A tall, somewhat regal, middle-aged woman stood on the terrace at the Hotel Everest View, at 13,000 feet elevation in the Himalayas of Nepal, with her back to the world’s tallest peak. She was dissatisfied with the service, irritated at the cold fog which rose from the Indian Plain at midday and obscured surrounding peaks.
The Bay Area contingent in our trekking group recognized her as San Francisco Supervisor Dianne Feinstein, accompanying her then-fiancée Richard Blum, a mountain climber and driving force in the American Himalayan Foundation.
Remarkably, three weeks later, newly touched down at the Los Angeles airport, I watched on TV as Feinstein broke news that Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the pioneer LGBTQ officeholder, had been shot to death by former Supervisor Dan White. As president of the board, “DiFi” had become the city’s mayor.
She would be elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992 and do California proud. Feinstein sponsored the all-too-short assault weapons ban passed by Congress in 1994. She helped expose – and hopefully curb – excesses of the Central Intelligence Agency. She was architect of the California Desert Protection Act, which established three major units of America’s National Park system.
She is still in the Senate, although she last appeared on the floor in mid-February. Sidelined by a case of shingles, at the age of 89, Feinstein is being urged to resign before her term is up in 2024. She has shown a loss of near-term memory. With her absence, the evenly divided Senate Judiciary Committee cannot act on Biden Administration nominees to the federal judiciary.
She has resisted, setting off a debate that has spilled onto the editorial page of The New York Times. When is the time to bow out? Ex-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who just celebrated her 83rd birthday, decries sexism in calls for Feinstein to resign. After all, Republican Sen. Charles Grassley sought and won reelection last year at age 88. Strom Thurmond lived to be 100, and at 91 was still vigorous enough to grope newly-elected Sen. Patty Murray in a Senate elevator, apparently unaware that she was a colleague.
It’s tough to hang it up, says this 75-year-old scribe. In politics, you go from being at the center of action to relative obscurity with time on your hands. Ex-Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, a recent Seattle visitor, chaired the powerful House Transportation Committee a year ago, but fessed up to difficulty finding his footing after ending his 36 years in Congress.
The picture isn’t always pretty. In our state, a trio of the formerly influential have sought in vain to make comebacks. Our last Republican governor, John Spellman, sought a seat on the State Supreme Court. He lost. Former Gov. Mike Lowry ran for State Lands Commissioner. He was defeated. Former seven-term U.S. Rep. Don Bonker ran for Secretary of State. He came up short.
Nor is there one size that fits all aging public servants. In 2020, Joe Biden, 80, rescued the Democratic Party from would-be nominees too far left for the electorate. He has achieved, witness Infrastructure legislation and the Inflation Reduction Act. Pelosi relinquished the reins at the top of her game. She legislated with firm control of the Democratic caucus, while successor Kevin McCarthy panders to Republican extremists. Shortly before his death at 81, Sen. John McCain stood up to the Trump Administration with a crucial thumbs-down to repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Our state’s Gov. Jay Inslee, 72, is going out on a high note. He has overseen passage of legislation to reduce carbon emissions, a ban on assault rifles, and a capital gains tax. The state was proactive at early outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, Gov. Dan Evans capped his three terms with a pivotal role in creating an Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area.
Still, there are some who hang on too long. Under House Speaker Frank Chopp, legislation in such fields as gun safety and abolishing the death penalty was blocked. Promising Democratic legislative candidates could not get support. Peter von Reichbauer was elected to the Washington State Senate in 1973 and won a King County Council seat in 1993, for a tenure lasting almost 50 years.
A recent CNN poll found 70 percent opposition to Biden seeking a second term, with 60 percent of those surveyed saying ex-President Trump should not run again. But a rule of American politics still applies: Incumbents enjoy a big advantage in fundraising, and that only increases with seniority and positions of influence. The last House defeats in Washington’s congressional delegation took place in the 1990s and with Maria Cantwell’s upset of GOP Sen. Slade Gorton in 2000.
The U.S. Senate has a tradition of circling the wagons to protect its own, even those in visible decline, as with Sen. Thurmond. Not a single member of the Senate was defeated the 2020 mid-term election. Two Republican Senators in Georgia did lose their seats in a 2021 special election but carried the burden of having Donald Trump campaign for them. Trump, 76, is trying to regain power with frequent boasts of his virility and claim that Joe Biden is losing it.
Ultimately, the age issue boils down to a question: Can the officeholder serve and advocate for constituents, and act in best interests of the country? Staff can and does bear much of the work burden, but it’s the member who votes and gets the final judgment.
It is painful asking Dianne Feinstein to depart, but more painful watching her decline.