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A worrying phone call adds to concerns about Sen. Dianne Feinstein's cognitive health

Sen. Dianne Feinstein listens to Senate testimony on Capitol Hill on May 11.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP via Getty Images
Sen. Dianne Feinstein listens to Senate testimony on Capitol Hill on May 11.

Journalist Rebecca Traister set out to write a profile of the oldest sitting U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein of California, who turns 89 on June 22. And while Traister's feature piece does center on Feinstein's long and storied career, it also evokes questions about the senator's cognitive health.

NPR's All Things Considered spoke with Traister, a writer for The Cut, about a worrying call she had with Feinstein two days after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

"It felt to me to be deeply disconnected from the very urgent and chilling realities that we are very much in the midst of," Traister said on All Things Considered.

Traister had that 30-minute phone conversation with Feinstein in the course of her reporting for her feature piece, titled "Dianne Feinstein, the Institutionalist." She wrote:

Nothing she said suggested a deterioration beyond what would be normal for a person her age, but neither did it demonstrate any urgent engagement with the various crises facing the nation. ... Every question I asked — about the radicalization of the GOP, the end of Roe, the failures of Congress — was met with a similar sunny imperviousness, evincing an undiminished belief in institutional power that may in fact explain a lot about where Feinstein and other Democratic leaders have gone wrong.

With the U.S. grappling with various crises and at a tense political moment with the expected overturning of Roe v. Wade, the optimism felt out of place.

Traister made it clear that she was not making any definitive comments on Feinstein's cognitive health, nor does she feel qualified to do so. However, she is not the first person to make observations about Feinstein's cognitive health.

A misstep by Feinstein at a 2020 hearing further fueled questions about her health and the age of senators.

"Really, for the last couple of years, I've been hearing that Dianne Feinstein has been struggling, particularly with short-term memory issues, so that her staff will brief her and then she'll forget what she's been told or that she's been briefed at all," Jane Mayer of The New Yorker told All Things Consideredin 2020.

Mayer wrote an articlehighlighting issues with how the Democratic Party approaches seniority and how Feinstein has become central in that debate. In 2018, California Democrats declined to endorse Feinstein for another term, though it was not a barrier to her reelection.

The current political system rewards those with seniority, providing incentives for elected officials to stretch out their tenures as long as possible. Not only are individuals able to maintain power, but there are also benefits for states to have senior officials, Traister noted.

"We are run by a gerontocracy on both the Democratic and Republican sides," Traister said. "The Senate works by offering increased power to those who've been there for the longest."

Feinstein is not the first senator to stay a long time, and some have pointed to her gender as a reason for heightened scrutiny. Notably, Strom Thurmond stayed in the Senate until he was 100.

With the 2024 election on the horizon, Feinstein is not eyeing an early exit and has maintained that she intends to serve until the end of her term, Politico reported.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Amina Kilpatrick
Amina Kilpatrick is an assistant engagement editor for the Newshub team distributing stories to Facebook, Twitter, third-party platforms and more.