Two U.S. senators recently became incapacitated – John Fetterman, D-Pa., with severe depression that required a months-long hospitalization, and whose outcome is uncertain; and Dianne Feinstein, D-Ca., who had a shingles infection that developed into encephalitis, from which she has not fully recovered. (And at age 89, she is unlikely to.) Marked by inflammation and swelling of the brain, post-shingles encephalitis can leave patients with lasting memory or language problems, sleep disorders, bouts of confusion, mood disorders, headaches and difficulty walking.
Feinstein was absent from Washington and unable to fulfill her political responsibilities for months, leaving me and other Californians without half our Senate representation. She has returned to Washington but is confused and seemingly bewildered, even denying her protracted absence. The New York Times described Feinstein’s return this way on May 18: “The grim tableau of her re-emergence on Capitol Hill laid bare a bleak reality known to virtually everyone who has come into contact with her in recent days: She was far from ready to return to work when she did, and she is now struggling to function.”
This isn’t the first time that such situations have arisen, of course. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., was sufficiently forthright to reveal in 2007 that he had been diagnosed with frontotemporal lobar degeneration – an inexorably progressive, incurable disease characterized by the wasting away of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. Because of the behavioral changes and dementia that accompany this condition, Domenici announced that he would not seek reelection the following year.
I had great sympathy for Domenici, but should the people of New Mexico have been represented for another year by a senator who admitted to suffering from progressive dementia? I believe he should have resigned at the time his illness was diagnosed.
Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., retired at 100 years of age, his longstanding profound dementia an open secret on Capitol Hill.
It’s a given that as we age, most of us lose some intellectual acuity, but many clueless or confused elected officials can’t use that excuse. It’s not surprising that the intelligence of members of Congress has so often been spoofed.
“Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself,” quipped Mark Twain.
Milton Berle observed, “You can lead a man to Congress, but you can’t make him think.”
Will Rogers addressed the consequences of these deficiencies: “When Congress makes a joke it’s a law, and when they make a law, it’s a joke.”
There are numerous examples of the joke being on us. A friend of mine was seated at a banquet table with the family of then-Rep. Dan Glickman, D-Kan., The family expressed relief at his having entered politics because none of them thought Dan was smart enough to enter the family business. (Automobile and appliance shredding and scrap metal.)
Former Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., related this anecdote: “When I was debating what became the 2008 Farm Bill, I had a member of the Agriculture Committee actually ask me if chocolate milk really comes from brown cows. I asked if he was joking and he assured me he wasn’t.”
That’s in the same category as the concern of Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., that stationing 8,000 U.S. military personnel on Guam would cause the small island to “become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize.”
Currently serving Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, once proclaimed that the U.S. Constitution is 400 years old. And as a member of the House Science Committee, during a visit to the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Lab, she asked a NASA scientist whether the Mars Pathfinder probe had photographed the flag that astronaut Neil Armstrong left behind in 1969. Armstrong had, of course, left the flag on the moon, not on Mars. No manned spacecraft has visited Mars.
In 2010, Lee proclaimed on the House floor that “victory had been achieved” by the United States in the Vietnam War and that “today, we have two Vietnams: side-by-side, north and south, exchanging and working.” Lee was a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee when she made that statement.
And then there’s the inimitable Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who claimed that Jews used space lasers to start California forest fires so they could buy the land cheaply. She also called for a “national divorce,” with red states separating from blue states. Perhaps she doesn’t realize that that sort of experiment was tried and failed in the 1860s.
I once attended a conference at which Rep. Tom Bliley, R-Va., then chairman of the powerful House Commerce Committee, spoke by teleconference. As he recited from a prepared statement, he included the “stage instructions” – such as “pause for emphasis” – that had been inserted by his speechwriter. And where one line had been inadvertently duplicated, Bliley read it a second time.
Carelessness? Stupidity? Intoxication? Senility? Don’t voters have a right to know?
As a voter and taxpayer, but also as a physician, I worry about whether such people were, or are, fit to serve. Maybe dissatisfaction with our representation should sometimes be treated as a medical, rather than a solely political, issue.
How? By asking candidates and incumbents (including the president and vice-president) to volunteer for periodic intelligence and mental status testing. After all, we often demand to know whether a candidate has recovered from open-heart surgery, cancer or a stroke, and many states require elderly drivers to be relicensed periodically. With the latter requirement in mind, maybe we should require periodic testing for high-level politicians who are above a certain age.
A mental status exam by an expert offers an assessment of cognitive abilities, memory and quality of thought processes. It includes assessments of alertness, speech, behavior, awareness of environment, mood, affect, rationality of thought processes, appropriateness of thought content (presence of delusions, hallucinations, or phobias), memory, ability to perform simple calculations, judgment (“If you found a letter on the ground in front of a mailbox, what would you do with it?”), and higher reasoning, such as the ability to interpret proverbs abstractly (“A stitch in time saves nine.”).
An intelligence test measures various parameters that are thought to correlate with academic or financial achievement. Every politician need not be a genius, but I’d like the ones who represent me to be smarter than the average person on the street.
The journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken observed, “Congress consists of one-third, more or less, scoundrels; two-thirds, more or less, idiots; and three-thirds, more or less, poltroons.”
Testing might help us to weed out a few idiots. Getting rid of the scoundrels and poltroons will have to wait.
Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Glenn Swogger Distinguished Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.
This should be mandatory. People should also show competency for the committee they serve on.
Granted that MTG has said some foolish things, but even Snopes admits that she did not say “Jewish Space Lasers” started the Cal. fires…must I fact-check all that you opine?
You can fact-check all you like. Here’s the entire story: https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/03/marjorie-taylor-greene-jewish-space-lasers-rothschilds-didnt-know-anti-semitism.html. If you believe Greene’s protestations of innocence, I can give you a great price on the Brooklyn Bridge.
The problem with having a team of “experts”, medical or otherwise, evaluate office holders is the inevitable introduction of bias and corruption. How can anyone witnessing recent antics of government institutions blandly assume that would never happen? It’s guaranteed that it would!
How about just having term limits? Six years in any government job is more than enough! No expertise is required to do 99% of the government’s business, and the last 1% would require genuine cooperation among the honorables. It’s called “democracy” — we oughtta try it some time!
“Feinstein was absent from Washington and unable to fulfill her political responsibilities for months, leaving me and other Californians without half our Senate representation” -Henry Miller
The world would be a much better place if both California senators stayed home permanently and there were 2 less votes for Marxist/socialist agendas. Paul Pelosi, Gavin Newsom’s uncle, was unprotected in San Francisco. Although DC may be as much a hellhole as a California city, at least in DC congress is protected by a capitol police force happy to shoot and kill intruding enemies (as evidenced by January 6). As to the Zombie Fetterman, Pennsylvania voters knew what they were choosing –the disabilities were no secret at election time. So PA got the representation it wanted, presuming it was an honest election. PA is the Zombie State, and Roger Corman could hire them for cheap for his Zombie horror movies. The Zombie State is getting senate representation representative of the state, and is getting a two-fer with the Zombie Biden, a PA-native, in the White House. In any case, I am sure any capitol administrative bureaucracy or jury would give a clean bill of health to any Democrat and toss-out any MAGA conservative. Just ask Hunter Biden or General Flynn.
One can only wonder what this little essay was actually about. The author manages to miss the two biggest dumbell politicians in the room — Biden/Harris — both of whom have deep, but different infirmaties. More broadly, though, the author seems to suggest that these folks get into office accidentally and we just need cognitive tests to root them out.
Note to Henry Miller: people vote these fools into office. But beyond the cognitive emptiness of the average voter, someone finances their campaigns, gives them political advice, and covers for their stupidities. In other words, these fools are useful to powerful and moneyed people and certain agendas. That’s the fightening part.