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Opinion Is Dianne Feinstein still up to the job?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) speaks at the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson in D.C. on March 23. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Meetings at which attendees had to reintroduce themselves — several times — to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Senate colleagues who aren’t sure she fully recognizes them. A memorial service for a San Francisco official at which Feinstein failed in her remarks to mention the dead woman, whom she had known for decades.

The portrayal of the 88-year-old Feinstein in an article this week in the San Francisco Chronicle was devastating, painful and, from my own reporting, accurate. “Colleagues worry Dianne Feinstein is now mentally unfit to serve, citing recent interactions,” the headline read.

“Four U.S. senators, including three Democrats, as well as three former Feinstein staffers … told The Chronicle in recent interviews that her memory is rapidly deteriorating,” reported Tal Kopan and Joe Garofoli. “They said it appears she can no longer fulfill her job duties without her staff doing much of the work required to represent the nearly 40 million people of California.”

In a telephone call with the Chronicle editorial board after the story published, Feinstein proclaimed herself “rather puzzled by all of this.” “I meet regularly with leaders,” Feinstein told the board. “I’m not isolated. I see people. My attendance is good. I put in the hours.”

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This is not a new issue. Feinstein’s handling of the 2018 Brett M. Kavanaugh confirmation hearings — in particular, her decision not to alert fellow lawmakers to the allegations by Christine Blasey Ford — prompted a near-insurrection by her Democratic colleagues. Her performance at the 2020 confirmation hearings for Justice Amy Coney Barrett, including her post-hearing hug of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and thanks for “one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in,” was the last straw.

Under pressure from Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer, Feinstein announced she would step down from her position as the committee’s ranking Democrat. According to the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, that took “several serious and painful talks,” in part because “Feinstein seemed to forget about the conversations soon after they talked, so Schumer had to confront her again.”

Feinstein is the oldest sitting senator, but she is far from the only official whose mental acuity has been called into question. In their final years in office, Sens. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) were widely understood to have faded to the point where their senior staffs were essentially functioning in their place. The current Senate is the oldest ever, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), just three months younger than Feinstein, is running for reelection; he would be 95 by the conclusion of his eighth term.

So one question raised by the focus on Feinstein must be whether, as some of her defenders insinuate, there is sexism at work. I think I have pretty good radar for sexism, and I just don’t see it. 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.

Indeed, one theme in the coverage of Feinstein’s decline is how different she is now from the tough-minded Feinstein of days gone by. As the Los Angeles Times’s Mark Z. Barabak wrote in a sympathetic column last month about Feinstein’s performance at the Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmation hearings, “The widely admired pathbreaker who opened avenues for women in politics and the steely-spined lawmaker who took on the National Rifle Association to pass an assault weapons ban was nowhere to be seen.”

To the extent that there is differential treatment, the explanation might be less gender than ideology. Progressive Democrats long frustrated by Feinstein’s centrism are eager for a more liberal replacement.

The Feinstein story evokes broader issues: the unwillingness of so many who hold power to cede it voluntarily, with their identities and support systems so bound up in their jobs; and the inability of our political system, in the absence of term limits (which I oppose for other reasons), to deal with those unwilling to recognize when it is time to step down. In the private sector, a board of directors would find a way to shunt a senile CEO aside. In public life, the only effective mechanism is the voters themselves.

Which gets to the heart of the puzzle: How are voters supposed to know what’s up when an elected official’s staff works overtime to mask the problem? The instinct to do so is understandable. Loyalty to the principal is one of the highest values in political life, and your role as a staffer is to support the boss, not expose her. But this approach is also deeply self-interested. If aides in normal times are only as powerful as the official they serve, they can become extra powerful when the same official is no longer functioning.

These inherent tensions help explain the high turnover from Feinstein’s office in recent years. Covering up is not public service. At a certain point, it is the antithesis.