Senate Duo Among Eldest

November 12, 2004 | By Jerry Spangler

Although Utah boasts the youngest population in the nation, come January Utah’s senatorial delegation will be among the oldest.

Utah’s two Republican senators, Orrin Hatch and newly re-elected Bob Bennett, are 70 and 71, respectively. At a combined 141 years, that makes the senatorial delegation the third oldest among the 50 delegations in the 109th Congress.

The combined age of the Utah senators is still far behind the Hawaii delegation, where both senators are 80, and it is less than West Virginia, where 87-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd skews the average (the other West Virginia senator is 67).

“Age hasn’t become an issue for me yet,” said Bennett, who will be 77 at the end of his term. “I had a stress test a couple months ago, and the doctor told me to come back in 10

years. With a little help from (the cholesterol medication) Lipitor, there are no signs of any problems.”

Bennett has seen some colleagues in the Senate stay too long. But there are just as many who are going strong into their 80s. And he hinted there is no reason—at least not in the genetic history of his family—to suggest that he would be too old to run for another term.

His mother lived to be 96. His father, former U.S. Sen. Wallace Bennett, lived to be 95 and was mentally “with it” until a fall at age 92.

Hatch and Bennett are not alone in their senior status. A total of 21 senators are 70 or older, and five of those are in their 80s.

Bennett would still be a young buck compared to senators like Byrd and the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, a North Carolina Republican who, still in office and notoriously senile, died in 2002 at the age of 100.

The average age of U.S. senators has been creeping up steadily and now averages 60, according to demographic data compiled by the Senate staff for the 108th Congress that just ended.

The average age of House members is 55, and in that regard, Utah’s House members are a little below average. Rep. Chris Cannon is 53, as is Rep. Rob Bishop, and Rep. Jim Matheson is 44. Generation gap?

Neil Howe, an author, historian and economist who has examined the cyclical nature of generations on the political landscape throughout the years, believes it will be harder for Utah’s senior senators to relate to younger generations, in particular what he calls the Millennial Generation now coming of age.

That generation, now in their teens and 20s and making their voices heard on college campuses, exhibits a much greater interest in mainstream politics and government service than do the baby boom generation, which is generally distrustful of government and institutions, or Generation X, which isn’t much attracted to politics at all and has a problem making commitments, he said.

“Gen-Xers have the lowest voter participation rates of any generation and the lowest rates when it comes to joining political parties,” Howe said.

Bennett says he works hard to understand young people, and he has 18 grandchildren who remind him of his responsibility to the younger generations. To bridge the generation gap, he holds town meetings on college campuses, meets regularly with high school students and listens closely to his interns.

Hatch might appear to be more in tune with younger voters, hobnobbing with the likes of U2 vocalist Bono and getting his mug in a recent issue of Rolling Stone for his work on copyright legislation.

But he insists age is not a factor in his ability to serve.

“Well, it’s true I didn’t buy the latest Usher CD, but I don’t think Utahns, young or old, really care about the age of their leaders,” Hatch said. “I travel the state constantly and talk to Utahns of all ages, creeds and colors, and I don’t think there’s an issue or concern I haven’t become familiar with.”

Besides, he adds, experience and temperament are traits that benefit all Utahns.

“I’ve still got as much energy and enthusiasm for this job as I did when I first ran for office. Just ask anyone,” he said. “There is simply too much that needs to be done—helping Utahns get better health care, fundamental tax reform, supporting the war on terror—for me to leave just yet.” World views

The world view of those generations is radically different from that of Bennett and Hatch. Both senators were born in the early 1930s—too young for World War II and too old for the consciousness revolution of the 1960s.

They are, however, among a cadre of leaders to emerge whose values were shaped by the values of the 1940s and 1950s and therefore represent a shrinking minority in the Senate.

Part of the reason there are 21 senators age 70 and older, Howe said, is because of increased longevity and healthier lifestyles, particularly in Utah. But part of it is that the younger generations have not pushed the older generation out.

“Yes, they (they Hatch-Bennett generation) are declining, and yes, they are sticking around,” Howe said. “They are a generation that believes in serving institutions, and they believe the system can be reformed.”

And there probably won’t be a serious effort to push them out of the Senate anytime soon.

“I suspect that even in Utah that boomers will not be suddenly drawn to service in government, and you will find Gen-Xers will never be dominant politically. Once a generation comes of age, their basic world view doesn’t change much,” he said.

And that leaves the next generation of great leaders to come from the Millennial Generation. But they have to be 35 to run for the Senate—still another decade away.

“There are signs of change on the horizon,” Howe said.

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