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Dianne Feinstein’s decline is heartbreaking and difficult to discuss — but we can’t avoid it

The Senator is an institution in California, and she risks having an impressive legacy overshadowed by her refusal to walk away

Eric Garcia
Washington DC
Thursday 14 April 2022 17:24
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Last week, as the Senate was getting ready to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, I approached Senator Dianne Feinstein, the senior Senator from California, and asked her about the lack of Black women on the Senate Judiciary Committee, especially after Republicans’ aggressive questioning of the judge.

“I don’t perceive a problem,” she told me. That puzzled me, since the only two Black women Senators — Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and fellow Californian Kamala Harris — who have ever been elected served during her time as a Senator. So I pressed her.

“Well that’s it. And as the numbers increase this will happen. I really believe there will be minority people on the committee,” she told me. The answer, quite frankly, didn’t make much sense.

I thought about that interaction this morning when I read an article in The San Francisco Chronicle quoting other Senators, former staffers and a member of Congress who all said Feinstein, who is 88 and has served in the Senate since 1992, is now mentally unfit to serve.

And this discussion has been going on for a while. After Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, Democrats fretted that Feinstein, as the top Democrat on the committee, wouldn’t be up to the task of opposing Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination. Their fears were vindicated when she hugged Lindsey Graham after the hearing. Shortly after the 2020 presidential election, The New Yorker published a whole piece about Feinstein’s memory and its clear decline.

Many reporters on the Hill know that Feinstein is no longer the same person who entered office, and some don’t even bother asking her questions in the hallway. And in the cases when they do, she seems not to be on her game. When one reporter asked about California’s governor ending its indoor mask mandate, she said she didn’t know he did.

Feinstein is one of the longest serving Senators, and no doubt a pioneer. Before entering Congress, she served as mayor of San Francisco following the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in California. She led her city through the AIDS epidemic when scores of LGBTQ+ people were dying.

As a Senator, she authored the federal Assault Weapons Ban — which was part of the crime bill ushered through by future president Joe Biden — and as chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, she made public the report that detailed acts of torture committed by the US after 9/11. Feinstein’s elections alone would make her a historic figure. But her accomplishments make her an institution of California politics.

It is precisely her status as a national legend that makes her decline so difficult and so tragic to discuss. But shying away from doing so would be an unforgiveable error.

Let’s start by stating two obvious facts. First, none of us are doctors or medical professionals. The only people who can properly diagnose Feinstein or discuss whether she has dementia are her medical providers and her family. Second, the Senate is set up in a way that makes it nearly impossible for young people to win election.

The average age of a Senator this Congress is 64.3 years and many Senators — particularly men — stay in office longer than they should. Strom Thurmond, the segregationist Dixiecrat from South Carolina who filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957, served 46 more years in the Senate, switched parties in 1964 and retired in 2003 weeks before he died at the age of 100. It was well-known that his chief of staff, RJ “Duke” Short, ran his office in the final years. The Chronicle article implied a similar thing this week when it noted how Padilla was a great Senator and Feinstein had a great staff.

The main reason Democrats are stuck with Joe Manchin is that West Virginia’s long-serving Senator Robert Byrd — who got his political start in in the Ku Klux Klan but lived long enough to end up endorsing Barack Obama in 2008 — died in office. Democrats maybe would have another Senator to cancel out Manchin if Bill Nelson hadn’t run for another term in Florida at age 76. Nelson failed to do any kind of Spanish-language outreach, handing Rick Scott the seat instead. I caught Nelson, now NASA administrator, on the Hill the day of Jackson’s confirmation because “I got to talk to them and tell them about space.” Apparently it’s easier for him to get to Mars than Miami-Dade.

But that doesn’t mean Feinstein should stay in office just as long. The inevitable questions, given her noticeable decline, arise: What parts of her job can she no longer fulfill? Who in California is being failed by her perceived inability to do her job? Similar to how Nelson ignored Latino voters, how could Feinstein, who represents a state with more than 2 million Black people, see no problem with no Black women in the Senate? Does she really?

And this isn’t an ageist endeavor. Feinstein’s fellow octogenarian, Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa, is running for reelection and remains incredibly sharp; he operates his iPhone better than I do.

Perhaps the saddest part about Feinstein’s decline is seeing a once-great woman of politics have her legacy tarnished in this way. She accomplished so much for so many people — not just women and not just Californians — and that could all be eclipsed by her unwillingness to walk away. She had an opportunity to step aside in 2018 when she ran for reelection and didn’t take it.

Instead, she ends her illustrious career with multiple Senators admitting she can’t do her job, while her voters feel sorry for her at best or feel like they don’t have a Senator who is representing them at worst. Her refusal to retire on her own terms threatens to overshadow a career replete with game-changing accomplishments.

Contrary to what the senior Senator told me last week, there does seem to be a problem. And we absolutely need to talk about it.

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