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How One Senator's Missteps Lead To 'A Painful Age Question' In Congress

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Jane Mayer's latest piece for The New Yorker starts in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: OK, now a specific question.

SHAPIRO: Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the committee, asks Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey a question - it's sharp - about a label on a Trump tweet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FEINSTEIN: Do you believe that label goes far enough to prevent the tweet's harms when the tweet is still visible and not accurate?

SHAPIRO: Dorsey answers. Feinstein follows up. And then she asks the same question about the same tweet again, almost verbatim.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FEINSTEIN: Now, here's the question. Does that label do enough to prevent the tweet's harms when the tweet is still visible and is not accurate?

SHAPIRO: Dianne Feinstein is 87 years old, and the episode kicked off the sort of mockery you might expect on social media. According to Mayer's reporting, it also stirred up questions on Capitol Hill about Feinstein's future in the Senate and about a broader problem of age among the country's political leaders.

Jane Mayer joins us now. Welcome.

JANE MAYER: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: There's a difference between a blip in the middle of a long hearing and verifiable cognitive decline. What evidence do you have that what we are talking about here is more than an occasional slip-up?

MAYER: This is a story that has been pretty well-known on Capitol Hill for a long time that the public just hasn't really been let in on. Really for the last couple of years, I've been hearing that Dianne Feinstein has been struggling, particularly with short-term memory issues, so that her staff will brief her, and then she'll forget what she's been told or that she's been briefed at all. There are meetings that Senate aides describe where she's kind of being led through by her staff and saying things like, these are just words. I don't understand this. It doesn't make any sense. It's just become a real struggle and a tremendous worry.

SHAPIRO: So we just want to be clear. Your reporting is based on accounts from colleagues, staffers, people who work alongside and with her, not a medical diagnosis.

MAYER: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, these are the people, though, who work with her every day. And it's not really just a matter of their opinion or my opinion. I mean, what partly kicked off this story was that she had to step down from the ranking Democratic position on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, had to intervene. And several times he had to speak to her because she'd forget in between the sessions, where he had to tell her that she had to really relinquish this post because she wasn't up to holding it.

SHAPIRO: Now, everybody I have discussed this story with has asked if there's a double standard here. The Senate is notorious as an old-age home for men who serve well into their 80s and sometimes beyond, and Feinstein is the rare woman who rose to a position of leadership in this boy's club, laying a path for other women to follow. Is it unfair to single her out in this way?

MAYER: Well, it's certainly what some of her staff said to me when I was reporting this story. Why her? Strom Thurmond stayed in the Senate until he was 100 years old, and people said that he had no idea where he was - or Robert Byrd. I think that it could be partly an issue of sexism. But I think it's other things, too. The clubbiness and the decorousness of the Senate - that culture's changing. It's harder to keep secrets and harder to hide these kinds of infirmities now.

SHAPIRO: Because you mention her staff, I want to mention we did reach out to Feinstein's office, and a spokesman said Senator Feinstein works as hard today as she ever has and continues to get bills passed, even as the Senate's legislative work has slowed to a crawl, adding, she gets more done for California than anyone, especially now as the state faces so many major challenges. That will remain her focus.

MAYER: You know, and one of her former staffers argues that even when Dianne Feinstein is impaired, she's still quicker and smarter than a third of the other senators up there.

SHAPIRO: Part of the bigger issue here is that Democrats handle party leadership differently from Republicans. Explain how the two parties approach this question.

MAYER: Yeah, so this was kind of surprising to me. The Republicans have a - they rotate committee chairmanships, whereas the Democrats adhere to what's kind of a strict seniority system. And so this issue about Feinstein has really kicked off a bigger fight where the younger members are complaining that they really are not given any kind of serious responsibility or traction for way too long.

SHAPIRO: There was one quote that stuck with me about the kinds of conversations people are accustomed to having with an aging grandparent, except in this case, they're about the future of the Senate.

MAYER: One of the people up there said to me, if you've ever tried to take the keys away from a parent that's gotten too old to drive, he said, just imagine this; it's not just about a car. It's about the U.S. Senate.

SHAPIRO: Jane Mayer is chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Thank you for talking with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.