Dianne Feinstein during the Amy Coney Barrett hearings in 2020 (Flickr/Senate Democrats)

California Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein turns ninety in June. As the years have added up, her age has increasingly been a topic of general discussion, noted (depending on the observer) with pity, scorn, or ridicule. This is a hazard of growing old, compounded by doing so in public view and as a woman. She is not the first senator to serve past the age after which many people have retired from working life. But her return to the Senate in May from a lengthy leave while being treated for shingles has intensified the focus on her health and her ability to carry out her duties. Feinstein, guided through the Capitol in a wheelchair, looked as if she still remained in the midst of a terrible ordeal. She seemed not to know she’d been away from the Senate at all, and some of her answers to interview questions were confused. Her staff later admitted that she’d also contracted encephalitis—swelling of the brain—during her absence.

Feinstein has said she’ll step down when her current term expires, after the 2024 election. But should she retire sooner—say, right now? The question has been considered—loudly on social media, quietly but insistently in Washington—since at least the 2020 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, which Feinstein inexplicably characterized as “one of the best sets of hearings” she had ever participated in. That still rankles Democrats, who’d hoped to cast the expedited hearings as an election-year sham, and who have longed for a way to escort her off the judiciary committee. The whispers have grown louder with every misstep and misstatement that has followed. In April, California Democratic representative Ro Khanna became the first member of Congress to publicly call on her to resign. Other Democrats have since added their voices.

As the years have added up, her age has increasingly been a topic of general discussion, noted (depending on the observer) with pity, scorn, or ridicule.

Including Feinstein, there are five senators who are eighty or older. Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley turns ninety in September, which is when Vermont’s Bernie Sanders turns eighty-two. Minority leader Mitch McConnell is eighty-one, and Idaho Republican Jim Risch just joined the eighty-plus club. All have some time to go before matching Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina Republican who died in office in 2003 at the age of 101. Commenting on Feinstein’s already evident troubles in 2020, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer wrote that Thurmond was known by the end of his career “to be non-compos mentis.” A Senate aide told her that “for his last ten years, Strom Thurmond didn’t know if he was on foot or on horseback.” Prestige and perks, as a New York Times piece noted, make the Senate an appealing place to serve out one’s commitment to the public good. But how does the public benefit when its representatives show obvious signs of not being up to the job?

It’s a question that extends beyond the Senate, of course, with an octogenarian in the Oval Office and running for reelection, potentially against a seventy-six-year-old whose mental fitness has long been a major concern. There is no process for forcing a member of Congress to resign for health reasons, and as politicians serve later into life, that’s probably something worth addressing. What doesn’t help is the snark that masquerades as political analysis (old age makes for good material, and social media rewards mockery). It’s fair to call on Feinstein to step down; her condition has interfered with the Senate’s work and leaves Californians with less than adequate representation. But even so, her situation should be viewed with compassion. We might hope for the same if we’re lucky enough to get old one day.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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Published in the June 2023 issue: View Contents
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