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At the ripening age of 80 years old — more than 35 of them spent in Congress — Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., is scrapping for political survival. On Tuesday he faces state Treasurer Richard Mourdock in his party's primary.
In many ways, contemporary American politics — at least in the upper echelons — is an older person's game. The average age of lawmakers in the 112th Congress, according to the Congressional Research Service, "is among the highest of any Congress in recent U.S. history." At the onset of the session, the average senator was 62.2, and the average member of the House was 56.7.
Still, there is some concern that Lugar is a little long in the tooth. "Voters are torn between respecting the experience of Sen. Lugar and worrying about his age," says Margaret Ferguson, chairwoman of the political science department at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. Voters also point out, she says, that Lugar "has become too comfortable in Washington and too disconnected from Indiana."
According to a recent Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll — showing Mourdock ahead by 10 points — Tuesday might be losing day for Lugar. Then what?
It's an age-old quandary that almost every successful solon must face. What is an aging politician to do?
Here are five options (plus a bonus sixth possibility at the end of the story). He or she can:
1) Keep on running. Lugar is a prime example. So was the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C. — the Energizer Bunny of American politics. He just kept going and going, remaining in office until he was 100 years old. He died just a few months after retiring in 2003.
2) Sign up as a lobbyist/advocate. After two dozen years in Congress — and a presidential bid — former Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., 71, became a lobbyist for the American publishing industry.
Known as a proponent of women's issues and an opponent of war, Schroeder decided to walk away from politics in 1995 and did not seek re-election the next year. "I always said I wasn't going to be here for life, and life was ticking by," she told The Washington Post at the time. "I'm 55 years old and I wanted to go out at the top of my game."
Asked about making the transition from politician to advocate/lobbyist, Schroeder says today, "Some of us move on and some of us dig in." At the time she made her decision to forsake politics, "Colorado was a long way away," she says, "and I felt someone young could represent it better because of the travel."
Likewise, former Rep. Susan Molinari, R-N.Y., 54, now lobbies on behalf of Google.
3) Become an academic at a university or think tank. Following three terms in the Senate, Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., 80, retired and was named director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. In 2000, Simpson re-retired. He went on to practice law, and teach the occasional college course in Wyoming and to serve on the Iraq Study Group and as co-chairman of the bipartisan presidential commission to reduce the federal deficit and debt.
4) Trade on celebrity. Once and future actor Sen. Fred Dalton Thompson, R-Tenn., 69, took time off from being a movie star to serve in Congress for nearly 10 years. In 2007, he launched a short-lived bid for the presidency. After politics, he returned to acting — starring again in various Law & Order shows, among other endeavors — and today he extols the glories of reverse mortgages for American Advisors Group.
5) Do good works. Former presidents Jimmy Carter, 87, George H.W. Bush, 87, and Bill Clinton, 65, are all engaged in high-profile philanthropy. Other former politicians working to make the world a better place include Rep. Linda Smith, R-Wash., 61, who founded Shared Hope International to aid women and children in crisis, and Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, 70, who is now executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger. "I want my life to count," Hall says, "and I want to feel like I'm giving some value to something or somebody."
Celebrity And Savvy
For some politicians — especially those who were not irreparably diminished or disgraced while in office — there are considerable crossover opportunities. Like former Sens. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., 68, Chris Dodd, D-Conn., 67, and George Mitchell, D-Maine, 78, they can sign up with a high-priced speakers bureau. And, like Bradley, they can write books; like Dodd, they can run vast lobbying firms; and like Mitchell, they can oversee huge corporations — such as The Walt Disney Co. — and attend charity auctions.
Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., 88, has leveraged his celebrity and savvy in multiple ways. In the late 1990s, Dole, who served more than 35 years in Congress and ran for president, used his recognizability to hawk Viagra and Pepsi. Today he is special counsel in the legislative and public policy group at the Washington law firm of Alston + Bird.
Another multitasker is former Rep. Fred Grandy, R-Iowa, 63. A four-termer in Congress, Grandy will forever be known for his pre-political career as a TV actor, including a stint as Gopher on The Love Boat. Since leaving politics in the mid 1990s, Grandy has been, among other things, president of Goodwill Industries, an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland and co-host of a morning radio show. Today he is executive vice president at the Center for Security Policy in Washington.
So some politicians dabble in more than one of the five options.
"And don't forget No. 6," says Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
6) Go home. Now and then, congressmen "do actually retire and go back home," Binder says. "We hear much less about those legislators, of course."
Younger Not Necessarily Better
Lugar's opponent in the Indiana primary, Mourdock, is a relative youngster at age 60. But Lugar's former colleague and fellow octogenarian, Alan Simpson, says Lugar's age is irrelevant.
"If there's one person to whom age doesn't mean a thing when it comes to intellect, wisdom, productivity or savvy," Simpson says from his home in Cody, Wyo., "it's Dick Lugar."
Simpson says that Lugar's grasp of issues — domestic and international — is vast and certain, adding, "I don't care how the hell old he is."
What is the value of elder statesmen these days? Do our fast and frenetic times call for seasoned veterans in public office? Or do we need younger representatives who understand contemporary problems and may be faster on their feet in addressing those problems?
"I'm not so sure that younger is necessarily better when it comes to the best legislators," Binder says. "I suppose some legislators stay long past their prime. Strom Thurmond ... comes to mind. But the energy of younger legislators doesn't necessarily make them better legislators."
There are reasons, she says, why we might want seasoned veterans working to craft legislation on the complex issues of this complex era.
"Ultimately," Binder says, "these are choices of the electorate."
Schroeder agrees. "If someone decides to keep running, the voters have the final say on whether you are performing up to their standards and deserve another term."
Or whether you should, like many erstwhile politicians, find some other line of work.
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