Dianne Feinstein's long decline

How the trailblazing California senator became a source of frustration for Democrats.

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California's Sen. Dianne Feinstein

WASHINGTON — “I could smell the gunpowder.”

That is how Dianne Feinstein remembers the defining moment of her political life. On a fall morning in 1978, tragedy would thrust her — then a local politician who had come to an apparent dead end in her career — into the national spotlight. That spotlight would track her rise for decades to come, her journey from City Hall in San Francisco to Washington, D.C., where she would become one of the most influential Democrats in the U.S. Senate.

The spotlight is back on Feinstein, and it is much harsher than it has ever been. Feinstein’s age (she is 89, the oldest member of Congress) and temperament have increasingly clashed with a much younger and more diverse Democratic Party than the one that first elected her to serve in Washington close to 30 years ago.

This week, one of her colleagues from the California delegation, Rep. Ro Khanna, called on Feinstein to resign following reports that her absence from Capitol Hill (she has not been present in her office since a bout of shingles earlier this year) was hindering the confirmation of judges nominated by President Biden to the federal bench.

There has been no real rally to Feinstein’s side, though fellow Californian and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wondered if a male senator would be shoved toward the door with a similar lack of grace. Feinstein's immense wealth (estimated at $90 million), advanced age and insistent centrism had already distanced her from some of her colleagues.

Now many see her as an inconvenience and say she should have retired in 2018. By refusing, she has become, to her detractors, less an éminence grise than a relic of less urgent times when moderation and patient consensus-building made more sense.

When her political career does end — she has said she will retire after her term concludes in 2024 but has resisted recent resignation calls — Feinstein will be remembered for her work in preserving immense stretches of the Southern California desert, her leadership in passage of the 1994 federal assault weapons ban and her landmark investigation into allegations of torture conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency.

It is a career defined by longevity but forged in tragedy.

By the fall of 1978, Feinstein — who had served as a San Francisco city supervisor since 1969 — had lost two mayoral elections, in 1971 and 1975. She had recently returned from a trip to Nepal, where she had gotten sick. She was president of the Board of Supervisors, but the position offered no obvious path to greater influence or power.

Terror changed her trajectory. On the morning of Nov. 27, 1978, an aggrieved and deranged ex-supervisor named Dan White, a former police officer, sneaked into City Hall through a basement window to avoid having to pass through metal detectors, which would have alerted security that he was carrying a loaded .38 revolver.

Ill-tempered to begin with, White had been especially enraged because Mayor George Moscone would not allow him to retake the Board of Supervisors seat he had resigned from earlier that month. He also held a political grudge against Harvey Milk, the gay rights icon and city supervisor who had become the conservative White’s political nemesis.

Dianne Feinstein and San Francisco's Chief of Police Charles Gain, right, among others, at a memorial service for assassinated Supervisor Harvey Milk in San Francisco in 1978.
Feinstein and San Francisco's Chief of Police Charles Gain, right, at a memorial service for assassinated Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978. (Janet Fries/Getty Images)

Feinstein saw White walk past her cubicle. She did not know that he had already killed Moscone. Then came gunshots from Milk’s office. She rushed in to find the supervisor on the floor. Crouching over him, Feinstein tried to stop Milk’s bleeding by inserting a finger into a wrist wound. But it was too late.

Moments later, she emerged to tell reporters of the two slayings White had committed. Because Moscone was now dead and she was the board president, she had just become the first woman to lead San Francisco.

“I became mayor as a product of assassination,” she later said.

Feinstein would remain mayor throughout the devastating AIDS years. Conservative by nature (she had been raised in a wealthy Jewish family in San Francisco, then had gone on to a prestigious Catholic school, followed by Stanford) but progressive in her politics, she took the controversial step of shutting down the city’s gay bathhouses, where the deadly new virus was spreading unchecked.

But at a time when many politicians (and some health professionals) treated AIDS patients with revulsion — President Ronald Reagan would not even mention the disease until 1985 — she pushed for both funds to address the ravages of the virus and protections to prevent discrimination against its victims.

A besieged gay community thus found an unlikely but steadfast ally. “Dianne Feinstein doesn’t care who you sleep with, as long as you’re in bed by eleven o’clock,” went one well-known quip about her.

Feinstein ran for governor in 1990 and lost, but won a U.S. Senate seat in 1992. Californians also elected Barbara Boxer, meaning that the state would be represented in the upper chamber of Congress by two Jewish women from Northern California.

Illinois and Washington state had elected women to the Senate, too (Carol Moseley Braun and Patty Murray, respectively). It was to be the “Year of the Woman,” a response by voters to what many saw as the Senate Judiciary Committee's unfair treatment of Anita Hill, who had alleged sexual misconduct by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

At the time of the 1992 election, there were only two women serving full terms in the Senate, which has 100 members. Today there are 25, still a vast underrepresentation — but also a vast improvement.

Feinstein, then the mayor of San Francisco, addresses the Democratic National Convention in 1992. (Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
Feinstein, then the mayor of San Francisco, addresses the Democratic National Convention in 1992. (Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Feinstein would earn a complex reputation in the years to come. Less liberal than Boxer, who retired in 2017, she arguably fit too well into the clubby culture of Capitol Hill. Until very recently, she required that her female staffers wear stockings.

She also quickly earned a reputation as a difficult boss. Just months into her tenure, the Los Angeles Times reported that she had already lost an unprecedented 14 staffers over working conditions that could arguably be described as abusive. “Some staffers occasionally were on the verge of tears after being harshly criticized by Feinstein,” the paper wrote.

In the summer of 1993, a mass shooting at a San Francisco law firm again brought gun violence to the fore of Feinstein’s public life. At a Democratic retreat the following year, she bluntly queried President Bill Clinton: “Where is the assault weapons ban in the Senate?” An aide to the president would later recall the moment: “I just thought it was a stupid question, so I didn’t think anything of it.”

Clinton disagreed. Feinstein became instrumental in garnering the Republican support requisite to overcome a filibuster, and an assault weapons ban passed as part of the 1994 crime bill. But that Republican support also came with a concession that allowed the ban to expire in 2004.

(Feinstein would try to reinstate an assault weapons ban in 2012, after the killing of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. But this time she would fail.)

Feinstein enjoyed another legislative triumph during her second year as a senator, with the California Desert Protection Act, which created the iconic Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks, part of her long-standing commitment to the desert of Southern California.

She had come to love the area in the 1960s, while working on a state sentencing commission. The work required visiting prisons and thus long drives through the Mojave Desert. The austere majesty of the desert seduced the sophisticated urbanite and, once again, an unlikely champion emerged.

"Sen. Feinstein has single-handedly done more to protect the California desert than anybody else in the past quarter of a century," one desert enthusiast told this reporter in 2016.

Some liberals would never forgive Feinstein for voting in favor of the Iraq War in 2002, though many other leading Democrats — including future presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, then the junior senator from New York — did the same. But like many of those Democrats, she came to believe that the George W. Bush administration abused its powers in battling terrorism.

Feinstein focused on the CIA and its role in detaining and interrogating suspects. But that focus was not exactly convenient for an Obama administration seeking to distance itself from Bush-era excesses without altogether dismantling the national security apparatus that had become enmeshed in the federal bureaucracy. At the same time, Republicans saw her as a liberal infringing on national security matters best left to spymasters and generals.

CIA Director James Woolsey talks to Sen. Dianne Feinstein before a hearing before the Senate intelligence committee in 2004.
CIA Director James Woolsey talks to Feinstein before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in 2004. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“I can’t think of anyone else who’s been beaten up by so many different factions, over so many different issues, in such a short period of time,” a Stanford national security expert told the New Yorker.

In 2014, Feinstein made public a 525-page report on the CIA’s activities in the years after 9/11. In a foreword to the report, she wrote that evidence of torture was “overwhelming and incontrovertible.”

The report could have proved to be the capstone of a long and storied career. Boxer’s retirement paved the way for the state’s attorney general, Kamala Harris, to become the first Black woman to represent California in the U.S. Senate.

Some thought it was time for Feinstein to step aside, too. But she said she would run again in 2018.

Washington in the era of Donald Trump, however, proved difficult for her to navigate, especially as many Democrats loudly expressed the conviction that democracy itself was at stake.

The contrast with Harris was unflattering, too. The younger former prosecutor, who sat on the same Judiciary Committee that Feinstein now chaired, grilled Trump nominees like Jeff Sessions with an intensity ready-made for social media. Within months of her arrival in Washington, Harris was being championed as a savior of California values at a time when those values were everywhere under assault.

“Feinstein is being upstaged by this young upstart,” a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley said, in reference to a 2017 poll showing greater enthusiasm for Harris among Californians.

In the summer of 2018, some Democrats grew frustrated with Feinstein for delaying release of a letter detailing sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee.

“Feinstein also comes in for grilling at Senate’s Kavanaugh hearing,” went a Los Angeles Times headline.

At the same time, Feinstein was in a primary fight she had not expected but that was perhaps inevitable given the frustrations that had been building for years. Her opponent, Kevin de León, a former state legislator from Los Angeles, portrayed her as overly deferential, unwilling to challenge Trump with the requisite intensity. “It’s time that we stop biding our time and biting our tongue,” de León said.

Feinstein won, but victory would prove to be expensive. Many continue to believe she should never have sought a fifth term. Or, some say, she could have stepped down after winning.

Instead, she stayed, only to find herself an increasingly embattled figure in an increasingly progressive party.

Her embrace of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., after the 2020 confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court especially infuriated liberals. “This has been one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in,” she told Graham, seemingly dismissing many Democrats’ (well-founded, it would soon be made clear) anxieties that the court’s new conservative majority would strike down Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that had legalized abortion.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Sen. Lindsey Graham hug as the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett come to a close in 2020.
Feinstein and Sen. Lindsey Graham hug as the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett conclude in 2020. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

“There have been a number of us in San Francisco that for a long time felt that, without taking away from what she has accomplished, it has gotten to a point where she is out of touch with where San Francisco is and where California is,” the head of the Democratic Party in San Francisco complained.

At a time when many progressives were pushing for a ban on stock trades by members of Congress, Feinstein faced allegations — investigated by the FBI — that her husband, Richard Blum, had engaged in insider trading.

Then there was the reality of age.

In the spring of 2022, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that concerns about her mental acuity were growing. “I have worked with her for a long time and long enough to know what she was like just a few years ago: always in command, always in charge, on top of the details, basically couldn’t resist a conversation where she was driving some bill or some idea. All of that is gone,” one lawmaker told Feinstein’s hometown newspaper.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein leaves the Senate chamber following a vote in February.
Feinstein leaves the Senate chamber following a vote in February. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Her recent absence from Washington has infuriated Democrats who see her insistence on staying in power as hindering the confirmation of liberal judges who could provide what they see as a necessary backstop against an ever-energized conservative legal movement.

Earlier this week, she asked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — for whom her longevity has long been a point of frustration — to find a replacement to temporarily take her seat on the Judiciary Committee.

That has not been enough for some Democrats, who say Feinstein has squandered her goodwill, which may have never been in great supply to begin with.

As for the searing image of a bloodstained Feinstein emerging from the slain Milk’s office, it is the fading relic of another political epoch. Today, her liberal colleagues say, new villains demand new heroes.