MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
At 88 years old - 89 later this month - Dianne Feinstein is something of a Washington institution - the oldest sitting senator, a Democrat, that rarest of creatures, a moderate committed to working across the aisle. She has used her three decades in the Senate to fight to expand civil rights, to curb gun violence and to increase access to abortion. But for a while now, there have been whispers about possible cognitive decline. Those whispers are getting louder.
And I want to bring in Rebecca Traister, who writes about them in a new piece for The Cut. Hey there.
REBECCA TRAISTER: Hi.
KELLY: Hi. So to be clear, you didn't set out to write about her mental health, right? What did you set out to write about?
TRAISTER: No, I really didn't set out to write about her mental health. I wanted to write a profile of her, this very senior - senior in terms of seniority within the Senate - sitting Democratic senator who came to power amidst a lot of the social and political upheaval of the mid-20th century and has been among those in her party who were purportedly serving as the stewards of the sort of progressive victories that were won during that period in the 20th century. I wanted to take a look at Feinstein's individual career, which is fascinating, but also to look at her as kind of emblematic of this generation and particularly a generation of history-making women in Democratic politics.
KELLY: OK. So you set out to do this big legacy piece. And in fairness, your piece does cover a lot of that ground. What caused you to change course and focus on mental health?
TRAISTER: I would argue that the focus of the piece is on her career and her relationship to governing power and institutions. But part of that - you know, as I was reporting the piece, there were other stories published, which meant that no matter what, I was going to address it. You know, she is the oldest sitting member of the Senate. But also, unexpectedly, I wound up speaking to her not about the cognitive decline itself. I was talking to her about the issues that I was really focusing on in the piece. But, you know, the conversation - I felt that it was incumbent on me to describe the nature of the conversation. And certainly...
KELLY: You spoke to her right after the Uvalde shooting, so quite recently, right? What happened? How did it unfold?
TRAISTER: Well, we spoke for about half an hour. You know, she had very vivid recollections of portions of the past, things that happened in the 1960s and '70s. She occasionally trailed off. I mean, again, like, I'm not in a position to diagnose here. And there are plenty of politicians I have spoken to in my life who have trailed off or spoken in aphorisms. But I did note that a lot of what she said betrayed a kind of disconnection from our current circumstances, and that's how I would describe it as fairly and transparently as possible.
She spoke two days after Uvalde shooting about how optimistic she was about the country's future. And this is in the same month that we are likely to see the gutting and overturn of Roe v. Wade, in which it has been impossible for the Senate to pass a law protecting abortion, in which it - a year in which it's been impossible for the Senate to pass a law protecting the franchise in the wake of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. And, you know, she still spoke with such sort of sunny and impervious optimism about the progress that's being made and not really acknowledging or perhaps able to acknowledge the intense regress.
KELLY: So what you were hearing was not that she was saying anything wrong - and again, you're not in a position to diagnose - but a disconnect from reality as you were witnessing it.
TRAISTER: It felt to me to be deeply disconnected from the very urgent and chilling realities that we are very much in the midst of.
KELLY: This is not new. Lawmakers, staffers have told reporters that they notice Feinstein repeating herself or forgetting conversations. They say there are days when the senator seems to struggle to recognize longtime colleagues.
And then there was a moment in 2020. I want to play this. This is Senator Feinstein greeting Republican Senator Lindsey Graham after the confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Mr. Chairman, I just want to thank you. This has been one of the best set of hearings that I've participated in. And I want to thank you for your fairness and the opportunity of going back and forth. It leaves one with a lot of hopes, a lot of questions and even some ideas, perhaps some good bipartisan legislation...
LINDSEY GRAHAM: Thank you.
FEINSTEIN: ...We can put together to make this great country even better.
KELLY: Rebecca Traister, that's a very gracious speech. You write about it in this piece. Why did it set off alarm bells among her fellow Democrats?
TRAISTER: Well, there - I think there are two reasons. They're twinned. One of them is that you can hear some of what I was just describing about the denialism. This is after the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, who was rushed through in the final weeks of a Trump presidency as people were already beginning to vote, which is in direct conflict with the argument that Mitch McConnell had made when he stole a Supreme Court pick from the popularly elected Barack Obama. And so this was an egregious stacking of the court by the opposition party. And, of course, Barrett is likely to be - I mean, almost surely going to be among the votes that either guts or reverses Roe.
I also hear this twinned other impulse that I write about in this piece, which is the belief in the institution. She's congratulating him on this having gone well within - on the Senate Judiciary Committee, on having a back and forth. And it's the prizing of democratic institutions. It seems to prize the Senate as a fundamental good rather than the reality, which is its role as an obstructionist, stuck, broken body.
KELLY: To the specific point and questions about cognitive health, Feinstein has defended her ability to do her job, and plenty of colleagues defend her, saying she's better than some of the junior senators on Capitol Hill on their best days.
TRAISTER: Well, so in this instance, I will turn again to a sort of - my own critique of the institution and my, you know, reported observations about it. She believes in the functioning of the Senate. And one of the things that people spoke to me about for my piece and that is evident if you look at how the Senate works is that, in fact, it structurally rewards seniority in a way that entices people to overstay - right? - into their very old age.
Dianne Feinstein is not alone. We are run by a gerontocracy on both the Democratic and Republican sides. The Senate works by offering increased power to those who've been there for the longest. It's not necessarily just individuals who want to stay and increase their own authority. It also is an enticement for the states that wind up electing them and reelecting them because, as people explain to me in this piece, Dianne Feinstein, who's senior on the Appropriations Committee, has the ability to get California funding for things like building a subway in Los Angeles or fighting wildfires. And so there is a system in place that encourages senators to stay. And this - she's not the first one. Strom Thurmond was in the Senate until he was 100.
KELLY: Does she talk about retiring?
TRAISTER: She has told other reporters that she doesn't have any intention of retiring before her term is up.
KELLY: We've been speaking with Rebecca Traister. Her profile of Senator Dianne Feinstein is headlined "The Institutionalist," and it appears in The Cut. Rebecca Traister, thank you.
TRAISTER: Thank you for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.