Next Tuesday, civil rights legend Congressman John Lewis faces a primary. His opponent is attacking Lewis for being too old to serve in Congress. Lewis is 72 years old.
Ronald Reagan was one year older than that when he said in 1984, jokingly, “I’m not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” John Lewis could say the same.
For the record, the Constitution establishes a minimum age for Congressman – 25 – but not a maximum age. It’s actually against the law to discriminate on the basis of old age, and it has been since 1967.
Strom Thurmond made it all the way to age 100. John Lewis has 28 years left to get there – only 14 elections to go!
Someone named Mitt Romney – you may have heard of him — tried the same tactic against Ted Kennedy in 1994, when Kennedy was a young lad of 62 (and Romney was 15 years younger). Mitt Romney criticized Kennedy for “old-style politics.” When they debated, Kennedy brushed aside Romney’s “age-ist” attacks, and hit Romney hard on the issues: “I’m pro-choice; my opponent [Romney] is multiple choice.”
Attempting to disparage John Lewis’s civil rights accomplishments, Lewis’s African-American opponent said recently: “This election is not about where we were 45 or 50 years ago in the past.” Lewis replied: “If it hadn’t been for what I and others did 45 and 50 years ago, he wouldn’t be able to run.”
Having served with John Lewis, I can attest that he is a very effective Member of Congress, both inside and outside the Capitol Building. In 2009, Lewis was arrested for protesting genocide in Darfur. That protest made national news, because John Lewis was there. How many 69-year-olds – or people of any age — would put themselves on the line that way?
What it comes down to is this: If all you’ve got to say in a political campaign is: “I came out of my mother’s womb after the other guy did,” that ain’t much. Especially against John Lewis’s heroic, lifelong record of enormous accomplishments. There is no statute of limitations on heroism.