We Need To Talk About Dianne Feinstein
Sen. Dianne Feinstein speaks against the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, October 2020. Photo: Senate Democrats, Creative Commons License 2.0

Yesterday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that according to a number of anonymous sources in Congress, most of them Democrats, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has suffered very concerning episodes of memory loss, when she doesn't seem to be following conversations and seems not to recognize even longtime colleagues. The sources say they worry that Feinstein is increasingly unable to do her job without her staff handling almost everything, although she also has good days when she seems nearly as sharp as ever.

Given the absolutely bullshit attempts by the Right to smear Hillary Clinton in 2016, suggesting she was at death's door on the flimsiest of edited video (she laughed funny!), or the ongoing attempts to suggest that Joe Biden is senile because he occasionally makes verbal mistakes (the dude stutters!), it might be easy to write off the Chronicle story as a similar hit piece.

Except the anonymous folks in this case are people who've worked with Feinstein for years and say it's painful to talk about because they respect Feinstein and hate the idea of hurting her. The sources include "Four U.S. senators, including three Democrats, as well as three former Feinstein staffers and [a] California Democratic member of Congress," and what they describe sounds like far more realistic symptoms of memory decline due to aging, not fantastical stories of near-complete incapacitation. The sources

said that the memory lapses do not appear to be constant and that some days she is nearly as sharp as she used to be. During the March confirmation hearing for soon-to-be-Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Feinstein appeared composed as she read pertinent questions, though she repeated comments to Jackson about the judge’s composure in the face of tough questioning. But some close to her said that on her most difficult days, she does not seem to fully recognize even longtime colleagues.

Hit jobs tend not to reflect any nuance at all.

Update/clarification: The Chronicle also says the interviews took place before the death of Feinstein's husband, Richard Blum, in February, which I neglected to mention in the first version of the story. Grief can certainly play hell with everyday making sense of things, and it's entirely possible that even before his death, Feinstein may have been distracted by loss. I regret omitting that information, which may be relevant.

In the story's lead example, the unnamed Democratic House member from California recalled a recent meeting with Feinstein that lasted for several hours, during which the lawmaker said they had to reintroduce themselves to Feinstein, who appeared not to remember them.

Rather than delve into policy, Feinstein, 88, repeated the same small-talk questions, like asking the lawmaker what mattered to voters in their district, the member of Congress said, with no apparent recognition the two had already had a similar conversation. [...]

“I have worked with her for a long time and long enough to know what she was like just a few years ago: always in command, always in charge, on top of the details, basically couldn’t resist a conversation where she was driving some bill or some idea. All of that is gone,” the lawmaker said. “She was an intellectual and political force not that long ago, and that’s why my encounter with her was so jarring. Because there was just no trace of that.”

Feinstein has passionate defenders, too, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (herself the target of rightwing smears that manipulated video to make her seem drunk), who said she hasn't seen any hint of decline in Feinstein, with whom she worked to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. In a statement, Pelosi called Feinstein a "workhorse for the people of California" and said it was

unconscionable that, just weeks after losing her beloved husband of more than four decades and after decades of outstanding leadership to our City and State, she is being subjected to these ridiculous attacks that are beneath the dignity in which she has led and the esteem in which she is held.

For the most part, the people who spoke to the Chronicle expressed sensitivity to how hard this all is, personally and politically, because who wants to be out there saying California's senior senator is having cognitive difficulty?

The one exception was a "staffer for a California Democrat" who said that “There’s a joke on the Hill, we’ve got a great junior senator in Alex Padilla and an experienced staff in Feinstein’s office,” and frankly we hope they feel ashamed reading the story. It's a serious matter; you don't have to be mean.

Part of what's fucked up here, of course, is that if Sen. Feinstein were suffering from a physical illness that was making it difficult for her to do the job, there'd be none of this walking on eggshells: She could resign, everyone would wish her well, name a medical research bill in her honor, and celebrate her long years of service — especially her passionate refusal to let the Bush administration hide its torture program, and her outrage at the CIA's literal hacking of Senate computer systems in what appeared to be an attempt to cover up the details.

But since the Chronicle story alleges memory loss and possible mental decline due to aging, that's something nobody wants to touch — especially after the mocking, absolutely fake stories about Clinton and Biden. Hell, I'll be 60 in June and while I'm merely at the foothills of "old" (in attitude, I've veered between "old fart" and "twelve years old" since my 20s), the prospect of not remembering things scares the crap out of me. The father of a close friend had dementia, and it was clear how frustrating and frightening even the early stages of it could be for him.

In an accompanying editorial (which is paywalled), the Chronicle's editorial board reports on an interview with Feinstein yesterday, in which she said she has no plans to resign before her term ends in 2024.

“I meet regularly with leaders. I’m not isolated. I see people. My attendance is good. I put in the hours. We represent a huge state. And so I’m rather puzzled by all of this.”

If her legislative colleagues have doubts about her fitness for office, Feinstein said they have not raised those questions with her directly.

“No, that conversation has not happened. The real conversation is whether I’m an effective representative for 40 million people.” [...]

Though she largely denied suffering from debilitating memory loss, she admitted that she did fail to recognize the face of a member of Congress she spoke to at a recent event. She blamed that slipup, and others she may have made, on stress stemming from the prolonged illness and death of her husband, Richard Blum, who died from cancer in February.

“I’ve had a rough year. A cancer death doesn’t come fast. And this is the second husband I’ve lost to cancer.”

But even the tone of the editorial leaves a nasty, pseudo-clinical taste when it says that Feinstein "came off as diminished but lucid and responsive," or that it was "clear from our conversation with the senator that moments of clarity still reign." Ew.

It also doesn't help that any conversation about Feinstein's continued ability to do the job has to be political, and it'll involve a lot of people who aren't going to be at all shy about being far more rude than that snippy congressional aide. And sure, discussing a public figure and whether they should stay in office is far different from talking about a relative who shouldn't be driving any more. It's more distant, and rightly less intimate; Feinstein's actual medical care is her own damn business.

But the Senate — a legislative body consisting of old people, from its Latin root, which it shares with senior, senescence, and senility — is where the people's business gets done, and there have been plenty of very old senators who should have left office before they did, like Mississippi's Thad Cochran, who retired in 2019 but was clearly having great difficulty staying oriented years before that. By contrast, Robert Byrd seems to have remained mentally sharp, a downright eloquent orator even in his final Senate hearing when he was 92 and physically very frail.

This is where we wish we had some great wisdom about all this. The best we can come up with is that grief really can do a number on you. We'll note that the Chronicle says the New Yorker was reporting about Feinstein's difficulties some years ago; and we hope her close colleagues and friends will have whatever difficult conversation with her may be needed.

[San Francisco Chronicle / SF Chronicle (subscribers only) / Photo: Senate Democrats, Creative Commons License 2.0]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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