Dianne Feinstein is American Politics
New York magazine|June 06 - 19, 2022
Over the course of 52 years in elected office, she believed she could use the system for good. Despite everything, she still does.
By Rebecca Traister

1971: The first female president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

ON ELECTION NIGHT IN SAN FRANCISCO in 1969, a 36-year-old woman who had run a campaign for the Board of Supervisors that featured the unconventional use of just her first name, Dianne, was waiting anxiously for results in a race she was not expected to win. The local media had barely covered her. She had earned the endorsement of only one elected official, the state assemblyman Willie Brown. She had initially run the race out of her own house and had taken a risky, forward-looking tactical approach: cultivating support from the city’s growing population of gay voters and environmental conservationists.

As the returns began to trickle in, “it soon became clear that a big local story was unfolding,” Jerry Roberts later wrote in his 1994 book, Dianne Feinstein: Never Let Them See You Cry. “Dianne was not only winning, she was topping the ticket, an unheard-of showing for a nonincumbent, let alone a woman.”

Feinstein was so reluctant to believe the early returns that she had to be persuaded to go to headquarters on Election Night. When she entered the room, she “was thronged by an emotional crowd,” Roberts wrote. One of her supporters joked about “painting City Hall pink.”

The next day, San Francisco’s daily papers blared news of Feinstein’s stunning upset on their front pages. The press homed in on Feinstein’s “dark-haired, blue-eyed beauty” and made sure to note that the woman who would, as the top vote-getter, soon assume control of the Board of Supervisors was dressed in “a fashionable blue Norell original with a bolero top and a wide white belt.”

It’s hard to read about that night and not think of an evening 49 years later, when 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked New York City by winning her scrappy primary campaign for Congress, sending a rush of reporters to belatedly cover a phenomenon known as “AOC,” fetishizing her clothes, her hair, her face. Both women’s entrances into politics were watershed moments. As Feinstein told reporters at the time, her win signaled “a new era, a different kind of politics working strongly for change,” saying of her then-12-year-old daughter’s interest in one day being mayor, “Each generation does better than the one before.”

Feinstein’s career in American politics, a series of historic firsts that began with her leading the Board of Supervisors, was born in the upheaval of the mid-20th century’s struggles for greater civil rights. There was a conviction that Feinstein’s rising generation of Democrats, more diverse than any that had preceded it, would be the stewards of those hard-won victories. “I was sort of intoxicated with my win,” Feinstein told Roberts of that big night in 1969. “I had done something that hadn’t been done before. I didn’t understand what loss was like in the arena.”

2022: The oldest sitting U.S. senator

Since then, Feinstein has lost as much as she has won. She has lost two husbands to cancer, two colleagues to assassination, and tens of thousands of her city’s residents to the aids epidemic. She served on the Board of Supervisors for eight tumultuous years, and she ran and lost two mayoral races before serving as mayor of San Francisco for nine years. She was considered and passed over as a vice-presidential candidate in 1984, lost a California gubernatorial election in 1990, then won six elections to the United States Senate, where she serves as the fifth-most-senior senator.

Feinstein is now both the definition of the American political Establishment and the personification of the inroads women have made over the past 50 years. Her career, launched in a moment of optimism about what women leaders could do for this country, offers a study in what the Democratic Party’s has not been able to do. As Feinstein consolidated her power at the top of the Senate, the party’s losses steadily mounted. It has lost control of the Supreme Court; it is likely about to lose control of Congress. Children are being gunned down by the assault weapons Feinstein has fought to ban, while the Senate—a legislative body she reveres—can only stand by idly, ultimately complicit. States around the nation are banning books about racism as Black people are being shot and killed in supermarkets. Having gutted the Voting Rights Act, conservatives are leveraging every form of voter suppression they can, while the Senate cannot pass a bill to protect the franchise. The expected overturning of Roe v. Wade this summer will mark a profound step backward, a signal that other rights won during Feinstein’s adulthood, including marriage equality and full access to contraception, are just as vulnerable.

1970: Dianne Feinstein is sworn in as a member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors.

1978: At the opening of a tourism center.

As the storied career of one of the nation’s longest-serving Democrats approaches its end, it’s easy to wonder how the generation whose entry into politics was enabled by progressive reforms has allowed those victories to be taken away. And how a woman who began her career with the support of conservationist communities in San Francisco, and who staked her political identity on advancing women’s rights, is now best known to young people as the senator who scolded environmental-activist kids in her office in 2019 and embraced Lindsey Graham after the 2020 confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett, a Supreme Court justice who appears to be the fifth and final vote to end the constitutional right to an abortion. As Feinstein told Graham, “This is one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in.”

1971: She runs for mayor of San Francisco and loses.

For many from a younger and more pugilistic left bucking with angry exasperation at the unwillingness of Feinstein’s generation to make room for new tactics and leadership before everything is lost, the senator is more than simply representative of a failed political generation—she is herself the problem. After she expressed her unwillingness to consider filibuster reform last year, noting that “if democracy were in jeopardy, I would want to protect it, but I don’t see it being in jeopardy right now,” The Nation ran a piece headlined “Dianne Feinstein Is an Embarrassment.”

Feinstein, who turns 89 in June, is older than any other sitting member of Congress. Her declining cognitive health has been the subject of recent reporting in both her hometown San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times. It seems clear that Feinstein is mentally compromised, even if she’s not all gone. “It’s definitely happening,” said one person who works in California politics. “And it’s definitely not happening all the time.”

1978: Speaking to the press after the assassination of Harvey Milk.

Reached by phone two days after 19 children were murdered in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, in late May, Feinstein spoke in halting tones, sometimes trailing off mid-sentence or offering a non sequitur before suddenly alighting upon the right string of words. She would forget a recently posed question, or the date of a certain piece of legislation, but recall with perfect lucidity events from San Francisco in the 1960s. Nothing she said suggested a deterioration beyond what would be normal for a person her age, but neither did it demonstrate any urgent engagement with the various crises facing the nation.

1981: Mayor Feinstein.

“Oh, we’ll get it done, trust me,” she assured me in reference to meaningful gun reform. Every question I asked— about the radicalization of the GOP, the end of Roe, the failures of Congress—was met with a similar sunny imperviousness, evincing an undiminished belief in institutional power that may in fact explain a lot about where Feinstein and other Democratic leaders have gone wrong. “Some things take longer than others, and you can only do what you can do at a given time,” she said. “That doesn’t mean you can’t do it at another time. And so one of the things that you develop is a certain kind of memory for progress: when you can do something in terms of legislation and have a chance of getting it through, and when the odds are against it, meaning the votes and that kind of thing. So I’m very optimistic about the future of our country.”

IT IS NOT A COMMENT ON HER AGE to note the sheer amount of history that has determined Dianne Feinstein’s life.

Her father, Leon Goldman, was born in 1904 to Jewish immigrants. Feinstein’s grandfather had fled pogroms in Russian-occupied Poland and had become a shopkeeper in San Francisco, where the family’s lives were upended by the fire that raged after the 1906 earthquake. The family relocated to Southern California, and Feinstein’s grandfather invested in oil wells. Leon would go on to medical school, becoming the first Jewish chair of surgery at the University of California, San Francisco, hospital and a member of San Francisco’s rarefied social circles.

Feinstein’s mother, Betty Rosenburg, fled the Bolshevik Revolution with her czarist Russian Orthodox father, traveling across Siberia by hay cart. She grew up to be a model, and after marrying Goldman and bearing three daughters, she became alcoholic, abusive, and suicidal. She raged and threatened to kill Dianne and her sisters, calling them “kikes” and “little Jews,” and once tried to drown her youngest daughter in a bathtub.

This instability remained a secret in the upscale circles in which Feinstein’s parents moved. Her father was a workhorse, adored by his patients and his eldest daughter; many think she modeled her workaholic habits and insatiable ambitions on his. “Dianne is really Leon Goldman in the garb of a beautiful woman,” one family friend told Roberts.

Raised Jewish, Dianne was nonetheless enrolled as a teen at the exclusive Convent of the Sacred Heart High School in tony Pacific Heights, where she became quite taken with the aesthetics of Catholic ritual and hierarchy. The school was full of processions and teas and ceremonies. Students were required to wear starched uniforms and white gloves. In his book Season of the Witch, San Francisco writer David Talbot reported that young Dianne would occasionally try on a nun’s habit.

Dianne attended Stanford, where she won the highest political position available to female students at the time: the vice-presidency. She got a fellowship the year after her graduation, in 1955, during which she worked on a report about criminal justice in San Francisco. She eloped with the man who would become her first husband and got pregnant, giving birth to her daughter, Katherine, in 1957. Within two years, she would be divorced and a single mother at 26, albeit a very privileged one. In her mid-20s, she briefly entertained the idea of becoming a stage actress, took up sailing, and volunteered for John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign. When, in 1961, a San Francisco real-estate developer refused to show a home to a rising-star Black lawyer, Willie Brown, Dianne brought her daughter to a demonstration for Brown and bumped her stroller into Terry Francois, who was the head of the local NAACP. Both Francois and Brown would become close associates.

That same year, California governor Pat Brown, a patient of Dianne’s father’s, offered her a paid job on the California women’s-parole-and-sentencing board. For six years, she had the power to determine sentence length for women who had been convicted of everything from public drunkenness to violent crimes. She took a reformist approach to criminal justice, calling for rehabilitation rather than long sentences in narcotics cases. Francois, who had become the first African American to serve on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, assigned her to an advisory committee on local jails; she reported on the terrible state of the facilities, the inedible food, the overcrowding, the rampant vermin.

1982: As mayor, she makes gun control a key policy issue.

1984: Answering questions about the possibility of becoming Walter Mondale's running mate.

1992: Feinstein and Barbara Boxer running for the U.S. Senate.

As part of her work with the board, she found herself determining sentences for abortion providers. Although she would later strongly support abortion access and often told a story about how, back at Stanford, classmates had passed a plate to pay for a student to travel to Tijuana to end a pregnancy, in the early ’60s the procedure was still illegal in California, and, as she would explain to Roberts, the cases in front of her were “all illegal back-alley abortionists. Many times, the women that they performed an abortion on suffered greatly. I really came to believe that the law is the law.”

Feinstein’s memories of this period remain sharp. “Under the indeterminate-sentence law, most sentences carried a low of maybe six months and a high of ten years,” she told me by phone. “There was one case, her name was Anita Venza. And over and over, she committed abortions on women. I said when we were sentencing her, ‘Anita, why do you continue doing this?’ And she said, ‘I feel so sorry for women in this situation.’”

I asked Feinstein whether she had continued to sentence Venza despite this explanation. “Yes.”

But did Feinstein feel for her? “Oh, yes,” she replied. “But she was a dedicated … She was going to continue to do it. There’s no question. She had been in state prison and been paroled and was brought back.”

When I pushed further, asking Feinstein what it felt like now to be on the verge of a future in which providers like Venza could once again be sentenced to prison, and in which the law will once again be the law, she declined to fully acknowledge the chilling implications of the rollback on the near horizon, retreating instead behind impenetrable platitudes. “Well, one thing I have seen in my lifetime is that this country goes through different phases,” she said. “The institutions handling some of these issues have changed for the better. They’ve become more progressive, and I think that’s important.”

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