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Mitch McConnell, 81, has served long and truly, but shouldn’t he come clean about his health?

Our senior senator is not getting any younger – and lately, evidence of that fact has become more and more evident. Bill Straub says it’s time for McConnell to be transparent about his health.

6 min read

It’s time for Mitch McConnell to come clean.

At 81, the Senate Republican leader is obviously slowing down and is, according to The Washington Post, using a wheelchair to navigate around crowds like those found at an airport. Now, for the second time in little more than a month, while fielding questions from reporters, McConnell seemingly suffered a mental lockdown. He abruptly stopped speaking and stared off into the distance, requiring an aide to approach him to inquire about his status.

This time the freeze, as it has been framed, lasted more than 20 seconds. McConnell ultimately regained his senses and was able to briefly continue his discourse in a manner best described as shaky. The incident, which followed his appearance at a Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Covington, yet again raises legitimate questions about McConnell’s ability to carry out his duties.

On Thursday, Dr. Brian Monahan, the congressional physician, declared that McConnell could immediately return to work, issuing a statement maintaining that the freeze might be attributed to injuries the senator suffered in a tumble last March – more than six months ago.

“Occasional lightheadedness is not uncommon in concussion recovery and can also be expected as a result of dehydration,” Monahan said.

But fellow Republican lawmakers, citing his obvious decline over the past year, remain wary about McConnell’s fitness. As is his practice, he has refused to discuss the nature of his obvious health issues. A statement released by his office said he “felt momentarily lightheaded and paused during his press conference today.” It was further noted that McConnell declared he is feeling okay and intended to visit a doctor.

But enough is enough. McConnell undoubtedly has problems, just like many folks his age. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. If, as he indicates, his health and stamina are such that he can continue to meet his responsibilities, why not ease the minds of his constituents and those who rely on him in the Senate by letting everyone know what’s going on? Otherwise, the speculation will continue. Concerns about McConnell’s health have actually been circulating for years, at least as far back to 2019 when he fell outside his Louisville home and fractured a shoulder, requiring surgery and relegating him to the legislative sidelines for several weeks. He eventually returned seemingly fit.

Then, in March while attending a fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in downtown Washington DC, a facility formerly owned by his nemesis, former President Donald J. Trump, McConnell tripped and fell again, suffering a fractured rib and, most urgently, a concussion which kept him from his Senate duties again for about six weeks. He declared during that period that he intends to remain as Republican leader at least until his term ends in January 2025.

Since his return, according to various reports, some GOP lawmakers have expressed concern about McConnell’s wherewithal. His hearing has declined significantly and he reportedly is not as involved in the give-and-take of intraparty meetings.

There have been accounts of other physical mishaps, falls that were not reported at the time they occurred. CNN revealed that in February McConnell travelled with a delegation to meet with Finland President Sauli Niinistö when he tripped and fell. It’s possible that incident occurred as a result of the lawmaker slipping on ice – which is not unheard of in Helsinki. Regardless, he didn’t appear to suffer any injury.

Then, in July, long after the Waldorf episode, McConnell fell yet again as he was getting off a plane at Reagan National Airport in the Virginia suburbs of DC. He returned to work that same day.

It should be noted that McConnell contracted polio as a child and walks with a slight limp, but he overcame obstacles associated with the malady and has served for years without a second thought.

To this point, despite the physical lapses and the concerns of his fellow Republican lawmakers, there is no hard evidence that McConnell, though well past his prime, is incapable of slogging through, although the recent bouts of incoherence are certainly a shot over the bow. He therefore owes the public an explanation for the series of mishaps that have plagued him, and attempt to set everyone’s mind at ease over the very odd and troubling instances where he simply appears to zone out.

And if it turns out that whatever is bugging him is having a serious impact on his performance, it’s incumbent on him to step aside.

McConnell has held the position of Senate GOP leader for more than 16 years, making him the longest serving leader of any party in the upper chamber’s history. During that time, he has emerged as, perhaps, the most consequential party leader since the 1950s when Democrat Lyndon Johnson, who, of course, went on to become president, held court. The word consequential, by the way, carries neither a negative nor positive connotation.

McConnell can’t possibly believe that he’s fooling anyone with these recent performances. The position of Senate Republican leader is not his to own. If he cares about his party — and the nation for that matter — and it turns out he’s suffering from an affliction of consequence, he’s duty-bound to hand the gavel over to someone else.

It also needs to be said that McConnell isn’t the only federal elected official who, perhaps, is hanging around by his/her sell-buy date. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-CA, is, at 90, the chamber’s oldest member and is, for all intents and purposes, an invalid who should be home in San Francisco instead of casting votes on Capitol Hill.

But her case is unusual and she remains in the Senate, ironically, to some extent, because of McConnell. Democrats would like to replace Feinstein on the Senate Judiciary Committee because of her delicate condition. Republicans, led by McConnell, are using Senate rules to keep them from doing so. McConnell is on record opposing the switch because it would speed up the process of judicial appointments that favors the Democratic majority.

In times past, given Feinstein’s infirmities, the opposition party, with respect to collegiality and fair play, wouldn’t force a sick woman to hang on to her position in an overt effort to grab political advantage.

If that doesn’t tell you all you need to know about Mitch McConnell, you’re not paying attention. Now he may, unfortunately, be forced to deal with his own health.

Truth be told, the U.S. Senate is the country’s most exclusive old folk’s home. The average lawmaker age is 65, the time when most working folks are thinking about collecting Social Security. Others, like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) at 89 – 90 this month – also are not, understandably, as sharp as they once were.

And there’s doubts about President Biden’s ability to do something as simple as, oh, run the country at the ripe old age of 80. He will be 81 during his re-election campaign and, if successful, will be 86 when his second term ends. Biden is not a doddering fool despite the claims of his political foes. But, like other senior citizens, he’s not as quick as he used to be and the polls indicate
that a majority of Americans are reluctant to invest another four years in him.

Frankly, that concern is understandable.

Odds are McConnell will retain his position and let his recent bouts of mental confusion go unexplained, hoping folks forget about it. It’s a strategy that could work – until it happens again.

McConnell is, therefore, like the proverbial man caught in a maelstrom, holding on to a life preserver for dear life. The Senate is the only thing he knows and the position of Senate leader is the only job he ever really coveted. His ego will keep him from retiring, even if it’s prudent because of his physical condition. And there’s concern that, should he step aside not only from the leadership post but the seat completely, that Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, might appoint a replacement from his own party, ignoring a state law that requires him to tab a Republican. Regardless, McConnell has likely reached the hunker-down stage and, despite any ailments, you won’t be able to pull him off with a crowbar.

There’s an old story McConnell has probably heard, and needs to be reminded of, about Charles de Gaulle, the WWII hero and founder of the French Fifth Republic. De Gaulle regularly surrounded himself with sycophants who were always available to assure him of something he was already quite aware of – that he was a great man. One time while riding in the back of a limousine, one of the sycophants reminded the general about his grandeur and opined that he was an irreplaceable man. The car was passing a cemetery at the time and de Gaulle waved his hand in its direction.

“The graveyards are filled with irreplaceable men,’’ he said.


Written by Bill Straub, a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. Cross-posted from the Northern Kentucky Tribune.

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