Opinion | No Time Like the Present, Senator Feinstein

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By Gail Collins

Opinion Columnist

Dianne Feinstein is giving old age a bad name.

Of course, it’s painful to see Feinstein, who’s served in the Senate for more than 30 years, suffering from what commentators delicately call diminished mental capacity. She’s 89, in poor health and having trouble getting to work even when she’s really needed.

Feinstein has already announced she won’t run for re-election next year, but it’s time for her to set a good example and retire immediately. The country shouldn’t discriminate against older workers, and older workers shouldn’t insist on staying in jobs they can no longer really carry out.

“I haven’t been gone. I’ve been here,” she crankily and inaccurately told a reporter who tried to question her when she returned to the Capitol in a wheelchair.

The Judiciary Committee is at the core of this drama. The Democrats have a majority of exactly one. If Feinstein isn’t there, the Biden administration can’t get many judicial nominations through.

Which is delighting the Republicans, who are making no effort whatsoever to find a middle ground — like letting Feinstein take a leave from the committee with a temporary replacement. And Feinstein will not quit. So everything important involves trying to drag her in.

“She can vote, and she seems to understand what the votes are,” a Democratic senator told me defensively.

Not the way to end a career! Remember how Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s glorious reputation was clouded by her refusal to retire when she was dogged by a history of multiple cancers and Barack Obama could have appointed a replacement. When Donald Trump was in office, she vowed at 85 to be around “at least five more years,” but obviously that didn’t work out.

Very hard for younger people to comprehend the difficulty of the decision Feinstein is faced with, partly because they prefer not to imagine themselves in that situation. “When I’m 89 years old, I’ll be long dead. Trust me,” said Senator Jon Tester of Montana.

Tester is 66. Let’s see how he feels when he’s, say, 78. And meanwhile, thank him for a reminder that while he represents a state with 1.1 million people and Feinstein represents a state with 39 million, they have exactly the same Senate voting power.

Just always like to bring that up. But about age and politics ….

The Feinstein saga is promoting a growing ageism in some political quarters. Nikki Haley, a former governor of South Carolina and current presidential contender, has proposed a mental competency test for all candidates over 75. We are sure this has nothing to do with the fact that Haley, 51, is competing against Trump, 76, for the Republican nomination.

Hardly need to mention that President Biden is 80. Now that 44-year-old Ron DeSantis is in the running, you can bet you’ll be hearing a lot from DeSantis supporters about age, even though their guy sometimes seems unable to get his youthful brain to remember a stump speech.

Feinstein’s friends occasionally suggest calls for her resignation are simply sex discrimination. “I’ve never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate in that way,” said Nancy Pelosi.

But some of those old guys did give us excellent examples of sticking around too long. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was still a senator when he was 100. In his later years he had trouble hearing, and — let’s talk about people being unwilling to admit their age — he refused to use a hearing aid. After debates, his aides would just tell him how to vote.

“He neither smoked nor drank, did more push-ups and situps than many men decades younger and fathered children into his mid-70s,” said The Times in Thurmond’s 2003 obituary. “He was also known for fondling women in Senate elevators, including a woman who turned out to be a fellow senator, much to his surprise.”

Would you want to end your story like that, people? Under a headline announcing “Foe of Integration Dies at 100”?

OK, nobody wants to live to be Strom Thurmond. But one of the messages of his career was that the absolute must-do demands on a senator are pretty low. Your staff will take care of the constituents, and while there are always plenty of important policy projects underway, the only really crucial part of your job is showing up to vote.

Feinstein’s friends are hoping she can at least make that happen. But the uncertainty is sort of scary, giving the Republicans hope they can keep stalling Biden judicial nominations until after the next election.

Of course, since we’re talking about the current state of Washington politics, there are always other chances of creative roadblocks. People like Hillary Clinton are arguing that if Feinstein leaves Judiciary, the Republicans will just find a way to avoid replacing her at all.

There’s also the question of what Gov. Gavin Newsom would do about naming a short-term replacement. He’s already said it would be a Black woman, and there’s much talk about Oprah Winfrey, who’d certainly be more capable than a lot of folks already in the job.

To be decided. First, start planning a proper goodbye for Senator Feinstein, celebrating her many achievements on issues ranging from C.I.A. brutality to gun safety to the environment.

And if it happens now, we’ll also remember that she showed us how it’s possible, at 89, to have a vision for the future that doesn’t involve just hanging on to the past.

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Gail Collins is an Opinion columnist, is a former member of the editorial board and was the first woman to serve as the Times editorial page editor, from 2001 to 2007. @GailCollins Facebook

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