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Dianne Feinstein





Susan Zakin

There are many lessons that we, as Americans, as women, as human beings, should take away from the life and career of Dianne Feinstein. She had been around so long - too long, some charged - that many seemed to have forgotten why we knew her.

Few people had heard of Feinstein until the epochal assassinations of gay activist Harvey Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone by one of their colleagues, the homophobic Dan White. As president of the city's Board of Supervisors, Feinstein was the one who righted the ship.

It was a role her childhood prepared her for, probably better than anyone else in San Francisco politics. The daughter of a mentally ill, alcoholic mother, Feinstein had an intimacy with terror that only children in her situation can possess.

I was not in San Francisco then; I wasn't even out of college. But I have a grainy memory of Dianne Feinstein standing in front of microphones. The moment is stunning. Her features register the horror of what has happened but she radiates what we all need so desperately in such moments: steadiness.

The memory now has the quality of a dream. Perhaps I never saw it in real time, but in the powerful documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, which came out in 1984, the year I moved to San Francisco. I lived not far from the Castro, the neighborhood where Milk and others found joy and liberation.

Grace under pressure is such a trite phrase, yet it is hard to escape in this case. As legal scholar Garrett Epps wrote on the day of her death: "In Feinstein's long career, the moment that sticks with me is that she held the dying George Moscone in her arms as he bled out from an assassin's bullet."

Later, DiFi, as she was rather familiarly called, seemed to oscillate between conservatism and the kind of progressive politics that constitutes the establishment in the Bay Area. As her obituaries noted, she was against gay marriage, and then for it. She voted for the war in Iraq but then spoke out strongly for closing Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba. She drove environmentalists mad by making compromises with the state's water hungry farmers at the expense of the endangered fish whose plight reflected the destruction wrought by the state's frontier mentality. The state's profligate use of water, often by super-rich investors farming unsustainably on hundreds of thousands of acres, needed to be reined in, not catered to.

Yet Feinstein was heroic, when as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2014, she oversaw a report on torture in the C.I.A.'s secret prisons around the world. President Obama had ordered an end to these practices after he took office in 2009, but human rights groups presented evidence that many continued for years. Known for her plain-spokeness, she didn't flinch when it was time to present these findings publicly.

Feinstein has been described as "powerful, maddening, gracious, pointed," with the toughness to fight the gun lobby and the integrity to change her mind. The most timely lesson comes from the last years of her career. When Feinstein was clearly in failing health, relying on aides to prompt her in hearings and lacking her customary acerbic turn of phrase, the attacks on the country's longest-serving female senator were personal, they were vicious, and they were sexist - full stop. Both Ronald Reagan and Strom Thurmond had grown senile in office, and nobody caviled.

Of course, the decline of Thurmond and Reagan came at a different time, when privacy was still respected. And, admittedly, the issue of the country's deep bench of geriatric politicians is front and center. But brave women should be treated, at the very least, with the fairness Dianne Feinstein exhibited throughout her career.

Feinstein on Gun Control: The Independent

A Woman in Full: The New York Times