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Dianne Feinstein’s historic career began in tragedy and ended in controversy

She became San Francisco mayor after an assassination but her last days in the Senate brought questions about age and infirmity

Dianne Feinstein was the oldest serving senator, and the longest-serving woman, in the US Senate at the time of her death on Friday. At 90, she was a tenacious trailblazer, and a stalwart centrist – with a sweeping political career that arced across immense transformations in Washington DC and her home state of California.
It was a hard-won career that almost never was. In the late 70s, before she was senator, before she became San Francisco’s mayor, Feinstein’s political ambitions had stagnated. After serving nine years on the board of supervisors, she had lost two bids for mayor. Her moderate agenda and centrism had isolated her from leftists and conservatives. By 1978, her husband had died of cancer, as had her father – and Feinstein, then 45, had told reporters she was ready to retire from politics.

On 27 November 1978, in the late morning, gunshots rang through San Francisco City Hall. A conservative former supervisor had assassinated San Francisco’s mayor, George Moscone, and supervisor Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in United States history. Feinstein rushed to help Milk, she told the Los Angeles Times, and when she tried to check his pulse, her finger slipped through a bullet hole in his wrist.

Not long after, it fell to her to face the TV cameras, bloodstained, to announce that the two men had died. Her poise, as pandemonium broke out around her, earned her praise, and pushed her into the national spotlight. Liberals and leftists rallied behind her, electing her to finish Moscone’s term. She spoke of how the city had recovered from the 1906 earthquake, “so too can we rebuild from the spiritual damage”.

In a city roiled by political violence, as well as the recent Jonestown massacre in Guyana presided over by the local preacher Jim Jones, Feinstein projected calm, and endeavored to unify the city.
In the decades after, her steady centrism left allies at times soothed, and sometimes seething. Feminist groups celebrated her political rise, and lamented that she refused to ally herself with women’s rights groups. She supported programs to fight the Aids epidemic, but as mayor vetoed domestic partnership legislation, confusing and frustrating LGBTQ+ rights activists. She was an ardent gun control advocate; she was booed at a state Democratic party convention for supporting the death penalty.

In the Senate, she built a formidable record investigating CIA torture after 9/11 as the first woman to lead the powerful Senate intelligence committee. Memorably, she faced off against the then CIA director, John Brennan, accusing his agency of improperly searching her office’s computers, an allegation that an internal CIA investigation later revealed to be true.

But Feinstein also defended the secret National Security Agency surveillance program that the Washington Post and the Guardian exposed in 2013, saying it protected “the homeland from terrorism”.

She considered the 1994 assault weapons ban one of her most significant accomplishments. Three former presidents supported the legislation, which she wrote and fought for against a tide of opposition. When a Republican senator questioned her qualifications and knowledge of guns, she lashed back: “I am quite familiar with firearms. I became mayor as a product of assassination.”

The ban expired in 2004, and Feinstein had tried to revive it in the decades since, including after the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school mass shooting.

As Democrats in the Senate moved to the left, she remained a centrist fixture. In the last few years of her career, she drew deep criticism for her work on the Senate judiciary committee, amid Republican efforts to force conservative judges onto the bench. She spoke about how, in 1991, watching an all-male committee interrogate Anita Hill about her allegations that the supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her, had enraged and transformed her. Decades later, critics said she fumbled the handling of allegations against another nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, precipitating the outing of the woman who had accused him of sexual assault.

At the end of the confirmation hearing of the ulta-conservative supreme court justice Amy Coney Barrett, who has since helped dismantle abortion rights for US women, Feinstein embraced Barrett and praised the judiciary committee chair, Lindsey Graham – a moment that shocked her colleagues. She stepped down from her top position on the judiciary committee not long after, under pressure from liberal colleagues and constituents.

The president of Naral said her conduct during the Barrett hearings “offered an appearance of credibility to the proceedings that is wildly out of step with the American people”.

As the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, urged her to step down with dignity, reports emerged that she was showing signs of mental decline, forgetting conversations not long after she had had them. Still, she ran for re-election, one last time, in 2020.

By 2022, she was facing growing calls to resign and some of her lowest performance ratings from young Californians. Long absences due to her ailing health kept her away from Capitol Hill, delaying the work of the judiciary committee. Colleagues began declaring their intent to replace her, even before she had announced her retirement.
When she finally announced she would not be seeking re-election in 2024, she remained determined to complete her term. “Each of us was sent here to solve problems,” she wrote at the time. “That’s what I’ve done for the last 30 years, and that’s what I plan to do.”


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