Ballot Box

Why Strom Won’t Die

If Democrats, who control no branch of the federal government, seem oddly complacent these days, it may be because they believe they’re holding an ace in the hole. Their secret weapon is the grim reaper. Strom Thurmond, the orange-haired Republican from South Carolina, is a none-too-nimble 98 years old. Lately, Strom has needed an aide on each arm to make it into the Senate chamber and has seemed more than ordinarily disoriented in committee hearings. Looking only slightly sprightlier is Strom’s Confederate confederate Jesse Helms, 79, of North Carolina.

The New York Times broke the taboo against talking about this morbid topic in public with a straightforward article on the subject a few days ago. Should either of these two old segregationists kick the bucket before the next election, a Democratic governor–either Jim Hodges of South Carolina or Mike Easley of North Carolina–will name a replacement. And assuming that the replacement is a Democrat, it would tip the balance in the Senate from 50-50, to 51 Democrats and 49 Republicans. In other words, hello Majority Leader Tom Daschle. And because the oldest Democrats, Robert Byrd of West Virginia (83) and Fritz Hollings of South Carolina (78), come from states with Democratic governors, natural causes promise no comparable opportunity for the GOP.

Word to the desperate: Quit praying. A survey of actuarial models and historical trends suggests that Strom and Jesse cannot be counted on to expire any time soon. According to data from the Society of Actuaries, the average 98-year-old man’s odds of dying within a year are a mere 29 percent. A fellow Strom’s age has a roughly 50-50 chance of surviving for two years, which would take him beyond January 2003, when what is presumably his last term will end. Strom’s current life expectancy, based on generic mortality statistics, is 2.5 years. He hasn’t released any medical data recently, but the longstanding fitness mania of the 1948 presidential nominee of the States’ Rights Party may make his odds even better than that. As for Jesse Helms, now raising money for a possible re-election bid in 2002, he’s in such good shape, statistically speaking, that his demise isn’t even worth thinking about.

Making matters worse, serving in the U.S. Senate, once a risk factor for premature death, now appears to be better for you than a steady diet of green tea and carrots. To observe the trend in action, check out this chart on the always delightful Political Graveyard site. From 1900 to 1910, 23 senators went to meet their maker directly from office. From 1910 to 1920, no less than 29 became late senators. In the 1920s, 26; in the 1930s, 23; and in the 1940s, 28 became bereft of life. But after that, the trend was straight downhill. In the 1950s, only 19 sitting senators began pushing up daisies, in the 1960s only 15. In the 1970s, only eight senators hopped the twig. In the 1980s, just three became deceased. In the 1990s, a mere four went the way of all flesh.

What explains the eclipse of the ultimate term limit? The most obvious reason seems to be that the average age of senators had stayed about the same–around 58–for the past 120 years, according to the Senate Historical Office. Meanwhile, average life expectancy in the United States has skyrocketed. A hundred years ago, the average male lived only to his 40s. Now he can look forward to seeing his high-mid-70s. A 58-year-old man typical of the Senate now has a mere 4/10-of-1-percent chance of buying the farm within a year, according to the actuarial charts.

But even fewer senators run down the curtain and join the choir invisible than demographic models would suggest. In a 1996 article titled “Leaving Office Feet First,” published in the learned journal Political Science and Politics, three academics from George Washington University examine this phenomenon. Historically, nearly one out of every 10 people to serve in Congress died in office. But before about 1945, there were more deaths in the House and Senate combined than there should have been according to mortality statistics–an average of 19 actual versus 12 “expected.” Lately, there have been far fewer deaths, about three per year versus six that would be “expected.” In other words, lawmakers are not only failing to move along the way they used to. They’re failing to move on at the rate they’re supposed to. (Click here to read another satirical academic article that plays off this point and here for the Monty Python dead parrot sketch.)

The Senate provides a small enough sample that its subnormal death rate could be an anomaly. But combined with the House, the numbers are large enough to be statistically significant. So what explains the phenomenon? Serving in Congress hardly seems like a healthy lifestyle choice, what with all the stress, the flow of hard liquor at fund-raising receptions, and those chicken-liver-wrapped-in-bacon things that can’t be good for you. What’s more, legislators, like musicians and baseball players, have an above-average chance of dying in airplane crashes.

The best explanation the authors of the “Leaving Feet First” come up with is the installation of new ventilation system and air conditioning in the Senate chamber in 1932. Maybe it’s the famous Senate bean soup. But what seems more likely to me is that congressional longevity has something to do with the fact that legislators are well-off financially and get top-quality health care. Moreover, thanks to medical advances against heart disease and strokes, stressful jobs now keep older men alive instead of killing them. I suspect these same phenomena also explain the gerontocratic wonder known as the U.S. Supreme Court.