A devastating New Yorker article raises serious questions about the health of 87-year-old Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, who, anonymous aides claim, struggles with remembering conversations and sometimes appears “out of reach” to her own staff.
As a senior senator, Feinstein remains one of the body’s most powerful members, influencing policy that affects millions of Americans, despite several incidents in the past few years that indicate a worrying cognitive decline. If the situation is indeed as tenuous as The New Yorker reports, with aides working to make Feinstein “seem normal” and concealing her condition from the public, Feinstein’s constituents — and the American people at large — have the right to know.
Sources close to Feinstein told The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer that the senator’s memory has noticeably deteriorated and describe her as “seriously struggling.” “They say her short-term memory has grown so poor that she often forgets she has been briefed on a topic, accusing her staff of failing to do so just after they have,” Mayer writes. “They describe Feinstein as forgetting what she has said and getting upset when she can’t keep up.” Mayer claims that sources describe Feinstein’s staff as having to cover up for her decline and “make her seem normal.” Background sources also claimed that the Judiciary Committee “has been hamstrung and disorganized” because aides try to get around Feinstein. “She’s an incredibly effective human being, but there’s definitely been deterioration in the last year. She’s in a very different mode now.”
There has been some speculation to this effect, notably after a hearing on November 17 in which Feinstein appeared to repeat a question intended for Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey twice, almost verbatim, without realizing it. Six days later, after video of the exchange went viral, Feinstein agreed to step down from her position as chair.
At the time, Feinstein was already under scrutiny for her handling of Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Democrats intended to cast it as unjustly pushed through by Republicans against the will of the American people; instead, Feinstein was overly conciliatory with Republican colleagues, notoriously ending the hearings by publicly hugging Lindsey Graham, thanking him for his “fairness” and for running “one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in.”
Mayer writes that Feinstein’s behavior prompted Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to have a series of “painful talks” with Feinstein. “She wasn’t really all that aware of the extent to which she’d been compromised,” a Senate source reportedly said of the conversations. “It was hurtful and distressing to have it pointed out.” Perhaps most damning is the fact that, as Mayer reports, Feinstein “seemed to forget about the conversations soon after they talked, so Schumer had to confront her again.” Says the Senate source, “It was like Groundhog Day, but with the pain fresh each time.” He compared the conversation to one in which a family member attempts to take car keys away from an elderly relative — except “it wasn’t just about a car. It was about the U.S. Senate.”
The article poses larger questions about the Senate’s seniority-based leadership structure and whether it gives too much power to octogenarians who are out of touch with their constituents — or worse, not fully equipped for the job. As Congress struggles to pass a second stimulus package in the midst of the worst economic crisis in history, Feinstein’s fitness is absolutely the business of the American people over whose lives she has enormous influence.
One quote from Mayer’s piece that circulated around social media said that certain aides “bridle at singling [Feinstein’s] condition, because declining male senators … were widely known by the end of their careers to be non-compos mentis.” The comment implied that Feinstein should not be held to a standard that hasn’t been applied to her male colleagues. But there’s a far more pressing concern than whether or not Feinstein is being treated unfairly. It’s that her fitness may be being concealed from her constituents. Her term doesn’t end until 2024.