In December 1919, some members of the Senate were starting to suspect that the president, Woodrow Wilson, was incapacitated. In truth, he was, having suffered a massive stroke in October that his wife and others close to him were covering up.

But an American consular agent had been kidnapped in Mexico. The secretary of state had sent a strongly worded letter to Mexico that didn’t sound like something Wilson would have approved. To quiet the worries and rumors, the president’s personal secretary agreed to the Senate’s demands that two of its members have a meeting with Wilson to hear his opinions on the matter.

This led to frenzied preparations at the White House. As Rebecca Boggs Roberts, author of a biography of First Lady Edith Wilson, wrote for Smithsonian magazine, “Everyone involved later described the day in theatrical terms; they knew they were putting on a show.” 

The head of publicity for the Democratic Party helped to stage the scene. Wilson was propped in his bed, with a blanket covering his paralyzed left side and scrunched under his chin. The lighting was kept low in the room, except for on the two chairs where the senators would sit, and those were placed so as to provide a limited view of Wilson. A report on Mexico was placed within reaching distance of the president’s good right arm.

It worked. When one of the senators said they had been praying for the president, Wilson playfully responded, “Which way, Senator?” Dramatically, the president’s doctor interrupted the meeting to announce that Mexico had freed the kidnapped consular. The senators left the meeting and told waiting reporters that the president “seemed to me to be in excellent trim, both mentally and physically.”

He wasn’t.

Why recount something that happened in Washington more than a century ago? To illustrate an important point. A lot of people right now are wondering whether the United States ought to have age limits on political offices. Wilson is a dramatic argument against that. He was only 62 when he had his stroke. 

The problem isn’t some arbitrary age. It is a person’s ability to perform the duties of his or her office. Many of us have bosses or know corporate leaders who are way past the average retirement age, but who continue to function competently on a high level.

Chances are, if that situation changes, those people will be relieved of their duties. When it comes to elected officials, however, it isn’t so simple.

The United States is currently being governed by a lot of elderly people. President Joe Biden is 80. Donald Trump is 77. Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is 81, had a second spell of zoning out and appearing to be nonresponsive in front of reporters last week. 

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In a video from a month ago, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who is 90, appeared confused during a Senate hearing.

As Fox News reported recently, 19 current members of Congress are 80 or older — 15 in the House and four in the Senate. The average ages are 57 in the House and 64 in the Senate. Is this a problem, or do competent older people have an edge in experience and wisdom that serves them well as leaders?

Americans, in general, seem to think it is a problem. Last year, a YouGov poll found 58% of American adults saying there ought to be an age limit for elected officials. Not surprisingly, given who is president, more Republicans (64%) felt so than Democrats (57%). But when it comes to what that limit should be, answers were all over the place, with the largest group, 39%, saying 70, and about a quarter each at 60 and 80.

That sums up the problem well. Americans are great at assigning definite traits to arbitrary ages, but life isn’t that predictable. In many states, 16 is the threshold for driving, while 21 is the minimum for consuming alcohol. I submit that neither one necessarily correlates with ability.

This is a problem in local offices as much as in Washington. Not many years ago, Salt Lake County recorder Gary Ott was found to have dementia, while family members accused his top staffers of trying to cover up his condition to keep their jobs. He died at age 66. 

State lawmakers passed a bill that would allow for the removal of an officeholder in a similar future case, but that law is narrowly tailored to certain counties only.

Covering up, making the boss look good and preserving power — these will forever be obstacles keeping the public from knowing whether their elected officials are competent. You can’t ferret that out with an age requirement. We need some kind of tests that would be above any potential political manipulation. 

Unlike in Wilson’s day, we now have the 25th Amendment, which allows a president to hand over power if he or she is incapacitated. I’m not convinced that would keep a future stroke victim from clinging to the White House.