Rereading “The Great Gatsby” earlier this week, I was again struck by this sentence.
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made… .”
“Their vast carelessness” — a phrase that could be applied not only to the current occupants of the White House but to many of the people and institutions that continue to shape the United States.
Let’s start with the financial/governmental/educational cartel. Classic cartels are created when business rivals join forces to eliminate existing competitors, discourage new entrants and enjoy monopoly profits. Modern cartels are far more sophisticated, welcoming hundreds of players to put their snouts in an inexhaustible money trough.
Hence, virtually every purveyor of higher education, from private universities to shameless online scams (remember Everest College, anybody?) participated in a giant confidence game. The colleges charged ever-higher fees and tuition, the Feds offered loan guarantees, lenders extended credit and the kids got stuck with the bill.
And what about the military-industrial complex, about which President Eisenhower warned us in his farewell address? Ike gracefully left office in 1961, succeeded by 43-year-old Jack Kennedy. Nearly 60 years later, politicians are still struggling with the nexus of lobbying, military readiness and national budget priorities. Yet given the extraordinary challenges the nation has faced since 1960, we’ve done a good job.
Ike was 70 when he left office. Few people remain in powerful executive position in their 70s, so why are there so many septuagenarians and even octogenarians in national politics? Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders — it’s a very long list.
As Michael Tortorello wrote three years ago for Politico, cognitive ability declines after 70, particularly “the capacity to absorb large amounts of new information and data in a short time span and apply it to solve problems in unaccustomed fashion.”
As a geezer who’ll turn 79 in two months, that’s not news to me. As the old saying doesn’t go, “I sometimes forget a name, but I never remember a face.” But that feels absolutely OK, especially when my aging friends report exactly the same experience. We muse about creating an elderly unicorn, a face recognition app on your phone/watch linked to your hearing aid that tells you who you’re talking to — call it NameTag! Venture capitalists, give me a call and I’ll fill you in on the details — if I can remember them.
Joking around is still easy, but learning new stuff isn’t. Physically, I’m sticking with my 17-year-old road bike instead of upgrading because I don’t want to adapt to a new ride. I’ve been trying to reactivate my chess-playing, mathematically inclined teenage self, but he’s disappeared. Too bad, since I was hoping my inner smart kid could solve the Yang-Mills existence and mass gap problem, and thereby win a $1 million prize from the Clay Mathematics Institute.
I laugh about my diminished cognition, but I’m not running for president. Watching my fellow geezers preen, posture and campaign, I know they’re faking it. They may have the poise and presence of a Harvard professor, the self-adulation of lifelong politicians or the chutzpah to send 120 tweets on Labor Day, but they’re too old — they’d never make it in the performance-oriented private sector.
There, you need high-level management and decision-making skills. You learn, collaborate, build teams and continually adapt to the marketplace.
Any post-Trump president will have to get up early, go to bed late, move fast and fix things. Corporate CEOs do that every day, but not cranky geezers. Can’t the Dems find someone born after 1955? How about Michael Bennet, Pete Buttigieg or Kamala Harris? I’m for Sen. Bennet, since I went to college with his dad. He’s a nice young man!
Or shall we, as Democratic primary voters next year, continue our vast national carelessness and go all in for geezerdom? Maybe, but here’s a comforting thought: No oval office denizen ever drives, so his/her kids will never have to beg the sitting president to give up the car keys…