to prepare the path for the remarkable intelligence of the young to receive its rightful place of prominence. It has taken me a long, long time to become young. I’m closer to living my youthful ideals than at any point in my long lifetime. Don’t shut the door just yet. We have need of one another and I have a few miles yet to go before I sleep.