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Long Before Feinstein, Another California Senator Faced Questions About Mental Fitness

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An older Asian man sits on an arm chair next to President Ronald Reagan.
California Republican Sen. SI Hayakawa meets with President Ronald Reagan in the White House on May 8, 1981. (Courtesy Reagan Presidential Library)

An incumbent California senator whose mental fitness and ability to do the job have come into question. A parade of strong candidates from the same party throwing their hats into the ring for the seat, even before any decision to step down has been announced.

Sound familiar?

But Dianne Feinstein, the 89-year-old San Francisco Democrat who has held onto her U.S. Senate seat for three decades and is now the oldest serving member of Congress, is not actually the first older California senator to face this kind of scrutiny.

A similar situation played out more than 40 years ago when Republican S.I. Hayakawa, whose political star fell almost as quickly as it rose, was pressured by members of his own party to retire rather than run for a second term.

Hayakawa’s fast track to fame began from an unlikely perch: as the acting president of San Francisco State University (then called San Francisco State College). It was there, in 1968, that the English teacher and renowned semanticist confronted student activists led by the Black Student Union and a group called the Third World Liberation Front.

Cries of “On strike, shut it down” filled the campus during months of protests, with hundreds of students calling for a more diverse student body and courses that reflected their history, culture and contributions to society. Ultimately, Hayakawa’s administration agreed to some of those demands, including the creation of a College of Ethnic Studies.

But not without a fight.

A man in a hat rips out wires behind a bullhorn.
SI Hayakawa, acting president of San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University), wearing his iconic tam-o’-shanter cap, rips out the wires of a loudspeaker system during a student protest on Nov. 2, 1968. As a result of his opposition to the protests, he received the racist nickname 'Samurai Sam.' (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

At one protest, Hayakawa jumped onto the back of the protestors’ sound truck and enthusiastically ripped out the wires, killing the loudspeakers. When protesters howled, he simply said, “Sue me.”

The move tapped into sentiment among more conservative Californians who were turned off by anti-Vietnam protests and social unrest, an attitude exploited by Ronald Reagan in his successful campaign for governor in 1966, and subsequently by Richard Nixon in his 1968 presidential bid.

Hayakawa had been a Democrat most of his life. But his dramatic opposition to the protests — for which he was tagged with the racist nickname “Samurai Sam” — boosted his profile among conservatives and helped fuel his successful run for the U.S. Senate several years later.

 

“I remember him telling a story of being recruited by the Republican Party, and they said, ‘We think you can get elected to any office in the state. What would you like? What would you like to run for?’” his son, Alan Hayakawa, recently recalled.

Shortly before launching his long-shot bid for the U.S. Senate in 1976, Hayakawa switched parties.

At 70, the Democrat-turned-Republican entered the political arena as an underdog, defeating several better-known Republican candidates in the 1976 primary election before upsetting incumbent Sen. John Tunney, a charismatic Democrat.

“He was sort of like an accidental senator, a man that had spoken out on issues related to what was going on in California in the '60s and '70s, and he became kind of like Arnold [Schwarzenegger] in many ways, a person that by virtue of fame was a possible Senate candidate,” said Bruce Cain, political science professor at Stanford University.

An older Asian man sits at a table next to then-Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan (right) and acting San Francisco State College President SI Hayakawa hold a joint news conference after meeting for the first time. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Hayakawa’s son, Alan, says that even though his father disrupted student protesters who demanded more ethnic studies classes, he was not racist, as some of his opponents had suggested.

“He was all in favor of the Black Studies program and all opposed to the students shutting down the campus of San Francisco State,” Hayakawa said.

An academic known for his pencil-thin mustache and penchant for colorful knit tam-o’-shanter caps, Hayakawa defied political convention.

In his run for the U.S. Senate, he solidified his reputation for making controversial, off-the-cuff comments — frequently speaking his mind without concern for political fallout.

In one particularly notable remark on the campaign trail in 1976, Hayakawa stated where he stood on the heated issue of returning the Panama Canal to Panama.

“We should keep the Panama Canal. After all, we stole it fair and square,” he said, despite later voting on the Senate floor to approve two treaties that returned the canal to the Panamanian government.

And in response to a California ballot measure to legalize greyhound racing, he said, “I don’t give a good goddamn about greyhounds one way or another,” adding, “I can’t think of anything that interests me less.”

A middle-aged Asian man, with a slight, pleasant smile, poses sitting against the front of a desk or table He has dark gray hair combed neatly back, a thin gray moustache, and dark brown thick-framed glasses. He wears a dark blue suit, a powder green collared shirt, and a bright striped red and olive tie, with smaller yellow stripes. His hands are clasped lightly below his suit button.
US Sen. SI Hayakawa posing for a portrait. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Hayakawa, who was born in Canada, of Japanese descent, was also a critic of bilingual education. In 1981, he introduced a constitutional amendment to declare English the official language of the United States, explaining that the purpose of the proposal was “to include in its mainstream everyone who aspires to citizenship, to ensure that no one gets locked out by permanent language barriers.”

“I believe we are being dishonest with linguistic minority groups if we tell them they can take full part in American life without learning the English language,” Hayakawa said at the time.

Many found his brusque candor a refreshing change from the political platitudes often embraced by candidates and elected officials.

Unlike today, where memes and phone videos can make or break a politician in a heartbeat, Hayakawa emerged in an age where news traveled slowly and media often didn’t report the personal shortcomings of politicians.

But Hayakawa’s tendency to nod off during meetings, including at a legislative conference at the White House, was irresistible to the press. Pundits quickly replaced the nickname “Samurai Sam” with “Sleeping Sam,” a far less imposing moniker. And his napping habit became a topic of conversation and humor in Washington, D.C.

In his biography of the senator, the late author Gerald Haslam wrote that Hayakawa, who lived in Mill Valley, was prescribed medication for narcolepsy, a condition that causes daytime drowsiness and can result in falling asleep at any moment. Alan Hayakawa said he only learned of his father’s illness when the biography was published.

“He had some other medical conditions, but you could tell over the course of his term in the Senate that age and the stresses and the scheduling and the continual travel were taking a toll,” Hayakawa said.

In 1981, H.D. Palmer, then a University of Maryland journalism student, became an intern in Hayakawa’s press office. Palmer, a longtime spokesperson for the California Department of Finance, recalls that Beltway insiders and members of the Reagan administration worried that Republicans would lose the seat if Hayakawa ran for reelection.

“He was doing his duties, but there was the perception out there that he was a one-term senator. That he was perceived as being vulnerable,” Palmer said. “I think it was safe to say the perception was he was not in a position where he would be able to successfully defend the seat against a formidable challenger.”

While a campaign to pressure Hayakawa to drop out of the race was underway, several high-profile Republicans announced they were running. Those marquee candidates included Barry Goldwater Jr, Maureen Reagan, the president’s daughter, and Pete Wilson, who at that time was mayor of San Diego and later went on to become governor of California.

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Hayakawa refused ceremonial job offers from the Reagan administration and seemed determined to run again, up until January 1982, just months before the GOP primary. Apparently unable to raise the money needed to face his well-known challengers and lagging in the polls, Hayakawa announced he was quitting politics.

He seemed to take his sagging poll numbers in stride. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Hayakawa said, “I’m already so much more famous than I ever dreamed I’d be, and when it comes to money, I’m doing all right there, too.”

As for his goals in life, Hayakawa said he’d like to be a “damn good senator” but that after leaving politics he could imagine doing something completely different, like “playing piano in a whorehouse.”

That kind of shoot-from-the-hip comment, once the fuel for his political rise, increasingly became a liability during his short Senate tenure.

Pete Wilson went on to win that seat in 1982, defeating Democratic incumbent Gov. Jerry Brown in a campaign that sent Brown into the political wilderness for years.

When Hayakawa died in 1992 at the age of 85, Wilson called him “a great California iconoclast.”

Today, Sen. Feinstein is plagued by rumors of her apparent cognitive decline. The San Francisco Chronicle reported last year that a number of Feinstein’s colleagues — who were not named — said her memory seemed to be rapidly deteriorating and questioned her ability to fulfill her job duties.

Nevertheless, Feinstein still has yet to declare her intentions for 2024, the final year of her fifth term, saying in a statement that she would announce her intentions “at the appropriate time.”

At least partially based on the assumption that Feinstein is unlikely to run again, Orange County Rep. Katie Porter last month became the first big-name Democrat to announce her bid for the seat. U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, from Burbank, quickly followed suit, declaring his own candidacy. Schiff subsequently told KQED that Feinstein had given him “her blessing” to run. Other notable Democrats, including Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee, are also expected to jump into the race.

Stanford’s Bruce Cain notes that, unlike Hayakawa, Feinstein has had a long and mostly successful career in California politics.

An older white woman wearing a sea-blue blazer, a turquoise necklace, and a black blouse, with glasses and thin brown hair, speaks from a black leather chair in what appears to be a wood-paneled Congressional hall.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on July 12, 2022, with abortion rights and anti-abortion rights activists. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

“At one time, she was really, really quite sharp and quite effective and, of course, was also able to navigate controversy much better,” Cain said.

Cain sees Hayakawa as the first in a long line of what he refers to as the modern-day “gerontocracy.”

“The reality is that we've had a generation of people since Hayakawa who have been in office past their due date, if you like, in terms of their mental and physical capacities,” he said, adding that Dianne Feinstein’s issues have been “apparent” for a number of years.

And while party leaders decades ago might have been able to push politicians to step aside, that’s far less true now, Cain added.

“I do think that this is also a story about the decline of political parties as organizations to sort of control and manage things,” he said.

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