We need to learn how to talk about the mental health of our aging representatives

Feb 27, 2014

Earlier this week, the newspapers and airwaves were full of tributes to John Dingell, who announced this term would be his last.

Dingell, who turns 88 this summer, is the longest-serving Congressmen in history, and when I first met him, was one of the physically most powerful men in Congress.

Today, he is hard of hearing and frail, but nobody has ever said he wasn’t mentally able to do the job.

South Carolina's Strom Thurmond spoke of the brave defenders of the Alamo, and added that they had held off "three thousand Russians."

This hasn’t always been the case with long-serving congressmen. During his last campaign for the U.S. Senate at age 94, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond spoke of the brave defenders of the Alamo, and added that they had held off “three thousand Russians.”

Thurmond’s handlers didn’t let him speak much in public after that. He won reelection, but spent most of his final term in Walter Reed Hospital, except when they brought him to the Senate to vote.

Nobody likes to talk about this, but there seems to have been a universal consensus that Dale Kildee, who decided not to run for reelection two years ago, needed to leave.

There’s a reason you haven’t seen him interviewed or commenting on issues since he left. He is, in fact, younger that John Dingell, but not all of us age at the same rate.

I know a woman in her 60s who no longer knows who her husband is.

I know an almost 90-year-old federal judge who can hold his own in any argument, and who still renders complex decisions in intellectual property cases.

The effects of senility, like heart disease, vary widely, which brings us to the curious case of Detroit Congressman John Conyers.

If he runs for reelection and wins, next January he will replace Dingell as the longest serving current member of Congress.

Not longest ever. Conyers, who turns 85 in May, would have to be there almost ten more years to surpass Dingell, but he was first elected 50 years ago this November. He has had quite a career, from the days when he joined Martin Luther King Jr. to fight for civil rights in Mississippi.

Conyers is the author of the bill establishing the national holiday to commemorate King’s birthday. He helped form the Congressional Black Caucus and was the first black chair of the House Judiciary Committee. He has fought hard for many good causes.

...people deserve to be represented by people who are mentally capable of doing so. Somehow, we in the press need to find a way of having a more open discussion about this.

But in recent years, his behavior has sometimes been erratic, to say the least. A week ago, the Rev. Horace Sheffield announced he would run against Conyers for the Democratic nomination this year.

What turned heads was what Sheffield said next: “The congressman is not all there,” Sheffield told the media, adding that Conyers “is not the person he once was.”

Here’s what is remarkable about that: Nobody came forward to deny it except for people on the congressman’s payroll.

That doesn’t mean that Sheffield is going to beat him. He is anything but an ideal candidate himself. He has been repeatedly accused of domestic and other violence against women.

But people deserve to be represented by people who are mentally capable of doing so. Somehow, we in the press need to find a way of having a more open discussion about this.