WASHINGTON — She was once pressured by President Bill Clinton to run for governor of California. She was considered a running mate of former Vice President Walter F. Mondale. And after the bitter 2008 Democratic primary, it was in her living room that former Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton met to make peace.
Today, however, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the trailblazing Democratic power broker who served in the Senate for 30 years, is far from the towering presence she once was on the American political stage.
At age 88, Ms. Feinstein sometimes struggles to remember colleagues’ names, often remembers little about meetings or phone conversations, and sometimes walks around confused – including about why she’s increasingly haunted by questions about whether she’s fit to work in. serve the Senate and represent California’s 40 million residents, according to half a dozen lawmakers and aides who spoke about the situation on condition of anonymity.
On Capitol Hill, it is widely recognized—though always privately—that Ms. Feinstein suffers from acute short-term memory problems that are unacceptable on some days, but are of concern to those who associate with her on other days.
Ms. Feinstein is often involved in meetings and telephone conversations, usually coming prepared and taking notes. But hours later, she’ll often have forgotten those interactions, said the people familiar with the situation, who insisted they not be named because they didn’t want to be quoted to discredit a figure they respect.
Some of them said under the circumstances they did not expect to serve out her term of office, which ends in 2024, even though she declined to discuss her resignation.
A recent article in The San Francisco Chronicle, her hometown newspaper, reported that some of Ms. Feinstein’s colleagues believe she is mentally incapable of serving. It chronicled in brutal detail the signs of her decline at work, an open secret that leading Democrats have quietly accepted as the status quo, but that some people close to her have turned into a spectacle that could tarnish her legacy.
A Democratic lawmaker who had an extended meeting with Ms Feinstein in February said in an interview the experience was similar to acting as a caregiver for a person in constant need of help. The legislator recalled having to re-introduce himself to the senator several times, helping her locate her wallet repeatedly and answering the same set of basic questions over and over.
A second Democratic lawmaker who was also in attendance said the conversation took place on a flight. In a statement, the second lawmaker described their own interaction with Ms. Feinstein as “pleasant and brief” and no different from normal. (Last week, Ms. Feinstein was spotted flying first class from San Francisco to Washington with her longtime housekeeper beside her.)
Pushing for Ms. Feinstein’s ability to serve last week, New York Democrat and Majority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer neither defended her nor tried to dismiss the issue.
“I’ve had quite a few discussions with Senator Feinstein,” he told reporters, “but I’m keeping them to myself.”
Annette Blum, a stepdaughter, said Mrs. Feinstein had always been adamant about making her own decisions, whether the rest of the family agreed or not.
“We have the utmost respect for her life in public service and her career,” Ms Blum said in an interview. “The decision is ultimately hers. We will all be there to support her in whatever decision she makes. That’s how the whole family feels.”
In 2018, when Ms. Feinstein decided to pursue her sixth term in office, she was already faced with questions about her age and mental acuity. But she insisted there were no problems — “My mind is fine,” she said in an interview at the time — and Mr. Schumer and the Senate campaign committee of Democrats supported her re-election bid.
Ms Feinstein’s supporters claim she was doing her party a favor by staying. The decision meant Democrats “avoided an expensive open-seat race in California so our state’s Democratic donors could focus on helping other candidates across the country,” said Jeffrey Millman, who was her campaign manager that year. . “Today, with her seniority, Senator Feinstein is an effective and indispensable leader for our state in the Senate.”
Most lawmakers argue that the only people who can tell a senator it’s time to retire are family members. But Ms. Feinstein’s husband, financier and Democratic mega-donor Richard C. Blum, who passed away in February, shared his wife’s stubborn nature and unwillingness to consider leaving the Senate. Last year, he told friends that she could run again in 2024.
If they asked questions about Ms. Feinstein’s ability to continue serving, he would shake them off, according to two people who discussed the matter with him.
“What else is she going to do?” Mr. Blum would respond, they said.
After her husband’s death, Ms Feinstein was under enormous pressure and there were discussions among her loved ones about whether she could resign from the Senate. But in the months that followed, people said, she is determined to continue her work.
Ms Feinstein does not plan to leave before the end of her term, a spokesperson said.
“It is true that the past year has been difficult to care for my dying husband and mourn his passing, but I have remained committed to getting results and I would put my record against anyone’s,” Ms Feinstein said in a statement. a statement, noting that she received millions of dollars in government funding for her state, among other achievements. “If the question is whether I am an effective senator to 40 million Californians, the record shows I am.”
Questions about her mental capabilities have been circulating for years. During the 2018 Supreme Court hearings for Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, people who worked with her said she had trouble remembering the names of staffers. In 2020, amid questions about her ability to head the powerful Judiciary Committee, she was forced out as the top Democrat on the panel, an episode that people close to her said was deeply disappointing to the senator, who believed she was. had done the job. had waited her turn and was fully qualified to lead the panel.
Ms. Feinstein’s staunchest defenders admit that sometimes she has to be told the same information multiple times, and she herself admits to forgetting conversations at times. But her allies insist that despite the realities of aging, she is in charge of her office.
“She’s still in control,” Jennifer Duck, a former chief of staff, told Ms. Feinstein. “If she hadn’t taken charge, I’m sure a lot of people would have helped her move on to something else.”
But in the United States Senate there is a long tradition of powerful men who have done nothing else, even long after it was abundantly clear that they could no longer function alone.
In his final years in office, former South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who retired at age 100, could barely speak or hear and relied on staffers to help him on and off the Senate floor wherever she belonged. tell him how to vote.
Ms. Feinstein, said people close to her, is much more independent, and some argue she is held to a sexist double standard.
“She is a loyal and dutiful member of the committee,” said Illinois Democrat Senator Richard J. Durbin, who was elected to chair the judicial panel after Ms. Feinstein was swayed.
Rhode Island Democrat Senator Sheldon Whitehouse declined to comment on his interactions with Ms. Feinstein on the panel, where they serve together. “I’ll leave that to Senator Schumer,” he said.
After a career spanning half a century in politics, Ms. Feinstein rose from a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to the pinnacle of Democratic power. She created Joshua Tree National Park, wrote the 1994 assault weapons ban and, as the detailed, hard-charging chairman of the Intelligence Committee, produced the 6,700-page torture report on the excesses of the war on terror.
In recent years, she has become a target of progressive anger for giving Republicans, including former President Donald J. Trump, the benefit of the doubt — an approach common in the courtly Senate she joined in the 1990s. but one that has faded as political polarization has deepened. Some of her allies dismiss questions about her mental capabilities as attacks from Democrats who just don’t like Ms. Feinstein’s old-fashioned style.
For Ms. Feinstein, the questions about her condition are puzzling and insulting.
She becomes angry at the mention of the prospect she might consider stepping down, pointing out that she still excels at securing funds for California, standing up to vote, attending hearings and leading the spending panel that oversees the energy sector. and monitor water programs.
Some lawmakers have privately raised red flags about Ms. Feinstein to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said in a statement that it was “unreasonable” for the senator to be “subjected to these ridiculous attacks that are beneath the dignity in which she has led and the esteem in which she has been led.” Is being detained.”
Others seem to have grown impatient with the situation. In a January hearing, Ms. Feinstein clashed with Minnesota Democrat Senator Amy Klobuchar over a bipartisan antitrust bill Ms. Klobuchar had filed alleging the Biden administration was against.
“I was told that,” Ms. Feinstein told Ms. Klobuchar, who insisted on knowing where her colleague had heard it. “Maybe you don’t like it.”
Ms. Klobuchar replied, “Well no, I don’t like it at all because I don’t think it’s true.”
Despite such unpleasant moments, Ms Feinstein’s former colleagues say the decision to end a long career in the Senate could be a difficult one.
Former Iowa Democrat Senator Tom Harkin recalled going through “a lot of soul searching” before deciding to drop a reelection bid in 2013 after three decades in the Senate.
“You hate to leave all the things that come with the office, and after all this time you have seniority and a great staff,” said Mr. Harkin, speaking from the Bahamas, where he owns a home and has moved to sail. “I was satisfied that I got enough things done.”
Retiring, said people close to Ms Feinstein, didn’t appeal to her much. She wants to keep working.