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Washington has many secrets, which no one can keep. One of those secrets is the Senate, which is a Gerontocracy. In this system, age is currency. Longevity is strength. The average Senator’s age at the start of last year was just under 63. Seven members are on the other side of 80. The oldest is Dianne Feinstein, who is 88 years old.
This brings us to another secret that rarely stays silent: Once a dam is broken, Washington’s floods are swift and unmerciful. Yesterday, Feinstein was swept away by the floodwaters of the Colorado River as the Hoover Dam of Senate decorum crashed down.
Feinstein’s hometown newspaper, The San Francisco ChronicleThe Thursday report, which was published by the Associated Press on Thursday, is a damning assessment of her reputation as well as her perceived weaknesses in her current job. It has been held since 1992. Based on public events and anonymous sources, including three of Feinstein’s Democratic colleagues in Congress, the newspaper describes a series of incidents that suggest the veteran politician is, at best, a beat slower than she was in her younger, trailblazing years. Feinstein is portrayed as an old woman at her worst. Senators have now preemptively introduced themselves to Feinstein in order to avoid the awkward moment of asking their identities.
Everyone seems to be eager to share their stories once it is open season for a story such as this. They rush out of silence to whisper campaign and onto the streets to tell the tales that support the original crack. It’s hard to imagine now that it was a non-story when Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois—age 77—took over the Judiciary Committee in 2020 instead of Feinstein; no one then wanted to insult its top Democrat when she was quietly deposed. D.C. could become a vicious den.
Feinstein declined to be interviewed for the story, but she couldn’t stop it from ricocheting around the Beltway. Other news agencies were repeating the story on Thursday. Chronicle’s anecdotes or adding their own. By nightfall, Feinstein had called The Chronicle’s editorial board, defended herself, and declared that she would serve at least until her term ends in 2025, at which point, she will be 91 years old. In 2024 she has filed paperwork to run again. It is mostly a performative act, which allows her to fundraise modestly.
Washington rewards long life in an odd way. Since the mid-twentieth century, the Senate’s pro tempThis role was transferred to the senior most member of the majority party. Feinstein would take over the role next year if Democrats are able to defend their majority in this fall’s election, after Sen. Pat Leahy (82), of Vermont has retired. Or, if Republicans are able to pick up a seat, while defending their incumbent ones, the role as third-in-line-to-the-presidency would fall to 89-year-old Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. In succession, he’d be right behind Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States and Nancy Pelosi (82 years old). (Though Pelosi may lose the gavel after this fall’s elections.)
It boils down to this: The longer someone remains in Washington, then the harder it will be for them leave. If they wait long enough, they’re literally heartbeats away from the White House. Others refuse to leave. One cannot credibly claim that Senator Robert Byrd or Sen. Strom Thurmond, or Sen. Thad cochran wrote their greatest chapters before the end of their respective services. (For an absolute scorcher on Cochran’s ability, read Molly Ball’s legendary profile written at Atlantic(Before she joined TIME. Many aren’t rushing to recruit these high-octane octogenarians for their work as lobbyists. The lawmakers who didn’t cash out in their prime for jobs on K Street face uneasy retirements out of public life.
One final Washington truth that everybody knows is that women are subject to a completely different standard. Byrd is a West Virginia Democrat, and the Senate pro tempThe 100-year-old died at the office. He was still able to use simple hand signals for voting. Thurmond was also a retired politician, having reached 100k just one year before his death. Although he was never on the right side, his apparent declining abilities at the conclusion of his term earned him a lot of respect. It is important to note that he was not always on the right side of history. The New Yorker quoted a former Senate aide in 2020: “For his last ten years, Strom Thurmond didn’t know if he was on foot or on horseback.” He, too, died in the pro temp role but received a hero’s funeral.
A 2007 Politico story on Cochran, under the headline “Frail and Disoriented, Cochran Says He’s Not Retiring,” had this as the second paragraph: “The 79-year-old Cochran appeared frail and at times disoriented during a brief hallway interview on Wednesday. He was unable to answer whether he would remain chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and at one point, needed a staffer to remind him where the Senate chamber is located.” Cochran retired mid-term at age 80, and died a year later.
But Feinstein? But Feinstein? Chronicle and others are accurate—and not even Feinstein’s fiercest defenders are denying them—they come at an uncomfortable time. There have been enough public moments of her making mistakes to merit the reporting, such as repeating the same question verbatim at a hearing, delivering a eulogy for a decades-long friend without mentioning the deceased’s name, and praising the Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, a Republican, for running “one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in” for Justice Amy Coney Barrett—an assessment that sent Democrats groaning.
The Chronicle story concludes that “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 an accompanying editorial, the paper urges her Democratic colleagues to force the conversation. This may feel fair and appropriate but it might not be right. It’s worth remembering that Feinstein’s aging male colleagues were mostly allowed to leave the Senate on their terms.
For instance, Sen. Johnny Isakson had been serving in the Senate with Parkinson’s Disease, and no one seriously pushed him to leave against his will. The Georgia Republican’s health remained his news to discuss when he was ready. He didn’t disclose his diagnosis for two and a half years, in 2015.
Arizona Sen. John McCain’s more public fight with brain cancer brought a national conversation about the disease. It was the same as when Edward M. Kennedy from Massachusetts succumbed to the same terrible brain cancer a decade before. But when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in 2020 at age 87, it didn’t take long for liberals to rage that she should have retired when a Democrat held the White House so they didn’t lose the seat to a conservative.
Feinstein’s slowdown has been confirmed by no one else on Hill. Her side is now home to some of the toughest legislators. So legendary is her tenacity that Annette Bening portrayed her in a film about Feinstein’s persistence in investigating the CIA’s enhanced interrogation programs and producing what is widely called “The Torture Report.” But rare is the 80-something today who has the same edge they had in the mid-2000s.
But it’s also true that seniority remains, for the most part, the unwritten law of the Senate; longevity begets privilege. However, a juicy tale opens up for pile-ons and is not understood by anyone on either side of Atlantic. schadenfreude better than Washington’s insiders. These same clucking beaks should not forget that too much enthusiasm can make you look like a sexist. In that, Feinstein and her backers still have power, even if the Senator herself doesn’t always remember to deploy it.
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