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“Feinstein’s Case Reflects an Ongoing Predicament: Politicians Avoid Accountability for Their Capacity to Serve”


Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California recently returned to the Senate after a nearly three-month absence that — because she couldn’t vote remotely and the Senate is deeply divided — left the Democrats’ agenda in limbo.

Feinstein will be 90 and in June can barely walk independentlyAnd her mental acuity has been up for debate for years. Still, she holds on to her chair and will not resign Despite fervent pleas from some within her party.

being politicians vulnerable when accused of almost any kind of impropriety real or imagined, but physical complaints and deteriorating health perhaps the only subject for which politicians can escape scrutiny.

Health, privacy and reliability

Most people expect their health to be a private matter. And for a politician or candidate, such revelations can be used as political weapons by their opponents. But when voluntarily entering the public service sphere, is one obligated to inform voters about how well a person is actually capable of doing the job?

Perhaps Feinstein—or her staff—knows that politicians can dodge questions about their health with virtually impunity. But politicians who are unreliable about their medical condition can put voters at a disadvantage.

Ironically, my research shows, the media and public would probably be much more forgiving if Feinstein were outspoken about her limitations. But she seems intent on taking the all-too-common way of politicians to engage in deceptive evasion. She loses her trustworthiness when the public sees her clearly dodge questions. In her most recent interaction with reporters she was politely asked how she feels. She said she is fine except for a problem with her leg.

The reporter politely asked what was wrong with her leg. She said “nothing that concerns anyone but mine.” She then repeatedly claimed, falsely: “I haven’t been awayof the Senate, and her office seems further opposed when asked for follow-up or clarification.

By openly deflecting reporters’ questions—about her leg and her absence—she is likely to cause people to ponder and obsess even more about her shortcomings as an elected official, based on experiments I performed. If Feinstein displayed a sincere, pleasant attitude instead of staring at reportersand provided transparent revelations about her health, she would change from being seen as ambiguous to be reliable, based on experiments I’ve done.

Precedent for secrecy

Nevertheless, the default position for public figures – especially politicians – seems to be diversionary tactics to avoid questions. And the reason may not be just an accomplice partisan base that allows politicians to deceive with impunity. The media has long concealed the ill health of politicians.

History is full of examples of the media obscure politicians’ medical problems. This, in turn, reinforces a general picture that reporters are complicit with politicians hiding important information from the public.

Traditionally, reporters have hated cover-ups. But the media seems to make an exception for health issues. Reporters apparently consider it to be within the confines of campaign interviews ask a politician who he has sex with, what kind of underwear he wears, how many ex-girlfriends’ abortions he’s paid for And exactly how gay he is.

But reporters almost become cocky, elitist puritans at the thought of asking politicians whether their health permits them to appear at work.

For a long time the press did not report that Senator Dianne Feinstein, now 89 years old, had lost much of her mental acuity and her memory.
Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Reporters in cahoots

Senator Strom Thurmond did not retire until he was 100 years old, and reporters largely kept are cognitive disorders hidden. Like FeinsteinThurmond often showed signs of cognitive decline when speaking.

An extreme example of this phenomenon of misleading politicians is given by serial liar Rep. George Santos. Unlike most politicians who lie about their health to sound like they’re impervious to disease, the New York legislature took the opposite approach when campaigning for Congress. Santos listed all kinds of health problems he suffers from: acute chronic bronchitis, a brain tumor, an immunodeficiency and susceptibility to cancer.

Most of Santos’ claims about his life, except his health are fact-checked. After he was elected, the media covered his claims ranging from say he was Jewish to say he had it played college volleyball. But Santos’ statements about his own mental or physical abilities seem to have gone unchallenged. Santos lied or told the truth about being unwell.

Either way, the public should have known.

A man in a dark jacket, red tie and white shirt raises his right hand and looks up.
Despite the fact that many of Rep. George Santos have been fact-checked, the press has not checked his claims about his health.
David Becker/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Suitable for the office

It may be time to consider a politician’s health — literally, physical fitness for the office — fair game for disclosure. Asking politicians if they are fit to serve in office should not be prohibited, nor should it be taken as evidence of ‘competence’.

If civil discussions can be held about mental and physical health disorders – instead of being treated as stigmas to be hidden – democracy would be healthier. The public should be able to expect their representatives to show up for work and serve their constituents fairly. And that means reporters and the general public need to ask their elected officials the necessary questions.

This is an updated version of an article originally published March 3, 2023.

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