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.