May 19, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

The Feinstein Dementia Mitigation Team

Neither the senator nor the people of California are well-served by this grotesque spectacle, writes Lindsay Beyerstein.

Courtesy of Getty.
Courtesy of Getty.

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US Senator Dianne Feinstein developed a heretofore undisclosed case of brain shingles and ghosted leading Democrats who reached out to her during her extended recovery in California, the Times reported Wednesday

Feinstein’s failure to disclose the full extent of her illness is a profound breach of trust. It makes you wonder what else she’s hiding even from the leaders of her own party. Feinstein’s decline is taking place against a background of unrestrained ego, bare-knuckle politics and fake appeals to feminism. 

We’ve long known the 89-year-old was suffering from shingles, but the Times was the first to report that the virus spread to her brain. Most people associate shingles with nerve pain, which can be excruciating, but which doesn’t impair a person mentally. However, according to two sources familiar with Feinstein’s diagnosis, the senator developed a rare complication known as encephalitis, a cerebral inflammation that can result in long-term deficits in speech, memory, mood, and movement, especially in the elderly. Feinstein returned to Washington a shadow of her former self, with some observers describing her physical decline as “frightening.” 

Feinstein returned to Washington a shadow of her former self, with some observers describing her physical decline as “frightening.” 

During her convalescence, Feinstein reportedly never returned a call from California Governor Gavin Newsom and flatly refused a visit from her fellow senator from California, Alex Padilla. 

These revelations come on the heels of a troubling exchange with reporters from Slate and the LA Times, in which the 89-year-old senator seemed unaware that she’d been absent from Washington for months. 

“I haven’t been gone,” Feinstein said, when the Slate reporter asked her about her colleagues welcoming her back to Washington, “You should … I haven’t been gone. I’ve been working.”

Feinstein’s aides conceded to the Times that the senator has missed several votes since she’s been back and that she’s currently operating on a lighter than usual schedule. She missed a meeting of the powerful appropriations committee Tuesday. Even before her recent absence, Feinstein’s staff reportedly devised a call system to make sure their boss wasn’t allowed to wander around the Capitol. They feared she might encounter reporters. This was a problem because “over the last several years, interviews with Feinstein devolved into confusion on a near-daily basis.” It was easier to keep her under surveillance than walk back the off-the-wall things she said to the press. 

As if this charade weren’t pathetic enough, Politico reported Tuesday that Nancy Pelosi’s oldest daughter, Nancy Prowda, is the point person on the Feinstein Dementia Mitigation Team. Pelosi has a political interest in propping up Feinstein until she completes her term in two years’ time. The former House majority leader has tried to invoke feminism to defend her longtime friend, claiming that decrepit male senators don’t get as much flack as Feinstein has gotten. A claim that, even if it were true, is not a ringing endorsement of Feinstein’s capacities. 

Pelosi’s motives go beyond sisterhood. Feinstein’s successor will be named by Gov. Newsom. Newsom has pledged to replace Feinstein with a Black woman, but Pelosi wants to see the Senate seat go to her protegé, California Congressman Adam Schiff, who meets neither of Newsom’s stated criteria. The goal, according to Politico’s sources, is to keep Feinstein in office as long as possible, so as to deny or diminish the advantage of incumbency to whoever Newsom might choose. 

Feinstein’s mental acumen has been an issue for years. In 2020, Feinstein asked then-CEO Jack Dorsey whether Twitter was doing enough to stem the tide of disinformation. This was a great question, except that Feinstein seemed unaware that she’d asked Dorsey the same thing a few seconds ago. 

Some Democrats urged Feinstein to retire after she hugged Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and praised the Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court confirmation hearings as some of the best she’d ever seen. 

The Senate Republicans had been racing to confirm Coney Barrett before the election in a blatant partisan power grab, after sanctimoniously denying Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee a hearing on the grounds that it was an election year. Feinstein’s effusive praise embarrassed her colleagues and allies and undercut weeks of messaging. 

Dianne Feinstein blazed a trail for women in politics, but her refusal to retire is putting her legacy at risk. Denying the realities of aging and death serves no one, certainly not the cause of feminism. Neither the senator nor the people of California are well-served by this grotesque spectacle. 

Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.

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