Wisdom of the ages

October 29, 2008, 11:00 PM UTC

This morning I read about the Democrats’ hush-hush plan to ease Senator Robert Byrd out of his powerful post as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Byrd is 90. What’s most interesting here is who would inherit his job: Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. Inouye is 84.

Age is relative, as they say. We’re living longer. Our minds stay stronger. And particularly these days, age may be an advantage.

Look around at who’s displaying major clout in these chaotic times. Warren Buffett is 78. The Berkshire Hathaway CEO has not only eased anxieties more broadly than any other single figure. He’s been the go-to investor for Goldman Sachs and General Electric (pumping $8 billion into these companies combined) and the go-to adviser for both John McCain and Barack Obama, as the candidates recently boasted. Trust me though, only Obama has tapped Buffett for serious counsel.

If Warren Buffett is the oracle of Omaha, then Carol Loomis is the oracle of Fortune. Carol is 79, has been at Fortune more than half a century, and by the way, talks to Buffett daily (click here to see Carol and Warren on video at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit). Lately we at this magazine are relying on Carol’s wise counsel more than ever.

And how about Joe Paterno. He’s 81 and leading Penn State to a 4-0 record so far. In a piece on NPR this morning titled “NCAARP? Old Coaches Don’t Quit,” sportswriter Frank DeFord noted that “JoePa” is among a crowd of old guys leading big teams to victory. “Sometimes these days, sports looks like an assisted living facility–or the United States Senate.”

And do you realize the age of that hotshot director with the new movie, Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie? Clint Eastwood is still the stud at 78.

Of course some oldsters are off their game, but at least they’re still playing. T. Boone Pickens, who blew out his 80th birthday candles last May right down the hall here in our Manhattan office, told Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes last Sunday that he’s lost $2 billion. “I’ll get it back,” he vowed.

Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone, 85, seems to be desperately scrambling to repay big loans. And Kirk Kerkorian, 91, has lost billions on General Motors and Ford . Kerkorian disclosed yesterday in a regulatory filing that he’s reduced his stake in Ford to less than 5%.

Alas, age has its detriments. Victory for the man who would become the oldest President in U.S. history is looking remote. An Obama win next Tuesday would be a vote for youth as well as change. But in an Obama administration America could get an octogenarian treasury Secretary. Paul Volcker, the 81-year-old former Federal Reserve Chairman, is a contender to take the job at least for Obama’s first year.

P.S. I ran into Caroline Kennedy at 6 a.m. this morning in JetBlue’s new T5 terminal at JFK. She was heading to Fort Myers, Florida for an Obama rally. She’s ever-youthful. How can she be 50?

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