The end of a lengthy political career is almost invariably sad, whether the final act is defeat, infirmity, or death.
Ted Kennedy and John McCain both fought valiantly in public to remain active senators despite the dire diagnosis of aggressive brain cancer. Former segregationist Strom Thurmond treated the Senate as a high-class rest home as he—barely able to recognize his surroundings—nominally served the people of South Carolina until he died in office at age 100.
Now, after 30 years representing California in the Senate, 88-year-old Dianne Feinstein is facing the same realities of inexorable decline. The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article Thursday bluntly headlined, “Colleagues worry Dianne Feinstein is now mentally unfit to serve, citing recent interactions.” The piece, by Tal Kopan and Joe Garofoli, reported, “Four U.S. senators, including three Democrats, as well as three former Feinstein staffers and a California Democratic member of Congress, told the Chronicle in recent interviews that her memory is rapidly deteriorating.”
The story cites a series of disturbing events, all with same theme: Feinstein failed to recognize longtime colleagues, constantly repeated herself, and was unable to follow the thread of policy discussions. But because Feinstein remains a symbolically powerful figure, even if she is shrouded in Bubble Wrap by a protective staff, none of the anecdotes and assessment were delivered on the record.
The Chronicle does quote positive assessments of Feinstein from fellow San Franciscan Nancy Pelosi, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, and California Senator Alex Padilla, who was named last year to the seat vacated by Vice President Kamala Harris. “I have heard the same concerns,” Padilla said, “but as someone who sees her multiple times a week, including on the Senate Judiciary Committee, I can tell you she’s still doing the job and doing it well.”
Well, maybe. But the Chronicle never would have run a story this explosive without intense internal debate and scrutiny of the not-for-attribution sourcing. And a sense of kindness, mixed with political expediency, suggests that no one wants to be known as the senator who tried to push Feinstein into retirement. Especially since Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum, died at the end of February.
It is telling that Los Angeles Times columnist Mark Barabak, who has covered Feinstein for decades, heard many of the same stories and came to a different conclusion. After the Ketanji Brown Jackson hearings at the end of March, Barabak wrote, “Like a lot of people who reach a certain age, Feinstein has good and bad days. She relies heavily on her staff, though the same can be said about many members of Congress.” In contrast to the tenor of the Chronicle article, Barabak believes that Feinstein should be allowed to finish out her term, which expires in 2024, in dignity.
In a political sense, in a 50–50 Senate, Feinstein’s stubborn determination to remain in office doesn’t matter, as long as she is physically able to vote. While, in theory, a Republican could be elected governor of California in November and appoint her successor if Feinstein had to abruptly retire, the Cook Political Report rates Gavin Newsom’s reelection as safe for the Democrats. And having reluctantly handed over the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, Feinstein is unlikely to have a moment as embarrassing as her gushing praise and hug of Lindsey Graham at the end of the 2020 rush-to-judgment Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Amy Coney Barrett.
Age has become an increasingly relevant issue as Congress (where Pelosi is 82 years old and Mitch McConnell is 80), as well as, yes, the presidency (Joe Biden is 79), resembles a gerontocracy. Even though Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, who was elected to the Senate in the 1980 Reagan landslide, is apparently as alert and crotchety as ever, he is tempting fate by running for his eighth term this November at age 88. The Democrats might have exploited this issue, except—in the latest debacle by the party that couldn’t count the votes in the 2020 presidential Iowa caucuses—favored candidate Abby Finkenauer has been ruled off the primary ballot for failing to submit enough petition signatures.
We have passed the point when a 72-year-old Reagan could defuse all rumors about his infirmity by quipping in a 1984 presidential debate against former Walter Mondale, “I want you to know also that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Since the Chronicle bombshell story is making the rounds, every sentence that Feinstein utters in public will be scrutinized as never before. If only Feinstein had recognized the inevitable aging curve when she ran for reelection in 2018, knowing that she would be 91 when her term expired. Instead, she weakly won reelection with 55 percent of the vote against another Democrat in California’s general election. Now the hope is that her friends and loyal staff can convince her to retire with honor. But in all likelihood, she will instead end her political career as another senator who stayed on the stage far too long for her own good—and that of the voters.