In the long arc of California history, among redwood giants like Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren, Ronald Reagan, Pat and Jerry Brown, one name stands out: Dianne Feinstein.
She’s not only the longest-serving U.S. senator in the state, she’s one of the most significant and accomplished California legislators ever named.
It’s not just his legislative achievements, in areas like environmental protection and gun control, that distinguish Feinstein’s more than half-century public career.
Equally, if not more, significant is the path she helped blaze for women in politics, first by seeking and winning elected office and then, once empowered, showing that a woman could do more than stand out among the far greater number of men jostling around her.
As mayor of San Francisco, a role imposed on her by the assassination of her predecessor, Feinstein stabilized and then strengthened the city at a time when it seemed poised to slip.
As a senator in Washington, she was an important voice on issues such as crime, national defense and intelligence, including CIA detention and interrogation practices, which were once considered beyond the purview of the United States. a legislator.
“If you go back 30, 40 years, women were on the education committee, or maybe in health care. Whatever little bone was thrown at them,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a retired USC political science professor and longtime student of government and California politics.
“Dianne didn’t follow the typical path,” Bebitch said. “She didn’t let herself be pigeonholed as a ‘woman’ senator.”
Bowing to age and political reality, Feinstein, 89, made the right decision on Tuesday announcing she would step down and not run for a full sixth term next year.
It was time.
The last few years have not been kind to Feinstein, filled with repeated accounts of his obvious physical and cognitive decline. Although they have performed well enough, thanks to ingenious teamwork, California deserves better.
Had she run again, she would surely have lost out to one of the younger and more vigorous competitors lining up to replace her, providing a sad coda to a remarkable career.
Another, no less important, reason for Feinstein’s certain defeat is the passage of an era and a style of politics that she ended up embodying, to her great detriment.
Never a favorite of the political left – in San Francisco she was considered a conservative and, worse, laughed at – Feinstein routinely infuriated fellow Democrats by reaching out to work with Republicans.
In true fashion, she again showcased the virtues of good old bipartisanship by standing aside on Tuesday.
“Even with a divided Congress, we can still pass bills that will improve lives,” Feinstein said in a written statement announcing his decision.
Worse still, performative politics — the showy stunt, the devastating Tweet, the viral moment that has become the coin of the activist’s realm — was never Feinstein’s forte.
Even before being held out of sight by nervous managers, the senator was more likely to be found buried in a briefing book or wading through a mountain of research than making news on the broadcast circuit. cable chat.
It would, however, be tragic and misguided to remember Feinstein as some kind of relic, as if we only remember Willie Mays – another San Francisco icon – for the final years he spent stumbling through the outfield.
“Yeah, okay, maybe she hung on too long,” said Stanford’s Bruce Cain, another political scientist who has followed Feinstein’s career over the decades.
“But she’s right up there with Nancy Pelosi and Jerry Brown in a class of her own in their ability to continue to work productively for many decades and through all the changes in the political system.”
There are deeply cinematic aspects to Feinstein’s career that could easily have been engineered in Hollywood.
Overcoming an abusive childhood and being widowed at a young age.
Suffering a heartbreaking political loss, including two failed bids for mayor of San Francisco.
She was planning to leave politics for good in November 1978 when Mayor George Moscone was shot and killed along with Harvey Milk, Feinstein’s colleague on the board of supervisors. As chair of the board, Feinstein took on work that was long beyond her reach.
There was more drama, more disappointment.
Feinstein was the target of two assassination attempts and a failed mayoral recall. She was considered, then passed over, for the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1984.
Six years later, Feinstein made history as the Democratic candidate for governor of California, narrowly losing to Republican Pete Wilson. She made history again in 1992 when she was elected to the Senate alongside Barbara Boxer; both were California’s first female senators.
One wondered how Feinstein, used to being in charge as chief executive — and imperious, at that — would function as one of the 100 senators. But she proved to be a very skilled negotiator and legislator.
She passed, among other laws, a landmark desert protection bill that had been stalled before her arrival and imposed a 10-year ban on assault weapons in the face of fierce opposition from the National Rifle Association. and its political allies. (President George W. Bush let the law expire in 2004.)
Earlier this week, as the Beltway seethed with speculation over the California Senate seat, liberal commentator Jonathan Capehart shared his thoughts on Twitter.
“There is a way out for Feinstein that would also allow him to help write history,” he wrote. “She could step down from the seat now and allow Governor Newsom to fulfill his promise to appoint a black woman to succeed him.”
But that misses the point.
Feinstein has already gone down in history several times. Nothing that has happened over the past few years will change that or take away all that she has achieved.
Los Angeles Times