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The familiar horror of Dianne Feinstein’s decline

What’s happening with the ailing California senator echoes a painful dilemma faced by many families.

Senator Dianne Feinstein returned to the Senate on May 10 after a more than two-month absence.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

Of course Senator Dianne Feinstein should resign.

Even with the 89-year-old California lawmaker’s recent return to the Senate after a monthslong absence caused by a bout of shingles that was more serious than originally reported, calls for her to vacate the seat she has held for more than 30 years have gotten louder.

In a recent guest column for the Daily Beast, Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota said, “The senator’s health and mental acuity render her unable to represent her constituents and fulfill the responsibilities of her office. She — or those on whom she relies — must now decide whether to protect the senator’s personal interest or our nation’s best interests.” And he isn’t the only House Democrat encouraging Feinstein to leave.


Whether or not they’re ready to acknowledge it, those in Feinstein’s inner circle have reached the impossible moment when the car keys, figuratively speaking, need to be taken away. That public dilemma is an unenviable challenge privately faced by millions of families nationwide.

There’s a familiar horror in conversations about Feinstein’s obvious decline. Many already know that unforgiving place where a loved one can no longer live alone, can’t leave the house unaccompanied or, one day, looks at you and sees a stranger.

It doesn’t happen all at once. What starts as a slow drip — a forgotten name, the same story repeated too many times, an odd panic when the familiar suddenly seems alien — becomes a deluge. The excuses about someone “showing their age” or jokes about having “CRS” — “can’t remember s--t” — give way to an unyielding truth about the ravages of aging.

And when it occurs, these are some of the most anxious, confusing, and painful years of anyone’s life. But what’s happening to Feinstein isn’t just a family matter. It’s a roiling political calamity that stalled President Biden’s agenda.


Feinstein is uniquely charged with powers afforded to no more than 100 people at a time. Her absence left the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which she serves, hamstrung in getting Biden’s nominees to a full Senate vote. Her return helped clear the logjam. But in the hard calculus of American politics and with Senate Democrats needing every vote, her frailty has become a liability to the party to which she has devoted her life.

As the first woman president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, she came to national prominence when she announced the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the board’s first out gay supervisor, by Dan White, a conservative former supervisor, in 1978. Feinstein then became the city’s first woman mayor and, in 1992, California’s first woman in the US Senate.

“I have seen up close and firsthand her great leadership for our country but especially our state of California,” said Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, a longtime friend of Feinstein’s. “She deserves our respect to get well and be back on duty.

“I don’t know what political agendas are at work that are going after Senator Feinstein in that way,” she added. “I’ve never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate in that way.”

Pelosi may have a point. I can’t recall much public grousing from fellow lawmakers that Senators Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and, more recently, John McCain of Arizona should resign when they were battling terminal brain cancer.


But sexism doesn’t obscure the fact that Feinstein no longer seems capable of doing the job to which she was most recently elected in 2018. Nancy Corinne Prowda, Pelosi’s daughter, has been aiding Feinstein on and off Capitol Hill, sparking speculation that Pelosi has her own political agenda in keeping Feinstein in the Senate.

Feinstein has already announced that she won’t seek reelection next year but will “accomplish as much for California as I can through the end of next year when my term ends,” she said in a statement. Democratic House Representatives Barbara Lee, Katie Porter, and Adam Schiff have all announced their 2024 campaigns to replace her.

A month shy of her 90th birthday, Feinstein is the oldest sitting member in the oldest Senate ever with an average age just over 65. In her fragile state, Feinstein can no longer best serve her party, her constituents, or her legacy.

Part of that legacy now is Feinstein as a reminder that being of sound mind and body is temporary. Yes, she should resign, but speak with empathy about her decline. Someday you may be the one tasked with taking a loved one’s keys away — or someone will suddenly realize that it’s time to take the keys away from you.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @reneeygraham.