In her final days, Brooke Astor was kept awake by terror that a man was in her house, intent on killing her and stealing her money. The aging society doyenne would wander her spacious Park Avenue apartment searching for the intruder, and when she could rest, sleeping with her money to prevent its theft. According to testimony from her nurse Minnette Christie yesterday, upon questioning, Mrs. Astor revealed that the man she feared was her son, Anthony Marshall. Marshall does not stand accused of trying to harm his mother, but he is currently on trial for trying to defraud her of millions by bullying her into changing her will. Later, according to the nurse, Mrs. Astor confided during a moment of lucidity in 2004: “I’m getting stupid in the head but not all stupid.” She made Christie swear not to tell anyone, but she “was made to do some things I don’t want to do by the man. Now you know, in case anything happens to me.” In another moment of clarity, she noted: “Rich people are no better than poor people — you give them a third and they want two-thirds.” This was on the very evening that her son convinced her to sign a will amendment handing him control of about $60 million of her estate.
Aristotle and the others acknowledged that it carries hidden and insidious effects, and reveals unflattering qualities in the gerontocrats themselves. We can see this most obviously in the effect it has had on the Democratic Party generationally. There is a huge gap between where the energy and creativity of the party lie, with a group of dynamic activists and House members in their 30s and even their 20s (thank you, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), and the ruling class of 70-somethings layered far above like a crumbling porte cochere. …
We all need purpose and meaning in life. The trick for old folks is to adjust their search for purpose and meaning as they follow nature’s course and give way to their juniors. The avenues to self-fulfillment that were open to them as younger men and women are now the rightful territory of a newer generation, and dignity requires them to find other paths of service and satisfaction.
I can easily imagine a host of dignified futures for our 70-something presidential candidates, far from New Hampshire and Iowa. Sanders could work as a tour guide in Nicaragua or a docent on fundraising cruises for The New York Review of Books. Biden, for his part, could take on the once-popular, now-neglected role of “elder statesman,” happy to serve when called to a blue-ribbon panel or as a special envoy to trouble spots here and there, to offer advice when his advice is sought, and otherwise to lead a life of recreation, reading, and contemplation. No one will think less of either of them.
Instead, they have chosen the way of vanity and self-indulgence, to the detriment of the political cause they say they want to advance. Sanders and Biden have made themselves the equivalent of the old dude cruising the pool at Club Med in his sagging Speedo, capped teeth gleaming, knobby shoulders and fallen pecs bronzed and shiny with tanning oil, gold chains twinkling through the chest hair. I’m not saying one of them won’t succeed in his quest—though I have my doubts about both—but in a saner world, it would be obvious that the quest itself is unseemly. They do no credit to their peers with their refusal to acknowledge their natural and inevitable station in life. And they do no favors to the younger people—from Pete Buttigieg, age 37; to Kamala Harris, age 54; and even to Elizabeth Warren, age 69—who are eager, as they are entitled to be, to take their shot.