This week should settle the question of whether California Sen. Dianne Feinstein gets so much attention for her age and mental acuity, or lack thereof, only because she’s a woman, after years in which the Senate club shielded its enfeebled men.
It was a bad week for the Senate’s gerontocracy, when both Feinstein, 90, and 81-year-old Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader, inadvertently demonstrated their dubious fitness for office. A flummoxed Feinstein had to be repeatedly prompted to say “aye” in a committee meeting. McConnell froze for half a minute talking to reporters. And videos of the alarming, cringe-worthy, poignant moments on Wednesday inevitably went viral
McConnell got the most attention and continues to do so, for good reason. It’s been years since Feinstein wielded the power and influence of the dynamic committee chair she once was. McConnell is the longest serving Senate party leader since the position evolved in the late 1800s, and he’s continued to wield his power to an unrivaled extent.
Think only of his norms-busting abuse of the Senate’s confirmation power: McConnell stunned even Republicans by barring President Obama from filling a Supreme Court seat, then muscling through three of President Trump’s nominees by some of the narrowest votes in history to produce a 6-3 right-wing supermajority on the nation’s highest court.
Since McConnell arrived in the Senate in 1985, I never doubted he would be one of a too-long line of senators who had to be carried out in a proverbial box. He’s addicted to power and prestige (he’s not unique in that). But nearly 40 years later, he’s also much diminished.
On Friday, his office — like Feinstein’s, so stingy with information about the senator’s condition — issued a statement that McConnell will finish his term as minority leader through 2024. It did not say whether he’d seek an eighth six-year term in 2026. Feinstein has insisted she will serve out her term through next year, and then she’ll retire.
Inevitably all this redounds to our octogenarian president, Joe Biden, and to a lesser extent, former President Trump, who at 77 is just three years younger. McConnell himself drew a parallel with Biden when he joked that he’d been “sandbagged,” echoing Biden’s quip after he recently fell over an obstruction after a commencement address.
That projection is what makes the videos of Feinstein and McConnell so jarringly resonant: Imagine if a president were captured on camera so clearly addled. A rattled nation would demand more information about his or her underlying condition — not the kind of bare bones, incomplete and even misleading stuff we get from Feinstein and McConnell.
Republicans like to falsely describe Biden as senile, but his stammers and gaffes are hardly what we saw from the two senators. It seemed almost voyeuristic to watch their distress. Yet it’s also maddening, given that either might have — should have — retired before now.
Past generations of geriatric senators weren’t so readily caught on tape. But this is 2023 and it’s all viewable, in excruciating detail.
When a clerk in the Senate Appropriations Committee began the roll call of senators to vote on a defense bill, there was five seconds of silence after she called “Feinstein.” Then Feinstein said only “Umm.” Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, sitting next to her, prompted, “Say aye.”
Feinstein said only, “Yeah. Uh.” Again, Murray told her, “Just say aye.” Instead, Feinstein read a prepared statement about the bill until an aide came and whispered in her ear. Poor Murray, the committee chair, tried a third time: “Just say aye.” Finally Feinstein snapped to, loudly saying “Aye!”
Watching it, you can almost feel the relief in the room. Yet later at the meeting, Feinstein again had to be corrected when she voted against a measure that she supported.
McConnell that day came to a mic outside the Senate chamber to update reporters on the legislative state of play, as is routine. But he stopped mid-sentence and for 32 seconds stared ahead, never blinking, lips clenched. He didn’t react when Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst grabbed his arm and asked, “Are you good, Mitch?”
Finally McConnell, plainly disoriented, turned toward Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso when Barrasso suggested they go to McConnell’s office. Several minutes later, McConnell returned to the press pack. “I’m fine,” is all he said about the mystery, then and since.
For both McConnell and Feinstein, these weren’t their first health scares. Feinstein was MIA from the Senate for months this year with a case of shingles; it took the New York Times to report she’d also had encephalitis. In the closely divided Senate, her absence forced Democrats to delay confirmation of some Biden judicial nominees. When she finally returned, she was in a wheelchair and once insisted to a reporter that she hadn’t been gone: “I’ve been here. I’ve been voting.”
McConnell likewise was absent for six weeks after he fell at a private Washington dinner in March, suffering a concussion and broken rib. Now we know, again thanks to the media, that he fell at least two other times this year — disembarking from a plane on July 14 and, in February, getting out of a car in Helsinki on his way to meet with the Finnish president.
Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 83, on TV recently defended the oldsters — “Age is relative” — and Biden in particular: “He’s a kid to me.”
But here’s the difference when its comes to Feinstein and McConnell: Pelosi stepped aside from her vaunted position. She should be the role model.