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The double standard of reactions to Dianne Feinstein’s age

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Washington is a place full of secrets that no one keeps. The first is that the Senate is a gerontocracy, where age is commonplace and longevity is strength; when the 116th Congress began last year, the average age of senators was just under 63. There are seven members on the other side of the 80s, including its oldest member, Dianne Feinstein, 88.

Which brings us to a second secret that rarely stays hidden: once a dam breaks, flooding in Washington comes swiftly and mercilessly. And yesterday, the Hoover Dam of Senate decorum crashed into the Colorado River, sweeping away the civilized silence around Feinstein.

Feinstein’s hometown newspaper, The San Francisco the Chronicle, released a damning report on Thursday about her reputation and perceived shortcomings in her job, which she has held since 1992. Based on public events and unnamed sources, including three of Feinstein’s Democratic colleagues in Congress, the newspaper describes a string of incidents that suggest the veteran politician is, at best, a beat slower than she was in her younger pioneer years. At worst, the story casts Feinstein as an elderly woman well past her prime, so much so that senators now preemptively introduce themselves to Feinstein to spare him the awkward moment of having to ask for their identity.

Once the season opens on a story like this, everyone seems eager to jump in, rushing out of their silence or public square whispering campaigns to shout out stories that confirm the initial crack. It’s hard to imagine now that it wasn’t a story when 77-year-old Illinois Senator Dick Durbin took over the Judiciary Committee in 2020 from Feinstein; no one then wanted to insult his Democratic leader when she was quietly dismissed. But DC can become a vicious lair.

Feinstein declined to be interviewed for the story, but she couldn’t help but ricochet around the ring road. On Thursday, other news outlets were repeating either The the Chronicleanecdotes or adding their own. As night fell, Feinstein had called The the Chronicle, defended herself and said she would serve at least until the end of her term in 2025, when she will be 91 years old. She has already filed the paperwork to run again in 2024, a mostly performative act that allows her to continue raising meager funds.

But Washington, in its perverse way, often rewards longevity. Since the middle of the 20th century, the Senate temp worker role was given to the most senior member of the majority party. If Democrats can defend their majority this fall, that role would pass to Feinstein next year after Sen. Pat Leahy, 82, of Vermont retires. Or, if Republicans are able to clinch a seat, while defending their incumbents, the role of third in line for president would go to 89-year-old Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. He would come behind Vice President Kamala Harris and 82-year-old House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the line of succession. (Although Pelosi could lose the hammer after the election this fall.)

Simply put: the longer a person stays in Washington, the harder it is for them to leave. If they wait long enough, they are literally heartbeats away from the White House. Some simply refuse to come out. No one can credibly claim that Senator Robert Byrd, Senator Strom Thurmond or Senator Thad Cochran were writing their best chapters at the end of their services. (For an absolute scorcher on Cochran’s ability, read Molly Ball’s legendary profile written at Atlantic before she joined TIME.) Few are rushing to hire these once high-octane octogenarians as lobbyists. Lawmakers who didn’t pay in their prime for jobs on K Street face tough retirements from public life.

Which brings up one last Washington secret that everyone knows: women are held to a different standard. Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia and the Senate temp worker, who died in office at the age of 100; in the end, he voted with simple hand signals. Thurmond, too, retired just a year before his death at 100k. While not always on the good side of history, he mostly got a pass for his obviously declining ability at the end of his term. Like the new yorker quoted a former Senate aide in 2020: “In his last ten years, Strom Thurmond didn’t know whether he was on foot or on horseback. He too died in the temp worker role but received a hero’s funeral.

And a 2007 Politics The article on Cochran, under the headline “Fragile and disoriented, Cochran says he’s not retiring”, had this as the second paragraph: “Cochran, 79, appeared frail and sometimes disoriented during a brief interview in the hallway on Wednesday. He was unable to answer whether he would remain chairman of the appropriations committee and at one point needed a staff member to remind him where the Senate Hall Cochran retired mid-term at age 80 and died a year later.

But Feinstein? If the scenes reported by The the Chronicle and others are accurate – and even Feinstein’s fiercest defenders don’t deny them – they come at an uncomfortable time. There were enough public moments when she made mistakes to merit reporting, such as repeating the same question verbatim during a hearing, delivering a eulogy for a friend of decades without mentioning the name of the deceased, and congratulating the Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, a Republican, for leading “one of the best hearings I’ve been on” for Judge Amy Coney Barrett – an assessment that had Democrats groaning.

the the Chronicle The story concludes that “it seems she can no longer perform her duties without her staff doing much of the work necessary to represent California’s nearly 40 million people.” In an accompanying editorial, the newspaper urges fellow Democrats to force the conversation. It can be appropriate, without necessarily feeling right. It should be recalled that Feinstein’s aging male colleagues were mostly allowed to leave the Senate on their terms.

For example, Senator Johnny Isakson had served in the Senate with Parkinson’s disease, and no one seriously pressured him to leave against his will. The Georgia Republican’s health remained his news to discuss when he was ready. He did not disclose his diagnosis for two and a half years, in 2015.

Arizona Senator John McCain’s more public battle with brain cancer has sparked a national conversation about the disease. The same when Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts died a decade earlier of the same hellish brain cancer. But when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in 2020 at the age of 87, it didn’t take long for liberals to rage that she should have retired while a Democrat held the House. Blanche so as not to lose the seat to a Conservative.

No one on the Hill has so far denied that Feinstein slowed down. She is no longer among the fiercest lawmakers on her side of the Capitol. His tenacity is so legendary that Annette Bening portrayed him 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 few of today’s octogenarians have the same advantage they had in the mid-2000s.

But it is also true that seniority remains, for the most part, the unwritten law of the Senate; longevity begets privilege. But a juicy story opens the door to stacking, and no one on this side of the Atlantic understands schadenfreude better than Washington insiders. Still, those same giggling beaks would do well to remember that showing too much joy land can save you from a poorly worded observation and prevent you from acting like a sexist. In this, Feinstein and his followers still have the power, even if the senator herself doesn’t always remember to deploy it.

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Write to Philip Elliott at [email protected]


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