We are witnessing the sad spectacle of yet another situation where a combination of age and ego–and in this case–judgment impaired by cognitive decline–is having a dire effect on the capacity for key, critical decisions to move forward at the highest levels of the federal government.
Regarding the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, let me be clear: I grew up revering RBG–and it is no exaggeration to say that she was one of my legal heroes. But as she suffered recurrences of cancer her inability to put the future of country over ego ultimately imperiled nearly everything she stood for. By egotistically clinging to her role as a Supreme Court justice–despite the inescapable reality that by failing to step down she risked empowering those who wanted to overturn her major achievements, RBG tarnished her legacy in ways that will continue to reverberate for decades.
Had RBG died when the Senate was held by Democrats, the outcome would, of course, have been different. But when she died at age 87 following complications from cancer–and six weeks before the 2020 election that returned control of the Senate–and the Presidency–to Democrats–then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell immediately called President Donald J. Trump and urged him to nominate outspoken anti-Choice judge Amy Coney Barrett. As the PBS program “Frontline” reported a few weeks after the 2020 election, on the same night that RBG died McConnell called Trump to push the Barrett nomination (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/on-night-of-ginsburgs-death-mcconnell-pushed-trump-to-nominate-amy-coney-barrett/.)
As we now know, this completely altered the valence of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), and led not only to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but to a variety of other outcomes that have, in a short period, reversed decades of SCOTUS rulings that reflected the deeply held values of RBG.
That Ginsburg, in her declining years, and despite the urging of President Barack Obama–and others (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/25/us/politics/rbg-retirement-obama.html) was able to rationalize her ill-fated decision to remain on SCOTUS shows the overweening ascension of ego over judgment–and even deeply held values. Writing for The New York Times Magazine in September 2020, Emily Bazelon cites those defending and critiquing Ginsburg’s decision to stay on the high court–and RBG’s own rationalizations for doing so–despite the risks that nearly everything for which she fought for decades would be jeopardized by her persistence. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/21/magazine/ginsburg-successor-obama.html.)
The article quotes former NYT legal editorial writer Dorothy Samuels (who was writing a book about RBG): “I was struck by how many people I spoke with, including friends, acquaintances and former clerks, felt she should have resigned at the time (2014) and that her staying on was terribly self-centered — a view I share,” Samuels said. “I was also struck that normally forceful advocates I spoke with would not express their dismay on the record while she was alive.”
The current situation regarding Senator Dianne Feinstein is similar–but quite different in one respect–until her death, RBG appeared to be cognitively intact and competent. Feinstein, the 89-year-old five-term senator, however, has been in painfully clear cognitive decline for some time, and as the San Francisco Chronicle reported in October 2022, her dementia, and frequent incapacity to maintain a coherent conversation regarding legislative matters, has unnerved some who have known her for years https://www.sfchronicle.com/politics/article/dianne-feinstein-senate-17079487.php.)
Those of us who have watched an aging parent decline see Feinstein’s saga as sadly familiar. As a 70-year-old, I wonder if I, too, may some day suffer from such tragic cognitive decline. But unlike the case with a family member where the pain is private and personal, the failure of someone in a position of power to accept their mortality is no longer a private matter.
Women legislators have rallied to Feinstein’s defense (although the remarks by some of her Republican colleagues are highly suspect, given that her saga is hurting Democrats and helping Republicans.) There may, indeed, be a double-standard regarding whether or not a male legislator suffering from similar impairment or health challenges would face pressure to resign. But this begs the question–which is what is best for the country (and less idealistically, a given political party)–and not our continued failure to equally hold men and women to account.
Despite the differences between the cases of RBG and Feinstein, we can no longer pretend that our gerontocracy is not jeopardizing critical aspects of society. As a baby boomer, I increasingly see the tendency of many in my demographic to cling to power–a failure of self-awareness with dire consequences for the nation. While baby boomers are no longer the largest cohort of the U.S. population (second now to millennials born from 1982 to 2000) they still hold the reins of power–and are loathe to relinquish that hold.
By 2030, all boomers will be 65 or older, and although many may age gracefully and with relatively little decline, millions will join the ranks of dementia patients. An article by Stephanie Mencimer in Mother Jones, titled “Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Saga Is a Very Public Example of a National Crisis,” takes an unsparing look at the looming disaster confronting American society (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2023/04/sen-dianne-feinsteins-saga-is-a-very-public-example-of-a-national-crisis/.)
According to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) more than 7 million people 65 or older had dementia in 2020, with that figure projected to reach nearly 12 million by 2040. The PRB states that women, people 85 and older, and racial and ethnic minorities face the greatest dementia risk (https://www.prb.org/resources/fact-sheet-u-s-dementia-trends/.)
The combination of ego and cognitive decline poses a dire crisis that we have done little to address. Rebuking calls for Feinstein to resign as sexist–even if true– is misguided. Confronting our mortality is never easy for any of us–and it is human nature to resent it when others suggest that the time has come for us to step aside. But if we continue to avoid this painful reality, we will increasingly face a crisis in which the combination of ego and biology puts the interests of the greater public at risk.