Rudy Giuliani and the challenge of aging well
On a phone call with The Atlantic late last month, Rudy Giuliani was very upset. "It is impossible that the whistleblower is a hero and I'm not," the president's personal lawyer said. "And I will be the hero! These morons — when this is over, I will be the hero."
The harangue was emblematic of Giuliani's escalating public appearances in recent weeks. In conversation with Politico, he suggested he may be assassinated. In a seemingly constant stream of television spots, he is at turns furious, petulant, conspiratorial, and downright confusing. It is often difficult to see how his comments could possibly benefit his client, President Trump; indeed, per a Wall Street Journal report, Trump is increasingly the only one who believes Giuliani is helping.
This public unraveling can be riveting. It is also deeply sad. Watching Giuliani spiral on yet another cable news segment, I can't help but wonder: Doesn't anyone love him?
Doesn't he have family who care enough to get him off TV? Isn't there someone in his private life who is more concerned for Giuliani, the man, than Giuliani, the presidential attorney-cum-perpetual outrage machine? Why has no one helped him to retire? Why has no one guided him toward a better elderhood? Why have his loved ones allowed him to become such a cautionary tale about aging well?
Rudy Giuliani is 75, which for a man of his wealth is a good decade below his life expectancy in America today. He appears to be extremely energetic, charging through a brimming schedule with far more intensity than I think I have ever had at any age. If his Twitter timestamps are any indication, he does this on remarkably little sleep. All of which is to say: When I speak of Giuliani not aging well, I don't mean he's physically incapable.
Nor am I suggesting there's an age cutoff for work or contribution to public life. Michelangelo worked on the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican until his death at 88. Albert Einstein likewise kept working right up to his death at 76, leaving a speech half-written. Our present political scene, which is so historically aged critics have dubbed it a gerontocracy, offers a plenitude of examples, too. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is 85, and in addition to serving as president pro tem of the Senate, he runs 12 miles a week, rising at 4 a.m. to do so. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), three years Giuliani's senior, just took time off for a heart procedure. Sanders has handled the age question well, focusing on the assets of experience and wisdom that can come with time.
And wisdom is central to what I have in mind when I consider how I myself hope to age. We all want to age gracefully, with dignity, value, and respect — but what exactly does that mean, and how is it accomplished? It is a project that requires active effort, I suspect, in no small part because ours is not a culture that handles old age well.
The advances of medicine have allowed us to prolong life more easily than to answer the question of how long life should be prolonged. (It is telling, for example, that many doctors opt out of "futile care" for their own terminal illnesses.) Our visual culture is fixated on youth, and the few exceptions — actress Betty White, for instance, or Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — who are celebrated for their age are too often treated as tokens. Plastic surgery is available if you want to avoid your own age; nursing homes are available to avoid the age of others. Even the physical design of many of our communities is unfriendly to old age: How will we handle the transportation needs of Baby Boomers aging in car-centric suburbia, neither walkable nor equipped with public transit?
Yet beyond all these practical matters of health, media, and infrastructure, it is the interpersonal aspects of aging that concern me most — and it is those which Giuliani's behavior brings to mind. "Even among the president's closest allies," reports The Atlantic in the story accompanying the "hero" quotes, "Giuliani is now the subject of scorn." Satirical ads in New York City's subway catch him in a wild-eyed expression and offer a phone number whose voicemail declares "the law offices of 'Crazy Rudy' ... specialize in back-channel deals, cable news appearances, and will work when drunk."
There is no deserved rest here, and certainly no respect. Giuliani is not invited on television to share his wisdom but to participate in spectacle. He is treated — and acts — as a pugilist and a sideshow, not an elder to be honored for his accomplishments or consulted for hard-won prudence. Though certainly possessed of his defenders among the president's allies and supporters, he is spending his late years awash in public disdain, more laughingstock than dignitary. His insistence that he is the hero, that he merits praise "as someone who has devoted most of his life to straightening out government," reads to me as some recognition of this circumstance and a desperate plea for it to change.
This is not how old age should be.
"Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;" muses the Ulysses of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. "Death closes all: but something ere the end/Some work of noble note, may yet be done/Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods."
I do not — perhaps cannot — know, yet, what form that work and honor ought to take. I am as subject to the characteristic errors and assumptions of our time and place as any of its residents, and I have not lived long enough to speak of old age from personal experience. But I do recognize in this televised chaos a sober warning. I recognize the sort of elder years I do not want, years bereft of the esteem, judgment, and character I hope by then to have earned.
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