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Dianne Feinstein, who will soon celebrate her 89th birthday, is currently the oldest member of the Senate. In recent months, a controversy has swirled around her due to reports of her alleged cognitive decline in outlets like The New Yorker, the San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times. Some argue that this debate is sexist and ageist.

Rebecca Traister recently wrote a profile of Feinstein for New York magazine that opened up this debate by situating it within Feinstein’s life trajectory and the story of the cohort she belongs to: a generation of septuagenarians and octogenarians who now hold the commanding heights of power in America.

This week, I learned a lot in a spirited talk with Traister, in which we took up Feinstein as an emblem of the ruling class, the years of turmoil in San Francisco that accompanied her rise to power, the way the political system values seniority, and the reasons the gerontocracy is so committed to a politics of elite civility.