Updated: Jan 6, 2022
Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau
July 6, 2011
Washington -- California Sen. Dianne Feinstein is running for her fourth full U.S. Senate term at age 78. If re-elected, the Democrat will be 85 at the end of a six-year term, placing her among the oldest senators in an institution famous for politicians who stay in office well past their shelf life.
No one who observes Feinstein closely in her daily work, Democrat or Republican, puts her anywhere near that category. But Feinstein's age - she is the fifth-oldest current senator - presents voters with a decision about whether evidence of the mental and physical decline of people in their 80s applies to the most-popular politician in the nation's most-populous state.
Feinstein stoutly rebutted the notion that she is too old to run again. In an extensive interview with The Chronicle, the former San Francisco mayor said that while her recovery from a knee-replacement surgery in January was tougher than expected, she feels good. She said her 18 years of seniority and experience make her more effective than ever.
"Some people show age differently than others, no question about that," Feinstein said. "You can be very old at 50 and you can be very young at 90. I really believe that. It depends on your brain, it depends on your health, it depends on your drive, on your determination and your motivation."
People are different
Scientific researchers say that human brains clearly decline with age but note that there are vast differences among people.
"There is an increased risk for Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia as we age," said Gary Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center. "But there's also the upside of the aging experience. One reason that the CEOs of major companies and politicians tend to be old is they have experience and a depth at solving the kinds of complex issues that need to be solved."
Small cited the late television personality Art Linkletter, who lectured worldwide into his late 90s. "We can't judge individuals by statistics," he said.
But by age 85, half of Americans are diagnosable with dementia, said Dr. Robert Epstein, a former editor in chief of Psychology Today and founder of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Massachusetts.
"The fact is, we do decline cognitively as we age, partly because we are losing a lot of brain matter," he said. "I will oversimplify, but roughly by the time we're in our 70s, the brain has atrophied quite a bit, so roughly we've lost 20 percent to 25 percent of brain volume by that time."
Intelligence, memory and learning ability all decline with age.
"Word-finding gets tougher and tougher; it kind of scares me," said Epstein, 58, who admitted to sometimes forgetting his children's names. "There are enormous differences individual to individual. But you can't ignore age, because you want your leaders to be highly capable cognitively."
California voters are also aging and may be sympathetic. "All the data we're looking at indicate that 1 of 2 voters are going to be 50-plus in next election," said Barbara O'Connor, an emeritus professor and the former director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State University.
Feinstein, who was elected to the Senate in 1992 along with California's other senator, Barbara Boxer, who is 70, shows no signs of slowing down.
"She has more energy and discipline than I do, and I'm 34," said Gil Duran, Feinstein's former communications director, who is Gov. Jerry Brown'sspokesman. "She does not forget things. If she asks you to do something, you can't forget about it and think the next week you won't be asked again, because she will ask you. She is completely dedicated and, really, it was hard to keep up with her."
The Senate is a powerful and comfortable institution, and its members often leave with reluctance, or not at all. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, is so inactive at 86 that staffers joke that Hawaii is the only state with one senator, although the state's other Democratic senator, Daniel Inouye, is also 86.
At nine terms, the late Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., holds the record as the longest-serving senator. He remained vigorous through his 80s, and at 85 he delivered one of the most powerful and prescient speeches of his career against the Iraq war. But by age 92, when he died in office last year, his faculties had faded and party leaders summoned him only for key votes.
The late Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., left office in 2003 at age 100, but in his last years relied entirely on his staff to function. Karl Mundt, R-S.D., held office after a 1969 coma while his unelected wife, Mary, filled in for him.
"There are 78-year-olds I worry about, but Dianne Feinstein is not one of them," said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant and former Senate aide. "I would love as a Republican to say she's too old to run, but I can't say that with a straight face. ... I obviously disagree with her completely on every policy issue, but when it comes to age, she demonstrates great mental acuity and physical capacity."
Feinstein looks younger than her age. She rises early, marks up briefing books and puts in two hours of evening homework. She chairs the Intelligence Committee and an Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water. She also serves on the Judiciary Committee, the Rules and Administration Committee, and 10 subcommittees from immigration and agriculture to defense and terrorism.
She has delved into some of the most thankless and complex issues in California, from the 2001 electricity crisis to the ongoing water wars between coastal fishermen and Central Valley farmers. She protected millions of acres in the Mojave Desert, negotiated the deal to save the redwoods of the Headwaters Forest in Northern California and helped restore Lake Tahoe and San Francisco Bay's salt ponds.
"Every time I fly into San Francisco, I get such a kick looking out of the plane at the big yellow ponds turning green," Feinstein said. "It's a thrill. The birds are coming back, and I believe it's the largest wetlands restoration in California history."
Feinstein said experience, going back to her days as mayor of San Francisco, has taught her how to negotiate, whom to call quietly to make things happen, how to get information and how to get bills passed. She pointed with pride to her ability to restore bipartisanship on the Intelligence Committee.
"I know my state," she said. "I've campaigned in my state and been up and down my state, so I understand the issues. I understand 12 percent unemployment. I understand the subprime mortgage foreclosures. ... The problem is there are no easy fixes, with the debt and deficit being what they are. That's the problem, and people don't want to understand it."
A Republican Senate aide said Feinstein has been more effective than many newcomers.
"She's on the floor legislating, which a lot of people don't do - they just come down and vote," the aide said. Seniority brings huge privileges, including policy-making committee chairmanships, along with what he called institutional memory.
Last month, for example, Feinstein paired with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., on an amendment to end ethanol subsidies for the first time in three decades. Its passage altered the political dynamic around special-interest tax breaks, directly affecting the ongoing deficit negotiations between President Obama and Republicans.
O'Connor called Feinstein "probably the most effective politician in California over the long haul. She surprises people, actually. She's not necessarily the most likable, but she certainly is able to produce."
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead