February 23, 2023

Dianne Feinstein Is Old, Absolutely. She’s Also an Absolute Giant.

Written by Frank Bruni
The New York Times
The New York Times

The speculation about who might replace Senator Dianne Feinstein — and several Democrats’ maneuverings to be the one — creates the impression that she’s already gone. No. She plans to leave the Senate at the end of 2024, almost two years from now, and she announced that only last week. But within hours, she was old news. Nothing to see here, folks, not anymore. Let’s move on.

But let’s not — not yet. Let’s give this formidable trailblazer her considerable due, especially in light of all the scorn heaped on her over the past few years, all the people pointing her toward the exit.
By the milestones and the numbers, she’s extraordinary, a giant: the first woman to be president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (that’s what they call the city council out there), then the first woman to be mayor of San Francisco and then, in 1992, the first woman to be elected to the Senate from California, the nation’s most populous state. In 2021, she became the longest-serving California senator in history. In 2022, she became the longest-serving female senator ever.
She’s 89 now, the oldest current senator, and there has been much talk about whether she brings adequate vigor and optimal acuity to the job. That coincides with a larger conversation, tied to President Joe Biden’s apparent determination to seek a second term that would end when he’s 86, about age, ability, optics and when a leader should cede the reins. It’s a fair and necessary discussion.

But it should never diminish, or distract us from, all that a person accomplished. It should never minimize the kind of moral authority that can come from an accretion of years — from all that a person has lived through, all that she has seen and survived. It should never delete scenes from her highlights reel.

Two of Feinstein’s scenes, chosen from scores of them:
In March 2013, she fought successfully to push a reinstatement of an expired ban on assault weapons through the Senate Judiciary Committee. At one point Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican with a hoary and literalist interpretation of the Second Amendment, questioned her constitutional fluency. “I’m not a sixth grader,” she responded. “I’m not a lawyer. But after 20 years, I’ve been up close and personal with the Constitution.” That’s called experience. And that’s an example of the poise it engenders.
The next March, she took to the Senate floor to excoriate the C.I.A. as part of her long, dogged effort to hold the United States to account for its use of black sites, torture and the like after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Her impassioned speech — which would garner a standing ovation from fellow Democrats at a party luncheon later that day — cemented the role she seized, despite furious blowback, as the country’s conscience regarding the treatment of detainees in the war on terror. She was then, at 81, already the oldest serving senator. And that fit. That gave her the stature — and fearlessness — to buck the Obama administration and do what she felt she must.
Feinstein has always gone her own way, following her own compass, never nearly progressive enough for the left, not as predictably and consistently moderate as centrists wanted her to be, idiosyncratic, ornery.
She has lavished as much thought and energy on curbing gun violence as any American politician of her stature, and no wonder: In 1978, she saw, up close, what firearms can do, kneeling beside the gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk to check for a pulse after he was fatally shot and feeling her finger slip into a bullet hole.
She insisted on dignity for gay people long before that was fashionable — or even, to many Americans, tolerable. She was eloquent and emphatic about a woman’s right to choose. She was erudite, devotedly learning what she needed to when she took an issue on. She was fierce.
She was also, incidentally, the author of one of the most frustrating experiences of my career.
Sometime in late 1999 or early 2000, an editor at The Times Sunday Magazine asked me to do a big profile of her. Feinstein and her staff indicated that they’d cooperate, but first she wanted to ease into it and get to know me better. In a bistro on Capitol Hill, we had a long, relaxed dinner, with ample chardonnay, but it was off the record.
Weeks later I met up with her in California, traveling with her to various political events. Our conversations were colorful, candid — and always, at her insistence, off the record. We’d fix that soon, she said.
Then she looked up one day with surprise that I was still around: Didn’t I have enough for my article? I reminded her that she hadn’t answered questions in a way that I could actually use. In one long and stilted session at her home in San Francisco, she finally did — and said nothing nearly as interesting as she had when we were just chatting.
The article I turned in was killed. That had never happened to me before and has never happened since.
So: I resented her? No. I respected her. She cared less for getting the glossy magazine treatment than she did for discretion. She could only peacock so much. She had work to do, and Dianne Feinstein has always been about the work. That’s how she climbed so high. That’s how she lasted so long. And that’s how we should remember her.
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