Its the elephant in the U.S. Senate election in Indiana.
Republican incumbent Richard Lugar will turn 80 on Wednesday. If he wins the primary and general elections this year, he will be 86 at the end of what would be his seventh term on Capitol Hill.
Lugar has gone from being known as President Richard Nixons favorite mayor to, his more-conservative foes contend, President Obamas favorite Republican. There have been six presidents between Nixon and Obama, and Lugar has served in the Senate during the terms of five.
References to his longevity abound. Tea party activists in the Republican Party say they want to retire Lugar. Democrats have called him out of touch because he has lived in suburban Washington since President Jimmy Carters administration. Media descriptions of Lugar often take note of his white hair.
Esquire magazine blogger Charles P. Pierce began a post by writing that Lugar has represented the state of Indiana in the U.S. Senate since shortly after George Rogers Clark kicked the bucket. Clark, a Revolutionary War commander famous in Indiana for fighting the British in Vincennes, died in 1818.
During a recent campaign stop in Fort Wayne, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, 60, who is challenging Lugar in the May 8 GOP primary election, was asked whether Lugars age is an issue.
Im not going to make it an issue at all, Mourdock replied. Thats one for voters to consider or not consider. Not from me, not from my camp. Not going there.
Yet Mourdocks campaign has broadcast ads in which the narrator states, When Dick Lugar moved to Washington in 1977, disco topped the charts, and leisure suits were in style. The video begins with a photo of a 40-something Lugar; it is soon replaced by a newer image of the soon-to-be octogenarian. Among other pictures that appear in the decades-spanning ad is one of Barney the dinosaur – a childrens TV character, but a dinosaur nonetheless.
Andy Fisher, a Senate aide to Lugar who has joined his campaign as its spokesman, said in an email that his boss is absolutely prepared to serve another six years. He would not be running if that were not so.
Lugar can be seen running – literally – on the website for the ACLI Capital Challenge, a yearly three-mile race in Washington. He is the only person to have participated in all 30; last May, he finished the road course in 44 minutes and 40 seconds, good for 497th place out of 506 runners.
He also runs in the Dick Lugar Health Fair and Fitness Festival every September on the Butler University campus in Indianapolis, where he was mayor in the 1960s and 70s.
Lugar has an annual physical exam and suffers no serious illnesses or medical conditions, Fisher said.
He is doing great, Fisher said.
Lugar is in demand as a speaker and TV news-show guest, often on issues related to energy, nuclear weapons, foreign affairs and agriculture – his areas of interest on Capitol Hill. He has participated in 98 percent of the floor votes in his Senate career.
He posts missives on the social network site Twitter.
I have worked outside Sen. Lugars door for most of the past 30 years, Fisher said. Hes not lost a step. He arrives to work at 7 a.m., and when he leaves in the evening, he takes home a bag full of papers and documents to prepare for the next day. He keeps a similar schedule in Indiana on weekends and breaks.
While no spring chicken, Lugar is just the fourth-oldest sitting senator.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., is 88. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, is 87, four days older than Hawaiis junior senator according to seniority, Democrat Daniel Akaka, who is not seeking re-election this year.
Lugar also served with Sens. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who died in office at age 92, and Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who died not long after retiring at 100.
(Indianas junior senator, Republican Dan Coats, is 68. Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-2nd, the Democratic candidate for Lugars seat, is 56.)
People dont have to think that Lugar is too old to serve, but they might believe that hes been in Washington long enough. I think thats what the Mourdock campaign is getting at, Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the non-partisan, Washington-based Rothenberg Political Report, said in an email.
Being in Washington for more than a half-century hasnt hurt Inouye at the polls. A senator since 1963 (and a House member before that), the Hawaiian received 88 percent of the vote in a contested Democratic primary election in 2010 and 75 percent in a three-way general election.
But Lugar is running in a much different political environment, Gonzales said.
He said GOP challengers feel emboldened to take on longtime incumbents after the tea party-fueled defeats of establishment Republicans Robert Bennett in Utah, Michael Castle in Delaware and Lisa Murkowski in 2010 Senate races. Murkowski kept her Senate seat, winning as a write-in candidate in Alaskas general election.
Democrats arent immune. Gonzales recalled that Sen. Joe Lieberman was beaten by an anti-war candidate in the 2006 Connecticut primary. Lieberman won that years general election as an independent.
I dont think theres any question that experience and longevity are not as valued as they once were, Gonzales said. And they can even be a liability in an environment where people arent happy with the status quo in Washington.
‘Degree of power’
Phil Stafford agrees that repeated mentions of Lugars long career in the Senate by his rivals could be anti-incumbent sentiment that you see – the assumption that all the rascals need to be turned out.
Stafford, 62, directs the Center on Aging and Community at Indiana Universitys Institute on Disability and Community.
Age itself is not a predictor of competence or incompetence, absent pathology of course, he said in a phone interview.
Advanced age can be a plus in public service, he said – older elected officials tend to have more political experience, expertise and influence than do their younger colleagues. The minimum age to serve in the Senate is 30.
The accumulation of the years can really provide a degree of power that translates into benefits for a constituency, said Stafford, who calls himself a liberal progressive Democrat.
President Ronald Reagan, then 73, turned an age question on its head during a 1984 debate with Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, then 56. Reagan famously quipped, I want you to know also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponents youth and inexperience.
Two weeks later, Reagan easily won re-election.
Lugars campaign, by the way, ran a TV ad last summer showing images of Lugar and Reagan walking together.
In most areas of our economy, Stafford said, weve done away with this notion of mandatory retirement because weve come to realize that chronological age is not necessarily an indicator of performance with the exception of basketball and football.
Lugars campaign said the same applies to the senator.
The fact is, Lugar has the experience and gravitas we need in the Senate during these serious times, Fisher wrote in his email.
But Stafford observed that there remains a lot of ageism as a part of our ordinary interaction and discourse in life. People like Sen. Lugar are having to discount that stereotype.