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Editorial: That 70s show / Another septuagenarian hopes to rejoin the Senate

Saturday, November 02, 2002

Norm Coleman, the fiftysomething Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota, has only a few days to convince voters that his last-minute opponent, 74-year-old Walter Mondale, should not be given another shot at public office.

Although Mr. Coleman and his supporters are not emphasizing the A word, the issue of age lurks barely beneath the surface. Republicans are saying that Mr. Coleman is a more vital and "future"-oriented candidate than Mr. Mondale, who was drafted by the party after the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone.

Is Mr. Mondale, a former senator, vice president and Democratic presidential nominee, too old for the Senate? If he is, what does that say about 78-year-old Frank Lautenberg, another former senator, who was recruited by the party to fill a sudden vacancy on the ballot, this one created by the withdrawal of Sen. Robert Torricelli?

Messrs. Mondale and Lautenberg have a long time to live before they threaten the longevity record of 99-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond, but there is no denying that they would occupy the upper age range in the Senate if elected.

In their defense, Messrs. Mondale and Lautenberg could cite the dictionary, which traces the word "Senate" through the Latin senatus to senex or "old man."

But etymology is not as good a defense as biology: Thanks to medical advances, being in your 70s in 2002 is not the same as being in your 70s in 1972. That reality is in evidence throughout government. For example, although Pennsylvania state judges officially retire at the age of 70, the judicial system makes considerable use of 70-plus "senior judges."

Of course, even in past times some politicians have served with vigor into their 80s. That is a point that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed Rendell has made about his 72-year-old running mate Catherine Baker Knoll, citing the not-quite-analogous examples of Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer. But those titanic figures were dramatic exceptions to the usual life expectancy of three score years and ten.

Thanks to modern medicine, the rules now have changed. The Mondale campaign has produced a letter from his doctor declaring him in "excellent shape" even though he lost partial vision in his right eye this year as a result of a blood clot.

As long as Mr. Mondale is in good health, Republicans should be careful about impugning him on the basis of his age. They might get a dressing down from one of their own, 70-year-old Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

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