Senator Dianne Feinstein: A Remarkable Journey

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., at the Senate Rules Hearing, on May 20, 1993.
Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images, FILE

Dianne Feinstein, the first female senator from California who spent longest number of terms of any woman in the Senate—six—and whose political career was permanently changed by the killings of two of her peers, has passed away. 90 years old.

She died away on Thursday night at her residence in Washington, according to a statement from her administration. The cause wasn’t made public. She had just voted earlier in the day.

Her chief of staff, James Sauls, said in a statement that “there are few women who can be called senator, chairman, mayor, wife, mom, and grandmother.” Feinstein was characterized by him as “a force of nature who made an incredible impact on our country and her home state.”

“She left a legacy that is exceptional and without dispute. Sauls added, “There is much to say about who she was and what she accomplished, but for now, we are going to lament the loss of our devoted friend, mentor, and employer.

Over the course of her three decades in the Senate, Feinstein went from being a trailblazing member of the Democratic Party’s liberal vanguard who supported the legalization of same-sex marriage and a prohibition on assault-style weapons to one of the establishment figures in Washington. She was respected by legislators on both sides of the aisle but came under increasing fire from outside progressives who claimed that she refused to stand aside for the next generation.

Her work on Capitol Hill in her latter years had also begun to be overshadowed by concerns about her physical and mental health, despite the fact that she claimed she was still a strong public worker in spite of her hospitalizations, allegations of periods of disorientation, and other problems.

Feinstein said earlier this year that she intended to retire in 2025, at the conclusion of her most recent tenure, and that “each of us was brought here to resolve issues. I’ve been doing it for the last 30 years, and I’ll continue doing it for the next two. I’m grateful that Californians allowed me to serve them.

According to Rebecca Traister, a journalist who penned a comprehensive biography of Feinstein for New York magazine, Feinstein’s political philosophy was more concerned with preserving and promoting the value of laws and order than it was with adhering to an absolutist ideology.

Though Feinstein’s political views evolved over time, Traister noted that her perspective on her duty as “someone who was within these institutions to uphold the rules” remained constant.

She said that Feinstein’s passion to the organization outside of politics astonished her the most.

She recalled how, prior to Roe v. Wade, in the early 1960s, Feinstein served on a women’s sentencing commission where she determined on sanctions for abortion providers. At the time, Feinstein subsequently said that she witnessed “not medical people — these were truly the coat-hanger type of abortions.” In college, Feinstein apparently facilitated a woman in traveling to Mexico, where abortions were permitted, according to Traister.

Traister said, “She believed in civic and political control and order, and I would say that is the defining feature of her life in politics,” adding, “Sometimes that led her to positions that were on the left and sometimes it led her to positions that were on the right.”

Feinstein’s upbringing and Senate career

Feinstein has a challenging adolescence in her early years after being born Dianne Emiel Goldman in San Francisco in 1933. Jerry Roberts, the author of the biography “Never Let Them See You Cry,” described Feinstein’s mother, Betty, as an alcoholic who frequently beat Feinstein and her two sisters, mentioning incidents in his book where she chased Feinstein with a knife and once almost drowned one of Feinstein’s sisters in a bathtub.

Their mother was violent and emotionally abusive. When it came to defending her younger sisters and enduring the burden of things, she [Feinstein] was very much the matriarchal figure, according to Roberts.

Leon Feinstein, the surgeon who was Feinstein’s father, had a similar influence on her. He was the first Jew to occupy the position of chair of surgery at the medical school of the University of California, San Francisco. He was also a barrier-breaker.

According to Traister, “She really identified with her father and his kind of propriety and status.” “But it’s undeniably true that she really developed a passion for how to keep things in line and under control as the oldest sibling in that household, and I think you can see working its way through her political life,” says the author.

Feinstein began her first of three terms on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1970 after serving for six years on the California Women’s Sentencing Board. She campaigned for and won the position.

As she told reporters the morning of November 27, 1978, her third term as a supervisor was also her last, and it was intended to be the conclusion of her political career. She had two abortive mayoral campaigns, health issues, and had just lost her second spouse to cancer.

A catastrophe then occurred.

Later that November day, Supervisor Dan White—a board colleague—killed Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly homosexual political official in California.

Feinstein discovered Milk’s cadaver and later recalled how, while attempting to measure Milk’s pulse, her fingertips inadvertently moved into a gunfire wound in his body. She was the one to deliver the news of the murders to a horrified city as TV cameras were capturing. She was elected as the city’s first female mayor while serving as president of the Board of Supervisors.

“It sounds like a cinematic scenario, to me. You can’t conjure up things like that, said Los Angeles Times writer Mark Barabak, who has followed Feinstein since her days in San Francisco. “She leans in, tells reporters she’s abandoning politics.

She eventually became mayor for two occasions.

Feinstein, according to Barabak, “held up the city on her shoulders…the city was really on edge.” She was “thrust in the middle of it” and “really rallied and really helped keep the city together,” he said.

She passed a handgun prohibition as mayor and survived a recall campaign because of it, setting up a decades-long debate over the same subject when she was a senator.

Her reputation progressively ascended. In 1984, she was a candidate for vice president on the short list of Democratic contender for president Walter Mondale. She campaigned effectively in a 1992 special election to close out Republican Pete Wilson’s tenure after losing her own candidacy for governor of California in 1990. She was the first woman elected from the state to assume the office of senator.

Washington, D.C.

With the assistance of the then-Chair Joe Biden, Feinstein became one of the first two women to join the Senate Judiciary Committee, signifying yet another first. She made it her mission to implement a law prohibiting assault-style firearms, telling The Los Angeles Times that Biden was “ultimately supportive but initially skeptical,” concerned that the legislation may obstruct a more comprehensive package aimed at combating crime. But he still believed that if she were to do it, it would be a positive “lesson” for her.

There was a significant backlash. One of those who confronted her was Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig, who said, “The gentlelady from California needs to become a little bit more familiar with firearms and their deadly characteristics.”

“I am quite familiar with firearms,” Feinstein retorted. Because of an assassination, I became mayor. I located my deceased colleague and inserted a finger into the incision to feel for a pulse. When I experienced terrorist assaults, an explosion in my home, the death of my spouse, and windows being blasted out, I had received firearms firing training. Senator, I am cognizant of the potential hazards of firearms.

In order to strengthen its support, the prohibition included various exceptions and a 10-year expiration period. It was declared a law in 1994. Feinstein advocated for similar measures for the remainder of her term in office.

Nearly 20 years before the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right, she was also known for supporting same-sex marriage. In 1996, she was one of 14 senators who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, the later-overturned law that forbade the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage.

Barbarak said that her prolonged stay in San Francisco most certainly influenced her opinions on the subject. In San Francisco, he recounted, “the gay community was very large and influential, in a way that really it wasn’t in any other city in the country.” And that was only a reflection of political culture. It was unavoidable while serving as mayor of San Francisco.

However, she said that her work as the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman was her most significant professional achievement at the time. After September 11, Feinstein demanded a comprehensive inquiry of the CIA’s detention and interrogation practices.

Under both the Bush and Obama administrations, it was asserted that the CIA misled the public and mismanaged the program as a result of her drive for greater transparency. The program was purportedly “far more brutal” than the agency had previously represented it to be, with torture methods including chaining detainees to concrete floors and severe sleep deprivation, including one who appeared to expire from hypothermia.

The committee’s later, Feinstein-supported report concluded that the techniques used on more than 100 detainees were “not effective.”

Feinstein took a risk by investigating the CIA’s methods since she was also taking on her own party. The [Obama] administration was one of the many that opposed keeping this information private, according to Traister.

However, Traister noted that her tenacity was consistent with “how seriously she took the violation of norms that she so believed in.”

“It was like hellfire when she realized they had been acting differently than expected. She pursued them aggressively, Traister said.

Later, Annette Bening portrayed Feinstein in the 2019 drama “The Report,” which dealt with the CIA investigation.

According to Roberts, her biographer, “I just think that’s real legacy stuff, which she did there because nobody wanted that report out, certainly not the CIA.” “I believe that was a demonstration of her independence, her resolve, and her capacity to fight.”

But as a representative of one of the nation’s most consistently Democratic states, her independence was sometimes seen in more recent years as being too moderate in comparison to other Democrats.

Liberal organizations lambasted Feinstein for embracing Republican Sen. Linsey Graham and complimenting him for conducting “one of the best hearings I’ve participated in” during the tumultuous Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh. Later, the then-minority leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, told journalists that they had a “long, serious talk” about it.

She also garnered notoriety for disregarding schoolchildren who encouraged her to support the progressive “Green New Deal” to combat climate change by saying, “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I am proficient in my profession. You enter this room and assert that your way or the highway must be followed. To that, I don’t answer. I won the election by about a million ballots, and I am competent.

The exchange was parodied on “Saturday Night Live.”

final years of duty in a declining climate

Some individuals in Feinstein’s own party were more vocal in the latter years of her political tenure when they suggested that she should step down. They often spoke out in support of her as well. She was referred to as a “strong voice and a staunch advocate for the people of California” by Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker at the time.

Instead, the California Democratic Party supported opponent Kevin de León in Feinstein’s last and last senate bid. León said that he was thus providing “a new voice, a new change represented in California of today, not of the past.”

Feinstein still prevailed by a large margin — almost a million ballots. But the discontent persisted.

The San Francisco Chronicle, Feinstein’s local newspaper, reported in April 2022 that the senator’s memory was “rapidly deteriorating” and cited many unnamed employees and Senate colleagues to support this claim. According to them, it seems she can no longer do her job obligations without her staff accomplishing the majority of the work necessary to represent California’s approximately 40 million residents.

In an interview with the Chronicle’s editorial board, Feinstein disagreed. “I often interact with executives. I’m not alone. I notice individuals. My punctuality is outstanding. She reiterated what she had told The Los Angeles Times in 2020 when she said: “I put in the hours.” I don’t believe my cognitive abilities have become any worse. Do I sometimes neglect something? Yes, most probable.

Feinstein informed the public in February 2023 that she would not seek for reelection, remarking to the media shortly after, “The time has come.”

She received a standing ovation that lasted for many, many minutes, according to Schumer, who made the revelation during a lunch meeting behind closed doors. The affection our caucus and our nation have for this fantastic, magnificent leader and icon is evident in the longest I’ve ever seen.

The difficulties with Feinstein’s health soon overshadowed her impending retirement. She spent the third month of 2023 recuperating at home in California from shingles, which also left her with cerebral inflammation and the facial nerve-affecting Ramsay Hunt syndrome.

Additionally, Feinstein’s absence momentarily precluded Democrats from confirming nominations via the Judiciary Committee, which she served on.

Congressman Ro Khanna from California and others demanded that she resign. She, however, never left her profession.

According to Barabak, both the controversy towards the conclusion of her career and her determination contributed to her achievement.

She is quite tenacious. She’s quite intractable. She’s quite determined,” he said, adding, “She’s shown time and time again that [she] is not someone who will be readily intimidated. This, in my opinion, is very consistent with who she has been throughout her whole professional and public existence.

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