Dianne Feinstein, Centrist Stalwart of the Senate, Dies at 90

Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary
Dianne Feinstein addresses reporters after a closed hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2012.

It was the morning of Nov. 27, 1978, and Dianne Feinstein, a future powerhouse of the U.S. Senate, had decided she was done with politics. After nine years on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, two failed bids for mayor and the recent death of her husband from colon cancer, she wanted out.

Hours later, gunshots rang out in City Hall. A former supervisor, Dan White, had fatally shot Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States. Mrs. Feinstein rushed to Milk and felt for a pulse. “My finger,” she later told the Los Angeles Times, “went into a bullet hole in his wrist.”

Then serving as board president, Mrs. Feinstein, who died Sept. 28, had the duty of announcing the deaths. The image of her standing before television cameras amid the panic, solemnly promising that just as the city had recovered from the devastation of the 1906 earthquake, “so too can we rebuild from the spiritual damage” of the killings, propelled her to the national spotlight.

By the city’s succession laws, Mrs. Feinstein was elevated to mayor, an office she held for nine years before losing a bid for California governor in 1990. Two years later, she won election to the Senate, where she rose to become chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee and the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. During more than three decades in office, she delivered muscular support as well as withering criticism of the CIA, helped mold the federal bench, championed an assault weapons ban, and held down the center of the Democratic Party as it moved swiftly to the left.

Mrs. Feinstein’s death, at her home in Washington, was announced in a statement from her office, which did not give a cause. She was, at age 90, the oldest sitting member of the Senate and the subject of increasing scrutiny over her fitness to serve. Mrs. Feinstein was hospitalized in February with shingles, an illness later reported to have been complicated by encephalitis.

She returned to the Senate in May after a nearly three-month absence. Her inability during that time to vote on Biden administration judicial nominees, along with gathering evidence of her cognitive decline, led even some admirers to urge the senator to resign to avoid tarnishing what was by all accounts a remarkable legacy as a stateswoman. In August she was briefly hospitalized after a fall at her home in San Francisco.

Mrs. Feinstein won her Senate seat in what became known as the Year of the Woman, an election that sent 24 new women to the House of Representatives and brought the total number of female senators to six.

The precipitating event was the 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, who became the second Black justice on the high court. The proceedings pitted Anita Hill, a former colleague of Thomas’s who also is Black, against an all-male, all-White Senate Judiciary Committee that, in the view of many women, did not engage respectfully with Hill’s allegations that Thomas had sexually harassed her.

“Every woman that watched that changed,” Mrs. Feinstein told the New York Times in 2018. “I think change happened at that moment.”

Mrs. Feinstein sometimes spoke of the difficulties of being a woman in power, including the tendency of observers to remark on her appearance. Time magazine once described her as “a casting director’s idea of a Bryn Mawr president who must be bodily restrained from adding gloves – or perhaps even a pillbox hat – to her already ultra-conservative banker-blue suits and fitted red blazers and pearls.”

Mrs. Feinstein spent much of her career fielding criticism from opposite ends of the political spectrum. She disappointed liberals with her law-and-order approach toward governance and her long-standing support for the death penalty, even as she frustrated conservatives with her support for gun control and same-sex-marriage rights. While some women celebrated Mrs. Feinstein as a trailblazer, others resented what they considered her insufficient attention to women’s issues.

“I’ve lived a feminist life,” Mrs. Feinstein, who supported abortion rights, once told an interviewer. “I had to quit a job because there was no maternity leave. I raised a child as a single mother. I put together legislation. I haven’t been a marcher, but I’ve lived it.”

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Centrist from the start

Mrs. Feinstein’s centrism dated to the earliest years of her political career. Her elevation to the office of mayor came on the heels of upheaval, including the mass suicide at Jonestown in Guyana – many followers of cult leader Jim Jones were from San Francisco – and attacks by the New World Liberation Front terrorist group, which placed a bomb outside the bedroom window of Mrs. Feinstein’s daughter. For a time, Mrs. Feinstein owned a handgun.

“The lesson Dianne took from this craziness was that she had been right – that all this polarization and bitterness that was extant in the town had now led to these murders,” her biographer, Jerry Roberts, once told the New Yorker magazine, referring to the assassinations of Moscone and Milk. “That’s when she started talking about how the center is so important.”

Of all the legislation that crossed Mrs. Feinstein’s Senate desk, the bill with which she was most associated was the assault weapons ban that President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994. The uphill effort showcased Mrs. Feinstein at her most determined. When a more senior senator, Larry Craig (R-Idaho), questioned her experience on gun issues, she reminded him that she had become mayor of San Francisco as a result of a double assassination. “I know something about what firearms can do,” she said.

The assault weapons ban expired in 2004. After the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, in which 20 first-graders and six adults were gunned down, Mrs. Feinstein spearheaded an unsuccessful effort to renew the law.

President Biden, who said he recruited her to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee when he was chairman, called her “a pioneering American” in a statement Friday, adding: “There’s no better example of her skillful legislating and sheer force of will than when she turned passion into purpose, and led the fight to ban assault weapons.”

Her centrism – and her influence – were vividly on display during her service on the Senate Intelligence Committee, where in 2009 she became the first female chair. On many issues, she ranked among the most outspoken champions of the CIA and other intelligence organizations.

When President Barack Obama sought to give the Defense Department – and not the CIA – authority for drone strikes on potential terrorists, Mrs. Feinstein used a classified amendment to a spending bill to forestall any such move, according to news accounts.

In 2013, when The Washington Post and London’s Guardian newspaper exposed massive secret surveillance by the National Security Agency, Mrs. Feinstein defended the program and other efforts like it. “It’s called protecting America,” she declared.

Yet even as she championed the nation’s intelligence agencies, she subjected them to aggressive oversight in a duality that aroused admiration as well as occasional perplexity among observers of her career.

Her support for the intelligence community made especially explosive the investigation she led into the “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed by the CIA against terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Obama ended the program shortly after succeeding George W. Bush in the White House.

Deeply disturbed by testimony to the committee about secret CIA prisons known as “black sites,” Mrs. Feinstein called for the investigation shortly after taking the chairmanship.

The committee’s 6,700-page “torture report,” an executive summary of which was publicly released in 2014, alleged that CIA interrogation techniques – including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, physical abuse, confinement in a coffin-size box and threats against suspects’ families – had been far more brutal, more widespread and less effective than the agency previously claimed.

Then-CIA Director John Brennan insisted that the interrogation techniques “did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives.” He and Mrs. Feinstein had earlier faced off in a high-stakes confrontation when Brennan accused committee investigators of improperly obtaining materials from a CIA computer network.

Mrs. Feinstein, who denied Brennan’s charges, gave a dramatic speech on the Senate floor in which she accused the CIA of improperly searching computers used by her staff members and seeking to intimidate them with calls for a Justice Department review of their conduct. An internal CIA investigation later supported those claims, and Brennan apologized.

In the 2014 midterm elections, Republicans regained control of the Senate, and Mrs. Feinstein lost her committee chairmanship. “History will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law,” she had said when the torture report was released, “and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say ‘never again.’ “

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Supreme Court controversies

On the Judiciary Committee, which she joined during her first term in the Senate, Mrs. Feinstein became known as an independent-minded vote.

During the Bush administration, she opposed the nominations of future Supreme Court justices John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr., several candidates for the federal bench, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. But she sided with Republicans on nominees including Gonzales’s successor, Michael B. Mukasey – despite his refusal to categorically describe waterboarding as torture – and federal appeals court judge Leslie H. Southwick, whose nomination was opposed by civil rights and gay rights groups.

“I have never believed that people elected me to represent this big state just to go and be a rubber stamp,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle. However, she continued, “the president is owed some consideration to get his own team, provided that team is qualified.”

Mrs. Feinstein encountered perhaps the most intense criticism of her career while serving as ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee in 2018, during the firestorm surrounding Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh.

That summer Mrs. Feinstein had been forwarded a letter from Christine Blasey Ford, a California psychology professor, with the allegation that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they both were in high school. Mrs. Feinstein, who argued that she was obligated to respect Ford’s request for confidentiality, did not refer the matter to the FBI until the existence of the letter was leaked to the news media, shortly before Kavanaugh’s confirmation vote was to take place.

Ford then came forward in a Post article and testified before the Judiciary Committee, as did Kavanaugh, who furiously disputed her accusations before he was ultimately confirmed on an almost entirely party-line vote. Conservatives charged that Mrs. Feinstein had made an 11th-hour attempt to “ambush” Kavanaugh. Mrs. Feinstein was not roiled, however, as the Kavanaugh confirmation eclipsed perhaps even the Hill hearings in its drama.

Some liberals perceived Mrs. Feinstein as insufficiently tough during the confirmation proceedings of Amy Coney Barrett, whose nomination by President Donald Trump after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave conservatives a 6-3 edge on the high court. At the end of the hearings, to their ire, Mrs. Feinstein embraced and praised Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

Mrs. Feinstein announced in late 2020 that she would step down as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. There were signs that, at 87, she was experiencing memory difficulties that in subsequent years became increasingly severe. In 2022, she suffered the loss of her husband of 42 years, investor Richard Blum.

In February, Mrs. Feinstein said she would not seek reelection in 2024. U.S. Reps. Katie Porter, Adam B. Schiff and Barbara Lee, all Democrats, made the opening bids in what was expected to be a fierce battle for Mrs. Feinstein’s seat.

Even as her physical and cognitive difficulties became unavoidably apparent – after her months-long absence from the Senate when she was ill with shingles, she appeared to tell a reporter at the Capitol that she had never been gone – Mrs. Feinstein resisted any suggestions that she should step down before the end of her term.

“I’m back in Washington, voting and attending committee meetings while I recover,” Mrs. Feinstein said in a statement after her bout with shingles. “I continue to work and get results for California.”

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‘A role falls to you’

Dianne Emiel Goldman, the oldest of three daughters, was born in San Francisco on June 22, 1933. Her father, whose own father was a Jewish refugee of pogroms in Poland, was a respected surgeon and professor at the University of California at San Francisco medical school. Her mother, born in St. Petersburg, was Russian Orthodox.

Outwardly, her life had the markings of privilege. She spent her youth in the tree-lined neighborhood of Presidio Terrace and took horseback riding lessons. But she suffered abuse from her mother, an alcoholic who had sustained brain damage from a childhood bout of encephalitis. She pulled her daughters’ hair, repeatedly attempted suicide and once tried to drown one of the younger girls in the bathtub, Mrs. Feinstein said.

“A role falls to you, whether you like it or not,” she told The Post, recalling how she made sure that her sisters were fed, that the house was cleaned and that the kitchen was stocked. “And that’s really your beginning with leadership.”

She attended an elite Catholic high school where she was the only Jewish student, then enrolled at Stanford, where she was student body vice president and received a bachelor’s degree in history in 1955.

The next year, she eloped with Jack Berman, a prosecutor. They had a daughter, Katherine, before divorcing in 1959.

In 1960, California Gov. Pat Brown (D), who had read a paper about criminal justice that Mrs. Feinstein wrote through a public-affairs internship, named her to the California Women’s Board of Terms and Parole, her first job in public service. Two years later, she married Bertram Feinstein, a neurosurgeon. He died in 1978, months before Moscone and Milk were killed.

Mrs. Feinstein won the mayor’s office in her own right in 1979 and, after surviving a recall, was reelected in 1983. In 1990, she became the first woman to mount a major-party bid for California governor, running on the motto “tough but caring.” To demonstrate her centrism, she appeared before a state party convention and touted the death penalty – then broadly popular in California – as delegates showered her with boos in a scene her campaign team later used in an ad.

She and Blum, her third husband, gave $3 million to the campaign. (Later, his wealth would help make her one of the richest members of the Senate and, at times, attract unfavorable attention for potential conflicts of interest.) The Republican candidate, U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson, won 49 percent to 46 percent.

Wilson appointed Republican John Seymour to his Senate seat. In 1992, Mrs. Feinstein defeated future California governor Gray Davis in the Democratic primary before easily overcoming Seymour in the general election.

Her toughest reelection battle came in 1994, when she faced Republican Michael Huffington, an oil scion and then-husband of author and commentator Arianna Huffington, who spent nearly $30 million of his own money on the race. Mrs. Feinstein held him back, 47 to 45 percent.

The California Democratic Party declined to endorse Mrs. Feinstein in 2018, instead supporting Kevin de León, a more liberal former state senator. Moving somewhat to the left, Mrs. Feinstein reversed her support for the death penalty. She defeated de León in the general election, 54 percent to 46 percent.

In the Senate, Mrs. Feinstein served on the Appropriations Committee and chaired the Rules Committee. Among her most celebrated accomplishments was the California Desert Protection Act, the 1994 law that created Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks and the Mojave National Preserve. The vote that she most regretted, she said, was her support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In addition to her daughter, Katherine Feinstein, a former Superior Court judge in San Francisco, survivors include three stepdaughters, Eileen Bourgade, Heidi Blum and Annette Blum; two sisters; and seven grandchildren.

Throughout her years in politics, Mrs. Feinstein remained acutely aware that her course had been set by tragedy. She once told the New York Times that for years she could not bring herself to sit in the chair where Moscone had been shot, but neither could she remove it from the mayor’s office.

“I think one of the most positive qualities any individual can have is what I call the phoenix syndrome, the mystical bird that became the symbol of rising from your own ashes,” she once remarked, reflecting on a life that had been punctuated by grief and defeat as well as triumph. “That’s the challenge of life. You’ve got to recover from your own ashes, many, many times.”