Back in the day, I worked for a United States senator who decided to retire from office in his late 50s. He didn’t have to. He was a very safe bet for reelection and had plenty of seniority, clout, and prestige in the Senate. Nor was he greedy and anxious to take a lucrative gig in the private sector. When asked about his decision, he said within my earshot, “I figured it was time either to get out when I could still do something else or stay here until I died.”
Many senators have chosen the latter path; there are currently seven octogenarians in the U.S. Senate. The oldest, 88-year-old Dianne Feinstein, has two years left to her fifth full term in Washington, D.C. Yesterday, her hometown newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, published a long article full of anonymous quotes suggesting that she may be “mentally unfit to serve,” as the headline bluntly puts it.
The piece can be interpreted — to put it even more bluntly — as an effort to push Feinstein into retirement, perhaps by some of the colleagues and staffers who chose not to identify themselves while recounting incidents of the senator having memory lapses and not recognizing old friends and associates. It’s very likely there are ambitious politicians back in California who would prefer to compete for a gubernatorial appointment to an open Senate seat rather than running for the position in 2024, when no one believes Feinstein will run again. The Chronicle notes that the Senate can expel members via a two-thirds vote, though this process has been used to get rid of only 15 senators, “one for treason and 14 for supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War.” Feinstein’s alleged doddering, even if it’s gotten pretty bad, is hardly a dire threat to national security, so expulsion seems unlikely. The idea is to shame her into stepping down voluntarily.
The “She’s losing it” talk has been going on for a while. Feinstein defended herself in a March 28 statement to the Chronicle, in which she referred to her husband’s recent illness and death — the sort of events that would affect anyone of any age. “The last year has been extremely painful and distracting for me, flying back and forth to visit my dying husband who passed just a few weeks ago,” she said. “But there’s no question I’m still serving and delivering for the people of California, and I’ll put my record up against anyone’s.”
In a call with Chronicle editorial board leaders after the story was published, Feinstein defended her job performance again. She said no one has raised these concerns with her directly, and she plans to serve out the rest of her term.
I do not, thank God, still live in Washington, so I am not privy to the gossip that might clarify the extent of the disabilities afflicting the very senior senator from California. But my gut reaction is to defend her right to end her career on her own terms so long as she is still showing up for work. As the Chronicle piece concedes, her very experienced staff is capable of doing most of the analytical and constituent-services work expected of her. She’s already given up her chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee. These days, Senate-floor action mostly involves either noncontroversial or party-line votes and performative debates.
But here’s the real rub: In 2018, Feinstein’s last reelection campaign, her age was a major issue. I personally voted against her twice because I thought it was time for her to hang it up. She had a perfectly capable Democratic opponent in then–state Senate Majority Leader Kevin de León, who won the endorsement of the state Democratic Party. De León had the benefit of youth and party backing, and he was a particular favorite of progressive activists who had come to loathe Feinstein on ideological grounds. Yet in the general election (which under California’s top-two system featured both the leading Democrats), the 85-year-old incumbent won by more than 900,000 votes even though de León won 59 percent of Republicans. Voters had every opportunity to retire Feinstein. They didn’t.
The odd coalition opposing Feinstein in 2018 offers a good clue about the widespread calls in California and Washington for her to go away. She has few fans these days. Republicans cannot stand her on multiple grounds but principally deplore her long identification with the cause of gun control. The Democratic left may dislike her even more for her alleged chronic centrism and anachronistic embrace of bipartisanship.
It’s interesting that the Chronicle piece features a photo of Feinstein embracing Lindsey Graham at the end of the 2020 Judiciary Committee hearings on Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court. It was an infamous moment for her progressive critics. One of my New York colleagues commented that the hug spurred “blood-red outrage streaming into my face.” Certainly, it was a very bad look for any Democrat at that moment. But was it a sign of mental decline? That’s not at all clear.
Look, I can’t stand the thought of affectionate personal contact with Graham either, though like the South Carolina senator, I’m from a part of the country where you can hug someone hatefully (bless his heart!). But their embrace doesn’t quite meet the bar for treasonous conduct that has justified expulsions in the past. If there is evidence that Feinstein’s condition makes her a very real danger to herself or others, bring it on. But otherwise, let her leave office in 20 months or before that if she so chooses. Maybe some of the faux concern being directed toward Feinstein should be redirected to Iowa senator Chuck Grassley, who is less than three months younger than her and is running for an eighth six-year term as we speak.
In an era of longer life spans, it’s no longer easy to know the line between old and too old. In 2024, the odds are good that we’ll have a presidential contest between an 81-year-old incumbent and a 78-year-old rival, and the winner will once again have access to the nuclear codes. Nobody is giving Feinstein the nuclear codes. Yes, as the Chronicle notes, she’s in line to become president pro tempore of the Senate if Democrats maintain control of the chamber. That would put her third in the order of presidential succession, behind the vice-president and the Speaker of the House. But in 232 years, no one other than a vice-president has ascended to the presidency through the line of succession. And if the republic could survive Strom Thurmond’s 12 years as president pro tempore, ending when he was 98, a couple of years of Feinstein in that post is hardly alarming.
We can all complain about having a gerontocracy (I’ve done it myself) and watch for some old pol to slip and fall or have a senior moment at the microphone, like kids chortling over Uncle Bobby falling asleep at the Thanksgiving table. But personally, I’ve known U.S. senators who were young and vigorous and dumb as a post and who had the attention span of a gnat. Barring some clear and attributed evidence of misconduct or dangerous behavior, we shouldn’t act like old folks are spoiling some lofty senatorial atmosphere of sparkling repartee and high-minded service. So let’s leave the forced-retirement moves to voters and let old folks shuffle off to the rest home when they are ready.
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