Editors Note: Originally posted on May 5, 2019, here we are on September 30, 2020, the day after the first presidential “debate”, and this is the “egg on my face” update. Who knew that good old 77-year old Joe Biden would be JUST what the country needed in 2020 to face down a bullying, narcissist, misogynistic, racist con man? Apparently a lot of older, female, and/or black voters who understood that basic decency, competence, and a long career of public service would be an effective counterweight to Donald Trump. So I take back the concerns I was feeling because Biden wouldn’t step aside for the next generation and salute him for his courage and stamina. I feel he’s taking one for the country. While I still think the basic premise of this post holds, I will admit to both exceptions to the rule and errors on my part.
Sometimes it’s hard to say good-bye.
Last week, former Vice President Joe Biden—at 76 years of age and counting—became the twentieth announced Democratic candidate for President. As many have noted, he’s not even the oldest aspirant in the field. That would be 77 year old Senator Bernie Sanders, running again after coming in second to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary in 2016. Both white males are vying to replace another white male, 72 year old Donald Trump.
So much for the generational change with diverse candidates who look more like America that was to occur when the 47 year old Barack Obama assumed the presidency in 2009. Not to mention the glass ceiling, which remains very much in place.
Knowing how and when to step aside for a more diverse, younger generation of leaders is very much front page news for the Democratic Party as the nation heads into another presidential election cycle. A recent Suzanna Danuta Walters op-ed in the Washington Post argues that male politicians “have a responsibility—if they really do want a more gender-equitable world—to lean out, work actively to disavow their privilege and pitch in to get a woman elected president.” A Democratic primary focused on the women and younger, more diverse male candidates would provide choices among those who have experience in executive and legislative leadership, voting rights, criminal and social justice work, consumer protection, financial sector reform, health care, environmental protection, immigration, LGBTQ rights, Hispanic and African American empowerment, local government, the role of the military in today’s world, and international relations. All are issues of importance to a wide range of Americans.
Politicians have a history of sticking around when others have long moved on to retirement (think Strom Thurmond, for goodness sake) and they certainly have motivations which differ significantly from so many of their fellow citizens. Nonetheless, suffice it to say there is no “right” answer here. Looking outside of politics, the preponderance of evidence has led me to believe that the privileged who are aware** of the special standing they have been given because of their gender, race, or circumstances of birth have a responsibility to think carefully about how to support those who do not have those same entitlements. Even when we believe we have unique qualifications to lead—perhaps especially if we believe we have unique leadership qualifications—we need to consider the benefits of giving others, who bring a different perspective, their opportunity.
I considered appropriate ways to turn over my responsibilities before stepping down from a nonprofit leadership post earlier this year. Over time, I came to believe that the baby boomers had made our mark on the historic preservation field and should find ways to pass the movement’s future to younger and more diverse generations and their points of view. As this thought grew, the face in the mirror looked back at me with that, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” look. Was I good at what I did? Yes, I believed I was. Were my perspectives, gained over decades of experience, of value to the field? Yes, I felt so. Was I indispensable? Ha! My grandmother’s admonition that, “The graveyard is full of folks who thought the world couldn’t get along without them” was always too fresh in my ears.
Stepping aside to encourage leadership roles for people of different generations, genders, and ethnicities doesn’t mean crawling into a retirement shell and slowly dying. Mentoring new generations—both before and after transitions—will always be important. Former President Jimmy Carter has had what many believe is the most successful post-presidential career in history***, all built around service to others. His work empowers those who didn’t have the privilege that he enjoyed as a white, male Southerner growing up in the 20th century. It is a model many of us could emulate, no matter our field of expertise.
There’s an old song that goes, “How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?” It is a sentiment that is good to keep in mind when considering how to effectively, and gracefully, step aside before becoming a dinosaur.
Have a good week.
More to come…
*Perhaps some should say good-bye before extinction arrives (Dinosaurs on the Montana landscape* – photo by Claire Brown). One of the great things about traveling cross country is the wacky art you find along the way, such as the dinosaur sculpture garden just outside of Glasgow, Montana.
**I am very much aware that there are many individuals who do not see how their privilege has set them up for success. They were born on third base and yet wake up and think they hit a triple.
***Others may argue for John Quincy Adams, who served 17 years in the House of Representatives after losing his presidential re-election bid to Andrew Jackson. Adams, a fervent anti-slavery Congressman, is credited for the effort that did away with the “gag rule,” which automatically nullified anti-slavery legislation. Adams suffered a stroke on the floor of the House in 1848 and died two days later.
Installment #2 in The Gap Year Chronicles