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Episode 21: American leaders, old as the hills

Episode 21: American leaders, old as the hills

Six former Insider colleagues unpack the data and debate over the country's aging leaders and our evergreen 'Red, White and Gray' project

I’m Darren Samuelsohn, and thanks for listening to The love, journalism Show. First time joining us? Please sign up to read love, journalism, my free newsletter full of insights, interviews, ideas and inspiration — and for podcasts like this one.

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From left to right in each row, former Insider journalists Warren Rojas, Walt Hickey, Nicole Gaudiano, Kimberly Leonard, Dave Levinthal, Darren Samuelsohn and C. Ryan Barber.

Mitch McConnell’s decision earlier this week to step down from Senate GOP leadership in November sets the stage for a potential generational change in one important seat of American power.

But the possible replacements for the 82-year old Kentucky Republican aren’t exactly Gen X or Millennial. The youngest of the recent names bandied about — Sen. Steve Daines, a Donald Trump favorite from Montana — was born in 1962.

By all accounts, America remains a gerontocracy, a phenomenon that my former team of journalists at Insider gave the deep-dive treatment a few years ago in a 30-plus part project we titled ‘Red, White and Gray.’

Our series started publishing in the late summer of 2022 and continued into the early fall. I’m proud of our epic effort, led by then-deputy editor Dave Levinthal, which involved the work of 40 different people.

If you never read our articles and explored all the stunning visuals, please do.

You’ll find investigations, explanatory reporting, historic interviews, polling, data, science and for the nerds amongst us there’s even a Dungeons & Dragons-style game that demonstrates how the American system favors seniority, incumbency, age, and on occasion, a bit of wisdom.

The work is just as relevant now as it was when we reported and then released it, maybe even more so given the 2024 election looks like it’ll be a rematch between America’s two oldest presidents at the time of their inaugurations.

Then-Insider deputy editor Dave Levinthal’s tweet thread upon publication of ‘Red, White, and Gray’ in September 2022..

Joining the latest episode of The love, journalism Show to talk about the project is an all-star cast of my former colleagues.

Levinthal, now the editor-in-chief of Raw Story, discussed how our work was a bit “before its time.” When we published, not long before the 2022 midterms, he noted Biden and Trump were not quite going at it the way they do now in criticizing and ridiculing the other for being something less than a spring chicken.

Nancy Pelosi, now 83, had not yet stepped aside as House Democratic leader and been replaced by Hakeem Jeffries, who is now 53.

“And then finally it was Mitch McConnell,” Levinthal said, “who took until today to say that he was stepping down from leadership. So in a way, this is a moment to…we can pat ourselves on the back at least a little bit to say that many of them were prescient and ended up predicting kind of the state of play in politics that we're seeing.”

Also on the show: Walt Hickey, a Pulitzer Prize winner and now executive editor of the media startup Sherwood. He helped pull and then analyze the data that showed both Congress and the federal judiciary have been getting older and at a much faster rate than at any time since our country’s founding in the late 18th century.

Hickey - who is also behind the D&D game — talked on the podcast about how his efforts ultimately helped convince Dave and me to pull the trigger on going big with the entire Insider project.

A show about America’s gerontocracy wouldn’t be complete without discussing the incumbent, 81-year old president of the United States.

Nicole Gaudiano, most recently my colleague at The Messenger and a veteran of the Biden beat going back to his Senate days, unpacked her in-depth look into why “Scranton Joe” thinks he’s never too old to be president.

Kimberly Leonard, now a Politico politics reporter, shared more about her examination into how the mind of an aging president is so much different than a younger president. Now the author of Florida Playbook, Kimberly also made the point that Sunshine State Gov. Ron DeSantis, at 45, could run for president for the next 30 years and still be younger than Trump or Biden is now.

C. Ryan Barber, now a Wall Street Journal reporter covering the Justice Department and courts, talked about his story written with Camila DeChalus (now at CNN) that delved into how lifetime appointments have made the federal judiciary older than ever.

And Warren Rojas , most recently a Capitol Hill reporter for The Messenger, makes his second appearance on The love, journalism Show, this time to talk about his story that put the spotlight on Congress and what it's like working for lawmakers “whose golden years are clouded by power struggles, rumors of senility, and constant second-guessing.”

“It was a good time,” Rojas said, “and a lot of people got mad at us for writing about it.”

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Perhaps what I loved most about the series from a journalism standpoint is how everyone on the politics team got a swing at contributing.

I admit this podcast would have lasted two hours if we brought everyone in all at once, so please let me give all a shout out here for all of their efforts.

Here we go: C. Ryan Barber, Camila DeChalus, John L. Dorman, Kayla Gallagher, Nicole Gaudiano, Brent D. Griffiths, Madison Hall, Hanna King, Jake Lahut, Kimberly Leonard, Bryan Metzger, Grace Panetta, Eliza Relman, Warren Rojas, Oma Seddiq, Dave Levinthal, Walt Hickey, Rhea Mahbubani, Elvina Nawaguna, Taylor Berman, Rebecca Harrington, Sam Fellman, Skye Gould, Jenny Chang-Rodriguez, Taylor Tyson, Annie Fu, Kazi Awal, Shayanne Gal, Tien Le, Vicky Leta, Rebecca Zisser, Rachel Mendelson, Marianne Ayala, Tyle Le, Anna Kim, Havovi Cooper, Simi Sadykhov, Tanita Gaither, Amanda Howard, Victoria Gracie, Tyler Murphy, Rachel Lupton, Jensen Rubinstein, Grace Lett, Hannah Williams, Kevin Kaplan, Nick Siwek, Emma LeGault and Jonann Brady.

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love, journalism
The Love, Journalism Show
A podcast full of insights, interviews, ideas and inspiration from Darren Samuelsohn, a veteran journalist who has been reporting and editing writers for 30+ years.