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Never Too Old for Public Service

By: Miriam Edelman

Ageism remains regrettably prevalent in our society.  As we celebrate Older Americans Month, we should recognize the huge potential of senior citizens for public services.  The late-career achievements of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Dr. Anthony Fauci provide dramatic examples.  Long after most people retire, they not only made vital contributions, but became pop icons. In their honor, let's take the occasion of Older Americans Month to cast out the trope "too old to serve." 

 

Older Americans Month is celebrated each May in the United States. All Presidents since President John F. Kennedy, who identified May 1963 as Senior Citizens Month to honor people who were at least 65 years old, have issued a formal proclamation regarding May honoring older people. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter renamed the month, Older Americans Month.

 

The National Organization for Women (NOW) wrote a touching tribute about Ginsburg, memorializing her when she died in 2020. As NOW stated,

There aren’t sufficient words to describe the depth of sorrow women are feeling at the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We are shattered.  We are broken.  We feel that we have lost more than a dear and admired friend. Our country has lost a feminist champion. 

 

Ginsburg’s and Fauci’s similarities date from childhood. They were both born within a decade of each other in Brooklyn, New York, during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, she in 1933 and he in 1940. They both played sports. Ginsburg was a baton twirler, and Fauci was the captain of his high school basketball team. Both graduated first in their class at Cornell University: Dr. Fauci (MD ’66) and Justice Ginsburg (undergrad ’54).

 

Ginsburg and Fauci were dedicated to public service, serving in national government for decades with ties to multiple Presidents/Presidential nominees. Sometimes referred to as the Thurgood of the women’s rights movement, Ginsburg won five of the six cases she argued in the Supreme Court. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals - District of Columbia Circuit, considered to be the nation’s second-most important court. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court to replace Justice Byron White. After current-President Joe Biden presided over Ginsburg confirmation hearings, she was confirmed by a 96-to-three vote. She made history as the first female Justice nominated by a Democratic President and the first Jewish female Justice. Between the 2006 retirement of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and the 2009 ascension of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the Court, Ginsburg was the sole female Supreme Court Justice. As the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases beginning in 1984, Fauci advised six Presidents. He helped lead the U.S.’s response to HIV/AIDS (DCNOW’s endorsement of the 14th International Workshop on HIV & Women was mentioned on DCNOW’s blog on https://www.dc-now.org/post/dcnow-endorses-14th-international-workshop-on-hiv-women.) and later, coronavirus.

 

Coincidentally, on May 26, 2003, long into Ginsburg’s and Fauci’s public service careers but before they became household names, Yale University awarded both Ginsburg and Fauci with honorary degrees (Ginsburg, a Doctor of Laws degree and Fauci, a Doctor of Medical Sciences degree). During their lengthy and storied careers, both Ginsburg and Fauci have received other honors.

 

Late in their careers, Ginsburg and Fauci both were effective voicing their much-needed opinions against strong opposition. As part of the minority liberal wing of the Supreme Court, Ginsburg often was forced to use dissents to communicate her views in the conservative Court. She is known for her dissent in Shelby County v. Holder, which essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

 

The White House was concerned that Fauci would upstage and sometimes contradict then-President Donald Trump. Trump sidelined Fauci, the White House blocked Fauci from testifying to the House Appropriations Committee in May 2020, and for a while, the White House did not approve requests for television interviews with Fauci. However, Fauci circumvented these efforts to silence him. Aside from appearing on news shows, Fauci talked with celebrities on podcasts, communicating crucial public health messages.

 

Both Ginsburg and Fauci are well respected on both sides of the political aisle. People across the political spectrum have praised Ginsburg. After Ginsburg died, President George W. Bush said, “She dedicated many of her 87 remarkable years to the pursuit of justice and equality, and she inspired more than one generation of women and girls.” Former President Barack Obama remarked, “"Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought to the end, through her cancer, with unwavering faith in our democracy and its ideals. That’s how we remember her.”

 

Likewise, there has been bipartisan support of Fauci. In response to a question to name his hero at a 1988 presidential debate, then-VP George H.W. Bush said, “I think of Dr. Fauci - probably never heard of him. You did. Anne (ph) heard him. He's a very fine research top doctor at National Institute of Health, working hard doing something about research on this disease of AIDS.”  In 2008, then-President George W. Bush recognized Fauci with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor a President can give, for Fauci’s work in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In President Joe Biden’s statement regarding Fauci’s retirement, Biden wrote, “Because of Dr. Fauci’s many contributions to public health, lives here in the United States and around the world have been saved.”

 

Decades into their public service, late in their lives, Ginsburg and Fauci became pop icons/household names. They were similar in age to the ages now of President Biden and President Donald Trump. Ginsburg became a pop icon when she was around 80 years old after her Supreme Court dissents, especially her June 2013 dissent in Shelby County v. Holder. NYU law student Shana Knizhnik coined Notorious R.B.G. based on the Notorious B.I.G. Brooklyn-native rapper. Comedian Kate McKinnon depicted Ginsburg on Saturday Night Live. The RBG documentary and the On the Basis of Sex biopic focused on Ginsburg. Ginsburg is also featured on shirts, socks, mugs, and a bobblehead.

 

Although Fauci spent decades working on disease outbreaks, such as the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, he became extremely famous at age 79 only through the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. A Facebook Fauci fan club has had more than 77,000 members; at least 15,000 people signed a Change.org petition calling for Fauci to be the People’s Sexiest Man Alive; and a New York bakery made Fauci doughnuts. This public health expert is featured on socks, boxes, shirts, and a bobblehead. In just less than a week, Fauci’s bobblehead became the best-selling bobblehead of the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum in history. On July 24, 2020, Fauci threw out the first pitch before the Washington Nationals-New York Yankee Major League Baseball Opening Day game.

 

Both Ginsburg and Fauci continued to work far longer than the typical American. Ginsburg served as a Justice until she died at age 87 in September 2020. In December 2022, Fauci retired when he was 82 years old.

 

Meanwhile, the United States currently has its oldest major political party presumptive Presidential nominees in Democrat President Joe Biden (age 81) and Republican former President Donald Trump (age 77). Both made history when they each became the oldest ever to be inaugurated (President. Trump at 70 years and 220 days old, Biden at 78 years and 61 days old). As President Ronald Reagan was the oldest President when he left office in 1989 at almost 78 years old, Biden became the U.S.’s oldest President the very second he became President. In contrast, the average age of a new President is 55 years old. In November 2022, Biden became the first octogenarian sitting President.

 

Age has become an issue in the current Presidential election. When former Presidential candidate Nikki Haley (R-SC) launched her 2024 Presidential campaign, she said, “In the America I see, the permanent politician will finally retire. We’ll have term limits for Congress and mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old.” Many Americans have been extremely concerned about Biden’s and Trump’s ages.

 

American icons Ginsburg and Fauci should make us reconsider our ageist views of current presidential candidates.

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