The weekend brought even more press attention to Senator Dianne Feinstein and her reported cognitive decline. And some are suggesting that laying open this open secret to the public is sexist at its core, because other octogenarian (and older!) male senators stayed in office even longer despite rumors of their mental declines — and don't Senate staffers do most of the work for most senators anyway?
It's been four days since the Chronicle dropped its semi-bombshell investigative report, which cited interviews with four current senators, one current Democratic member of the House, and three former Feinstein staffers who all confirmed that Feinstein's mental fitness has slipped in recent years. And the House member, who represents California, said they had to reintroduce themselves to Feintstein several times over several hours during a recent meeting, despite having worked with her for years.
We know it's been at least two years that Feinstein likely hasn't been at the top of her game — and how can we forget how it was Feinstein who puzzlingly chose not to tell colleagues about the allegations made first to her office in 2018 by Christine Blasey Ford about Justice Brett Kavanaugh assaulting her as a teenager? The New Yorker covered several public missteps by Feinstein in December 2020, not long after she embarrassingly praised the proceedings of the Amy Coney Barrett hearings.
But at nearly 89 years old, Feinstein is just a few months older than the second-oldest senator, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and no one is harping is about his mental fortitude — in fact, he's regularly the subject of public praise for his physical fitness. Grassley is running for reelection this year, which would mean he'll be 95 by the time he finishes his next term, assuming he wins.
Several pieces including this one for the Atlantic point to the cases of Strom Thurmond, who spent 48 years in the Senate and retired at the age of 100 a months shy of his death, and Robert Byrd, who served in the Senate for over 51 years until his death at age 92 in 2010. Both were said to be mentally in decline toward the ends of their tenures, but neither was called out about it particularly publicly while they were still alive.
The Atlantic several years ago suggested that Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran might be experiencing some cognitive decline, and he ultimately retired in 2018 amid those rumors, and he died a year later.
The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus pushes back on the sexism argument, saying, "I think I have pretty good radar for sexism, and I just don’t see it." She continues, "Times have changed since the deficits of Thurmond and Byrd were ignored; I suspect they now would be subjected to the same kind of scrutiny Feinstein is facing."
MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell tweeted not long after the Chronicle piece dropped, "I understand concerns about Dianne Feinstein but read whispers about her in this Senate context: at least 50 senators are 100% dependent on staff, most senators are over 90% dependent on staff & Strom Thurmond died in office in 2003 at age 100 long after obvious mental decline."
But if Feinstein was still relatively fit when she sought reelection in 2018, and things have declined since then, should voters not be able to express some urgent desire to see someone more fit — if less experienced — take over for the remainder of her six-year term?
The Week writes that Feinstein has a "Ginsburg problem," likening her unwillingness to retire to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose decision could lead to decades of a conservative-leaning Supreme Court. And they write that America in general has a gerontocracy problem, now that the average age in the Senate is 64, and our President is nearing age 80 and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 82.
Los Angeles Times columnist Mark Barabak, who has covered Feinstein for decades, chimed in last week as well, saying he'd heard many of the same stories, but he thinks Feinstein should be allowed to finish out her term in dignity, as other elder senators have done.
But if the Democrats maintain Senate control after November, that would make Feinstein — the longest-serving member of the majority party — president pro tempore of the chamber, and third in line for the U.S. presidency. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has already had to ask Feinstein to give up her leadership role as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee after the Barrett mess. Should she really be president pro tempore? (The Senate could also choose not to make her president pro tempore, as the tradition about longest-serving members taking the job only goes back to the 1980s.
Top image: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) walks through the Senate subway before a lunch meeting with Senate Democrats at the U.S. Capitol on February 15, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)