Dianne Feinstein Goes Her Own Way
Resisting the pull of today’s partisan politics is challenging. But the California senator has plenty of practice at breaking a different path.
By Romesh Ratnesar
On a sparkling June morning 24 years ago, Dianne Feinstein, ’55, stood before a crowd in Stanford Stadium as the featured speaker at the university’s 102nd Commencement. Feinstein had served in the U.S. Senate for less than a year, and she was already weary of Washington’s tribalism. “I have been astonished by the primacy of partisanship — by the willingness, even when the nation is undeniably in trouble, to treat the great issues as occasions to score small points or attract a few voters,” she said. Feinstein chastised politicians of both parties. “I reject the view,” she said, “that the next election will reward those who simply oppose.”
Those remarks seemed newly resonant when I met Feinstein this summer, four months into the presidency of Donald Trump. Feinstein’s suite is on the third floor of the Hart Senate Office Building, overlooking the massive steel Alexander Calder sculpture Mountains and Clouds. On the walls of the reception area hang seven framed copies of laws authored by Feinstein, including her proudest legislative achievement, the 1994 ban on assault weapons.
Feinstein greets me and sits down at a round table in the center of her office. In the wake of the 2016 election, the country is vastly more divided than when she addressed the graduates at Stanford. Democratic activists have pressured Feinstein to take a harder line against Trump. Does she still believe that “those who simply oppose” — what some members of her own party might today call “the resistance” — are on the wrong side of history?
“Hopefully I’ve learned a lot in the interim,” she says. “But I haven’t read the speech in 24 years. I don’t want to comment on it. A lot has changed, and I have no memory of what I said.” I try again, asking whether compromise remains possible in the current political environment. Her sonorous voice starts rising. “The political environment?” Feinstein sighs. “I don’t know what you want or where you’re going.” Shoulders tipped forward, blue eyes slightly narrowed, she casts a glare familiar to any federal agency head, corporate executive, committee staffer, lawmaker or journalist who’s ever crossed the gentle lady from California. It’s a look that conveys a silent but unmistakable message: Move on.
Feinstein is imposing. At 84, she is the Senate’s oldest member and its second-longest-serving Democrat, behind Vermont’s Patrick Leahy. Over a quarter-century, she has introduced 918 bills, 140 resolutions and 795 amendments. Dozens of pieces of major legislation written by Feinstein have become law — from intelligence authorization bills to measures protecting California’s deserts to a bill banning the sale of prescription drugs online. She is among the Senate’s most influential voices on national security issues, having served as the chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence — the only woman to have held that position. Among leaders of both parties, her reputation for intellectual rigor, policy acumen and, above all, nonpartisanship, is legend. “She is somebody who’s been totally committed to doing the job of senator,” says former secretary of defense and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta. “She’s one of the few remaining people who really does represent what leadership in the Senate should be all about.”
Former Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who served with Feinstein for close to 25 years, says, “She doesn’t posture. She wants to get things done. If you work on a topic with her, even if you disagree on 80 percent, she’ll say, ‘Let’s start with the 20 percent we agree on and see how things go from there.’ ” Mikulski credits Feinstein’s effectiveness to her “commitment to knowing the policies and understanding the arguments on both sides. And being really, really persistent.”
That steely determination has been forged over the course of six decades in public life, through trials both political and personal: divorce and single motherhood in her 20s; the death of her second husband, Bertram Feinstein, to cancer in 1978; taking over as mayor of San Francisco after the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by their former colleague Dan White; running the city during the height of the AIDS crisis; defying leaders of the U.S. intelligence community and the Obama White House to expose the truth about the CIA’s torture of terrorism suspects.
Having announced plans to run for a sixth term in 2018, Feinstein remains a powerful force in the Senate. In the wake of the October 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas, Feinstein assumed the role as her party’s principal spokesperson on gun control, leading a renewed push to ban the sale of so-called bump stocks, which enable semiautomatic weapons to fire more rapidly. And as the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, she is helping steer the committee’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and what, if anything, members of the Trump administration may have done to obstruct justice. It’s the kind of high-stakes assignment for which Feinstein has been preparing her entire career. “She can ferret out facts, even if they’re covered up,” says her friend Ellen Tauscher, a former six-term Democratic congresswoman. “When she approaches any issue, she is focused on building a case — so that she can turn to you and say, ‘This is what I think,’ and then give you a series of facts that ends with you nodding and saying yes.”
To an extent largely unknown to the public, Feinstein’s political education began long before she entered Washington’s corridors of power. “I think I’d never paid much attention to what I’d got from Stanford, before coming here,” she tells me, once our conversation turns to her years as an undergraduate in the early 1950s. “Stanford was a real mixture of experiences for me, all of which took the rest of my life to kind of sort out. It’s a big part of me, although you don’t pay much attention to it until you sit down and someone asks you to talk about it.”
Feinstein had a tumultuous childhood. Her mother, Betty, a beautiful Russian immigrant and a former model, was prone to violent, alcohol-fueled rages, frequently directed at Feinstein and her two younger sisters, Lynn and Yvonne. “The smallest thing could set her off,” Feinstein later recalled. “You could not reason with her.” The burden of managing Betty’s eruptions fell to Dianne and her father, Leon Goldman, a gifted physician who was the first Jewish chair of surgery at the medical school at UCSF. Feinstein attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart, an exclusive and highly regimented Catholic school for girls, where she learned discipline and developed an interest in acting.
In her senior year of high school, she was accepted to UC-Berkeley and Stanford. Her father made his preference clear. “My dad had been Cal all his life. He went to Cal, he was a big sports fan — he went to every single Cal football game. I mean, he loved it.” Feinstein told her father she thought she would get a better education at a smaller school. “He said, ‘Remember, Dianne, it’s better to sit one thousand feet away from a genius than one hundred feet from a mediocrity.’ ” She bellows with laughter. “That was his argument for Cal. So I chose Stanford.”
Feinstein describes her arrival on the Farm in the fall of 1951 as “a wonderful release” because “I was on my own, could make my own decisions and didn’t have to ask for approval.” She lived in Roble and threw herself into social activities — at the expense of academics, like legions of Stanford freshmen before and since. “I had the potential to be a very good student. I was not a very good student.” A poor grade in freshman general biology dissuaded her from following her father into medicine. Instead, she gravitated toward courses in American history and politics. She recalls a seminal course in American political thought taught by a visiting professor. “The final was all essay, so I could write my heart out, and I got an A+. I decided that if these thoughts are rewarded, maybe I ought to try to pursue a field where I obviously have some talent.”
From her first months at Stanford, Feinstein sought ways to make her mark. She put herself forward for a position as a freshman representative on the Associated Students’ executive committee and ran for secretary of the Associated Women Students. As a junior, she lived as a sponsor in Branner, advising incoming female students on how to make their way on a campus where men outnumbered women 3 to 1. “It’s sort of interesting to me now that I really liked doing it — but I really did. We’d all get together in one room and kind of talk, and I’d try to give them advice. Here I am: a big junior! What did I know?” And she had a “great romantic relationship” with Leon King, the center on Stanford’s 1952 Rose Bowl team. “We went down there and lost — 44 to nothing!” she recalls, bursting into laughter. (It was actually 40–7.)
By the start of her senior year, Feinstein had become politically active. She’d been overseas for the first time, traveling to the territories of then-Yugoslavia on a student trip led by Stanford historian Wayne Vucinich. With a half-dozen other students, she established Stanford’s first chapter of Young Democrats, a sign of her political awakening and growing independence from her staunch Republican father. “He used to say, ‘Dianne and five Democrats are holed up in some place having a meeting,’ ” Feinstein says. “We did have a little organization — there weren’t many of us, and we couldn’t meet on campus, which was kind of a disincentive to any kind of political organization. But that’s when I chose to be a Democrat, based on my readings in history and that class in American political thought. And that’s really how Stanford had an influence on me.”
The biggest decision of her undergraduate years was running for student body vice president, the highest office women could hold, in the spring of 1954. One of three candidates, she sought votes everywhere she could — including fraternity row, which wasn’t exactly receptive to Feinstein’s stump speeches. “I was probably the first woman ever to campaign that way.” The all-male audiences threw food at her and hauled her into a shower to dunk her. (In our interview, Feinstein singled out the Zetes, though the Phi Delts have suffered more ignominy in previous accounts.) Prior to the election, she conducted her own poll of students on the Quad and concluded, “I might not get elected.” In the end, after a record turnout, she won 63 percent of the vote. “I can’t say that the office I held was profound in any way, shape or form, but campaigning for it was,” she says now. “I went through my own vicissitudes during that race, but that was OK and I survived it, which sort of amazes me to this day.”
Assuming the role of student body vice president gave Feinstein greater visibility and opportunities to broaden her horizons. She hosted Soviet journalists visiting campus on an exchange program and was a frequent speaker at events held by the Stanford Political Union, a group that convened policy discussions with prominent public officials. During one forum on California’s regulation of alcohol sales, she delivered the student rebuttal to remarks made by a conservative state legislator named Caspar Weinberger, who would later become the U.S. secretary of defense.
Feinstein recalls the early 1950s as a “great time of life — there wasn’t a lot of toil and trouble. We were kind of a different country.” The tumult that accompanied Vietnam and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s lay ahead, but the Korean War and McCarthyism still intruded on campus life. Feinstein’s student government tenure reflected her engagement in the country’s political currents and determination to raise student awareness of them. She had spirited arguments with ASSU president Peter Bing, ’55, with whom she shared an office. “He was very conservative, and I was not so conservative,” Feinstein says. “We were an interesting duo.” Bing, who later served as president of Stanford’s Board of Trustees, says in an email that “Dianne always hoped the ASSU would take on issues beyond those related to Stanford. We didn’t. But her readiness to deal with important, complex problems was already clearly evident. And her approach, often impassioned, was through civil dialogue, one of her lasting hallmarks.”
A few months before graduating in 1955, Feinstein applied for a fellowship with the Coro Foundation, a public policy internship program for recent college graduates. In her application, she wrote, “My future plans center around public affairs in that I plan to run for political office on a local and possibly national level.”
Looking back, Feinstein believes her Stanford experiences shaped her public character in ways even the ambitious 21-year-old Dianne Goldman could never have imagined. They gave her a “fortitude and internal compass” that helped her navigate unexpected twists in the journey to come. “It was kind of pivotal,” she says of her ASSU campaign, “because as pathetic as it was, it was my first race. And as such it did begin some degree of conditioning. Stanford was a real part of my maturation and development of a course of life for me.”
More than 60 years later, Feinstein shows few signs of slowing down. She exhibits the same wonky interest in policy that first took hold in the lecture halls at Stanford. Her friends say she works as diligently now as she did in her first term in the Senate. “Even when we meet to go shopping or have dinner, she’ll bring these big three-ring binders full of briefing papers. That’s what she reads on the weekends,” says Tauscher.
Because of her preparation and focus, Feinstein has little tolerance for legislative maneuvers that cut off debate and short-circuit the Senate’s traditional processes — moves that have become increasingly common. “She doesn’t like it if she feels someone is trying to get something done without respecting her role,” says Panetta. “If you want to get Dianne Feinstein mad at you, just try to ignore or bypass her on a major policy issue. She’ll never forget that.”
Feinstein’s two defining battles in the Senate underscore her tenacity. In 1993, just one year after her election, she sponsored a bill to outlaw the manufacture and sale of high-powered semiautomatic guns known as assault weapons. Despite fierce opposition from the gun lobby, Feinstein lined up enough votes to get it passed — though she says now it was a “mistake” to agree to let the bill expire after 10 years. Despite several unsuccessful attempts to reinstate the ban, she continues to fight for “prudent controls on weapons. You don’t need battlefield weapons for the defense of your home or anywhere else in civilized society.”
More recently, as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, she waged a six-year fight with the CIA over the drafting and release of a 6,700-page investigation into the agency’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” after September 11, 2001. In March of 2014, after learning that the CIA had hacked the computer network of the committee’s investigators, Feinstein took to the Senate floor to denounce the CIA for trying to intimidate her staff and for violating the Constitution’s separation of powers. Ultimately, the Obama administration agreed to the release of a 525-page portion of the Senate committee’s report; after months of denials by then-CIA director John Brennan, the agency acknowledged that it had improperly accessed the computers and emails of Senate staffers.
“It was one of those breathtaking historical moments, to hear a United States senator accuse the CIA of spying [on her staff],” says Sen. Cory Booker, ’91, MA ’92, (D-N.J.). “And then for it to come out and be true, and for the director of the CIA to have to apologize — it shows the iron will of this person and how hard she will fight for what she believes is right. It was really the embodiment of who she is.”
When Booker joined the Senate in 2013, Feinstein summoned him to her office. “She wanted to talk about establishing the discipline and system of support needed to become a great senator. It was all about systems and operations — she went through the internal mechanisms of having a highly effective office, as you’d expect from a great manager or mayor. It was one of the more memorable meetings I had, because of how profoundly practical and helpful it was.” Booker and Feinstein, both former urban mayors, consult frequently on criminal justice issues. “I love the way her mind works,” Booker says. “She doesn’t care what polls say. I literally see her grappling with the issues, asking difficult questions. It’s not staffers telling her things; she’s the one getting to the bottom of it.”
Since 1992, when Feinstein arrived in Washington, the number of female senators has increased from two to 21. Feinstein is now the dean of the Senate’s women, though she doesn’t go out of her way to mentor female colleagues, preferring to lead by example. “When there were just seven or nine of us, we might stand in the well and talk, and the men would say, ‘What are they plotting?’ Nothing, of course,” she says. “Now it’s just well-accepted. Women in both parties have assumed responsibilities and percolated up. And with years you not only obtain experience, but you can provide more leadership.”
Feinstein will face a Democratic primary challenger, state senator Kevin de León, in 2018. Should Feinstein win reelection and serve until 2024, she would become the longest-serving U.S. senator in California’s history. She would also be 91 years old. While she could retire before the end of her final term, her allies find that prospect almost unimaginable. Booker calls Feinstein a “historical figure of great importance. She represents an epoch in the Senate. There will be a huge vacuum when she leaves.”
In late September, I meet Feinstein for a second time in her Capitol Hill office. After we sit down, she laments the unwillingness of Senate Republicans to consult with Democrats on their latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Ever the workhorse, she was pushing a bill of her own that would ease the financial costs on middle-aged Americans buying insurance on the individual market. I ask if making incremental changes like these, if moving the ball forward even in an era of toxic partisanship, keeps her motivated to serve. Feinstein shrugs. “I don’t know whether it does or doesn’t,” she says. “I know it’s what I’m meant to do.”
A few minutes later, she gets up and walks out of the office. She returns with a couple hundred pages of material detailing the status of bills making their way through the Senate on which she’s taken the lead: immigration, domestic terrorism, agriculture, nuclear waste, the sexual abuse of gymnasts, the safety of personal-care products, money laundering, hate crimes, protecting the California Delta. She also gets a rundown on traffic to her Twitter account. “I don’t like our tweets,” she says. So she’s starting to write those too.
“Every Saturday I go through this pile,” she says, after thumbing through about half of it. “It’s not for everyone. It goes back to my days of being mayor, though: If you’re going to run something, run it.”
Which raises an inevitable question: Given her intellect, experience and ability to win support from members of both parties, why has Feinstein not run for the highest office of all? As mayor of San Francisco, she was on the short list to be Democratic nominee Walter Mondale’s running mate in the 1984 presidential race, a nod that went to then-Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-N.Y.), the first woman to run on a major party ticket. Feinstein never mounted her own bid for the White House. When I raise this, she mentions that she’s reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s memoir of the 2016 race. “There’s a lot of bias out there. I think it’s very hard,” Feinstein says. “Women are much easier than men to attack. But some people like it. They like women to be treated this way. That’s the lesson for me, to some extent, of the arena.”
The senator leans in. “But you have to be above it. You have to keep going. And you have to remember why you’re here and who you really serve.” She jabs her finger toward the folder of memos and briefing materials. “I serve that pack of paper, you know? It’s all human beings in there, and there are 40 million of them in my state. And so my view is, I better get it done for them.” •
Romesh Ratnesar, ’96, MA ’96, is a former State Department official and a member of the editorial board of Bloomberg View. He lives in Washington, D.C.