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For the second time in five weeks, the top Republican in the Senate abruptly went silent at a news conference.


This time, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to freeze briefly after a reporter in northern Kentucky asked whether he would run for reelection. He never answered that question, but these episodes, which have been largely unexplained, have raised concerns about an aging Congress, including in McConnell's home state.

MARTÍNEZ: Louisville Public Media's Sylvia Goodman is here to tell us more. Sylvia, so what happened yesterday?

SYLVIA GOODMAN, BYLINE: So Senator Mitch McConnell spoke at an event up in Covington, Ky., which is right across the river from Cincinnati, for about 20 minutes. And right afterwards, he went to speak to a group of reporters. They were asking questions. And as he was about to answer, he suddenly went silent. He seemed unable to speak. An aide stepped in, tried repeating questions for him, trying to keep things moving along. All told, the senator was silent for about 30 seconds. He eventually did tell his aides that he was fine. He answered a couple more questions before he was led away. McConnell's office said later that he was feeling lightheaded, but that he'll be seeing a doctor before his next event. But this is the second time this has happened publicly. At the end of July, he had a really similar kind of scary moment on Capitol Hill while answering reporter questions.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, that was five weeks ago. Now, other senators have also struggled with their health recently. I know California Senator Dianne Feinstein, 90 years old - there have been calls for her to step down after she was absent for months, missed dozens of votes. What's the mood like in Kentucky on McConnell?

GOODMAN: So earlier this month, I went to the annual Fancy Farm political picnic, which is out in rural western Kentucky. And this was right after that first episode. And many of the people I spoke with did bring up term limits. For example, Katima Smith-Willis said she thought it might be the only way to see more young people in Congress.

KATIMA SMITH-WILLIS: We are the future. We are the next generation. If we don't get in these seats and take these seats, we're not going to have a good state to be in. So definitely - we definitely need term limits. We need them expeditiously.

GOODMAN: And actually our other U.S. senator, Rand Paul, has proposed a constitutional amendment for congressional term limits before. A few years ago, he signed a pledge calling for no more than three terms for representatives and two terms for senators, although, of course, Rand Paul has just started his third Senate term.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, do McConnell's constituents and other political figures in Kentucky see his long years of service as a benefit?

GOODMAN: So McConnell was first elected to the Senate in 1984, and he's the longest-serving party leader in Senate history. Many of the people I spoke with at that political picnic did thank McConnell for his service and said he'd done a lot of great things for Kentucky. But some of them were ready for a change. Here's John Shindlebawer, who was there to support the Republican gubernatorial candidate.

JOHN SHINDLEBAWER: I appreciate some of the things he's done in his career, but we need somebody new. So, yeah, I'm ready for him to ride off in the sunset.

GOODMAN: And this is Gerald Morris, who usually votes for Democrats.

GERALD MORRIS: You know, after a while - you have to change tires on the car after 40,000. They've been in there 40 years. So, you know, it's time for a change.

GOODMAN: If, for whatever reason, McConnell were to vacate his seat, then that change is already decided to some extent. Soon after he wins reelection, McConnell advocated for a new state law, which took away a lot of the appointment power from the governor and gave it to the party of the vacating senator, although some Democrats are expecting legal challenges to that system.

MARTÍNEZ: Reminds me I got to go check the tread on my tires. Sylvia Goodman from Louisville Public Media. Sylvia, thanks.

GOODMAN: Thank you.


MARTÍNEZ: Across the Southeast, hundreds of thousands of people lack power. Roads are littered with storm debris and fears remain over the possibility of future flooding.

MARTIN: All this after Hurricane Idalia tore a path from Florida to South Carolina, tearing off roofs, snapping trees and turning cars into boats. And the full toll is still being calculated.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Bobby Allyn has been following Idalia from Lake City, Fla. Bobby, what can you tell us about the damage left in Idalia's path?

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Yeah, you know, it was pretty destructive, A. The storm came ashore along the northern Gulf Coast of Florida with 125-mile-per-hour winds. As it churned, the storm submerged small fishing communities underwater, littered roads with heaps of fallen trees, knocked out power for hundreds of thousands. You know, many of those people and businesses are still in the dark today. And, you know, while many evacuated, others rode it out, like Roxanne Welch. She watched the storm inside her brick home in Lafayette County, and she described it this way.

ROXANNE WELCH: Pretty crazy. Pretty shocking. We were watching from the front door and watching some things fall down. And then all of a sudden, heard a big crash on our roof.

ALLYN: And the big crash on the roof was a tree. Driving around this, you know, rural, woodsy area the storm tore through, there were so many snapped and knocked over pine trees everywhere. And it made getting around this windy backroads of this community nearly impossible. But cleanup crews have been working hard to clear debris, and tens of thousands of utility workers have been making repairs to restore power to the region. But still, A, it's going to take some time.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. Now, how deadly has Idalia been so far?

ALLYN: So far, not very, which is a huge difference from the last time a major hurricane pounded Florida - Hurricane Ian last year. More than 150 people died in that storm. This time, with Idalia, there have been three deaths linked to the hurricane. But what really spared so many was the path of the storm. It moved through what's known as Florida's Nature Coast, a region called the Big Bend, where Florida's panhandle turns into the peninsula. It's a sprawling agricultural part of the state full of wetlands and cattle farms. It's millions of acres of undeveloped land. So while the storm did buzzsaw its way through deep forests, it avoided heavily populated areas. At a briefing, Governor Ron DeSantis said it appears as if those who were in impacted areas really did heed officials' warnings to evacuate. DeSantis said search and rescue teams are finding that most homes they visit are empty.


RON DESANTIS: They've probably gone through about 70% of the areas that they need to to be able to check for people that are in distress. And, you know, so far, all signs have been positive.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. So they're starting to clean up, and they're continuing rescue efforts. What else are officials keeping an eye on?

ALLYN: Flooding. The storm dumped a tremendous amount of rain from Florida to the Carolinas. Some rainbands behind Idalia are expected today, so peak flood levels may yet to be realized. And it will take time for some of the rain that's already fallen to make its way through rivers. And the hurricane is coinciding with a rare supermoon, which is expected to further raise tides. So a mix of storm surge and high tide could prove deadly. So officials are urging residents to stay inside or to be extra careful. On top of that, the big focus is bringing power back, of course. Driving on these major roads and finding many non-working traffic signals is challenging and dangerous. So that lack of power is making everything here pretty chaotic right now.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Bobby Allyn in Lake City, Fla. Bobby, thanks.

ALLYN: Thanks, A.


MARTÍNEZ: All right, we go now to Africa, where political upheaval, for the moment, takes a back seat to a deadly fire in Johannesburg. More than 70 people have died in a fire in a rundown apartment block where authorities say people who were unsheltered had tried to find refuge. Now, to the north, in the central African country of Gabon, the latest coup on the continent has set off alarm bells in the region and beyond.

MARTIN: This script has become a familiar one after eight military takeovers in just three years - sporadic early morning gunfire, an address on national TV by military leaders, the house arrest of a deposed president after the coup in Niger last month. This time it's Gabon.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting inaudibly).

MARTIN: That was the sound of celebrations on the streets of the capital, Libreville, when the news broke yesterday. Until then, the same political dynasty had been in control of the oil-rich Central African country for more than half a century.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's West Africa correspondent Emmanuel Akinwotu is following events from Lagos, Nigeria. Is it likely that we're seeing a real change of the guard in Gabon or just a change of uniforms?

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Yes, for now, the military is being hailed, but mainly because it's the end of the regime. You know, Gabon is an oil-rich, biodiverse country. It's been governed by a single family since 1967, but with allegations of looting and misappropriation under Ali Bongo's government. You know, this is a figure who has several properties in the U.S. and France, who's in and out of the country. Before he was in government, he was a jazz singer actually, and he released an album in the 1970s. Then he entered politics, basically the family business. He took over power when his dad died - when his father died. And people in Gabon feel they've had far from the leadership they deserve. But at the same time, soldiers who launched the coup, they're implicated in the country's problems. You know, the military general and leader of the transition government is actually a relative of Ali Bongo's, and he's acquired properties in Maryland - paid in cash, according to corruption investigators.

MARTÍNEZ: How destabilizing has this latest coup been for the region and beyond?

AKINWOTU: Well, right from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, there's now a continuous belt of countries that are run by military governments. And now with this latest coup, there's Gabon. Regional leaders, especially in West and Central Africa, they've talked about contagion and this spreading. But they've not talked as much about the conditions that led us here. You know, Gabon had an election last weekend condemned by the opposition and many people in the country as fraudulent. And Gabon is not the only kind of dynastic regime in the region or the only country that have questions of legitimacy or in recent elections. You know, Cameroon has been led by Paul Biya. He's 90 years old, and he's governed for 40 years - over 40 years. And yesterday, they had a military reshuffle that you might interpret as trying to prevent this sort of thing from happening.

MARTÍNEZ: I know the United States has said the situation is deeply concerning and that they're watching developments closely. What are other countries saying?

AKINWOTU: Well, there's been a lot of condemnation. The African Union said it strongly condemned it and that coups aren't a way out of post-election crises. China have called for Ali Bongo's release and, of course, former colonial ruler, France. But it's awkward for different reasons. Firstly, it's clear that the condemnation that follows these coups is, to some extent, just shows how powerless these countries are to actually reverse them. And it's also awkward because on the one hand, this undermines stability as they see it. You know, but on the other hand, Ali Bongo was a controversial figure and he was elected in very flawed polls. So it's really hard to cast him or to cast this situation as a great injustice, even though the future for Gabonese people is still very uncertain.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's West Africa correspondent Emmanuel Akinwotu in Lagos, Nigeria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.