I have real compassion for anyone in Sen. Diane Feinstein’s situation, and for her family. As an older American myself, I pray if I reach her state of mind, I will realize it is time to let go of commitments I have made while I still have the capacity to make that decision. Suffering from dementia is a terrible fate for the individual and their family.
Feinstein is a loved family member and a beloved public servant; she has a Senate career to be proud of. Now, however, she is not able to fulfill that role anymore. In determining what to do in Feinstein’s case, the interests of the nation must come first. I know I will be attacked for this column. I will be called an ageist and a sexist. But fact is my position would be the same if this were a younger person and a man.
I applaud Democrats in the Senate for trying to work around her in a compassionate way, and deplore the Republicans who are making that impossible. But if she cannot be temporarily replaced on the Judiciary Committee because of heartless Republicans, the time has come for Democrats to take whatever action is needed to allow the work of the Judiciary Committee to move forward.
We see what happens when Republicans nominate and confirm their judges. The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and now Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee, is trying to overturn the work of the FDA, replacing science with his social views. If we want to confirm judges who will protect the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, the environment, and voting rights, the Senate must have the votes on the Judiciary Committee to advance Biden’s judicial nominations.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s comment was sympathetic to Feinstein. “It’s interesting to me, I don’t know what political agendas are at work that are going after Sen. Feinstein in that way. I’ve never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate in that way.” With great respect I would ask her: Was there a man who was in the same situation of having dementia, and an illness, keeping a crucial committee from functioning?
Feinstein knew she was ill enough to give up a leadership role on the committee. Her health has only deteriorated since then. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said about Feinstein, “She’s a team player, and she’s an extraordinary member of the Senate. It’s her right. She’s been voted by her state to be senator for six years. She has the right, in my opinion, to decide when she steps down.” Where was that view when she hounded Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) out of the Senate?
We see what happens when people don’t recognize it is time to move on, when families can’t convince them to do so. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg should have stepped down when she was ill. Maybe if she had, Roe v. Wade would still be law of the land. Again, this is not about gender. It is about health, and knowing when it is time to move on. If Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who I have great respect and compassion for, were to be absent for longer periods of time for critical Senate votes, I would suggest the same thing.
I have never had to deal with a family member who had dementia or other long-term debilitating health issue. I consider myself fortunate in some ways, but unfortunate as my parents passed at too young an age. I just read Stephanie Mencimer’s column in Mother Jones — “Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Saga Is a Very Public Example of a National Crisis.” It brought home so many issues families face when a loved one begins to lose their mind to dementia. I only feel total compassion for the individuals and families she describes in her column. Those are heartbreaking stories. She correctly writes our nation doesn’t do nearly enough to help either individuals or their families through those difficult times.
Again, it is one thing to have to deal with this as a private citizen, and another when your illness impacts the entire nation. Perhaps generations will have to live with the consequences of Feinstein’s decision for decades to come. When you run for public office, or are appointed to public office, you implicitly lose some of your privacy. In this case Feinstein’s illness is impacting the nation. For the good of the nation, she, or the Senate, must act to move forward.
Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.