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The New Age of the Grown-Ups

The white-haired set has been recruited to roam the corridors of power in politics and business. Some see it as a response to crisis and scandals.

October 30, 2002|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In the Kennedy era, there was the youth of Camelot. In the Clinton-Gore years, there was the arrival of the baby boomers. Now, Washington seems to be summoning the white hairs back to duty.

Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, at 74, is being asked to pinch-hit for the late Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone in Minnesota. After an acrimonious fight, the Securities and Exchange Commission has named 78-year-old William H. Webster, a former CIA and FBI director with virtually no experience in accounting, to be its new accounting czar. And then there's Frank R. Lautenberg, former Democratic senator from New Jersey, who left the Senate two years ago because he was tired of raising campaign cash and who now, at 78, is stumping with vigor in a race that Sen. Robert Torricelli left in a cloud of corruption.

Not to be outdone, the Bush administration has installed Donald H. Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, where his regular jousts with the media led the president to call his secretary of Defense, at 70, a matinee idol. Congress has always had a platoon of elderly -- Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina Republican who is already the oldest and the longest-serving senator in history, turns 100 in December. But Thurmond, who is not seeking reelection this year, is hardly a player. As the Senate has debated the wrenching question of whether to authorize war with Iraq, however, the Democrat who became the most vigorous, passionate opponent was not some young energetic defender of left-wing causes. It was Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), known at 85 as ''Bobby.''

To be sure, Washington has often turned to its elder statesmen, especially in times of crisis. And coincidence could explain the new look of longevity.

But there seems something poignant about the current outreach to veterans, as if the times yearn for the stability of a more sober generation. To demographers, lobbyists and other experts, the aging of government seems a response to danger.

"In times of crisis, the impulse is to go with someone who's been there and can offer the reassuring voice of experience," said John Rother, policy director of the AARP, a lobby group serving 35.5 million of the plus-50 crowd. "It's rooted in human nature."

Barbara Kellerman, executive director of Harvard University's Kennedy School Center for Public Leadership, echoed the thought. "Since Sept. 11 the nation has been on edge," she said. "We want to be soothed, to feel more secure." Noting that corporations and the Roman Catholic Church have also reached out to retired elders to salve their scandals, she added, ''This is a nervous time. This is not a good moment for a long learning curve. We want to have a sense of competence. And one way of assuring that is to choose people who've been there before.''

Others see a generational schism in the new Potomac fashion of showing one's age, wrinkles and all. For some, there is a hint that boomer presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have disappointed, requiring the parent generation to come back and clean up the mess. And there is speculation that the return of the elders constitutes some sort of repudiation of the 20-somethings, with their dotcom bubbles and their go-go '90s bust.

"It's true, there is a sense that the kids had a tantrum and the adults are coming in to quell the disturbance," said Ross Baker, political scientist at Rutgers University. "The grown-ups are coming back."

The baby boomers -- those 70 million Americans born in the population explosion after World War II -- are graying themselves, with the oldest of them now 56, so the prospect of ever-older leaders looms as far as the horizon. "When the baby boomers were younger, they didn't trust anybody over 35," said Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at Loyola University in Chicago. "Maybe older politicians are starting to look better to them."

Then too, the aging of the population in general -- one in every eight Americans is over 65, according to the 2000 census -- makes all but inevitable the graying of the workplace.

"We no longer talk about the prime of life ending at 65," said M.C. "Terry" Hokenstad, professor of social sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "The prime of life extends into the 70s and beyond."

Hokenstad credits Otto von Bismarck, Germany's first chancellor, for setting the retirement age for pensioners at 65, a benchmark American lawmakers borrowed when they designed the Social Security Act in 1935. "There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that Bismarck chose 65 because the average German worker lived until 47," said Hokenstad. True or not, he added, "65 is a social artifact. It may have had meaning in the industrial age, but no more."

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