The Day I Stood Up Dianne Feinstein by Umberto Tosi
|Then SF Mayor Dianne Feinstein, c 1980
My stomach clutched when I heard that Dianne Feinstein had died at 90 last week. It wasn't from personal grief, although I admired the California senator greatly. Neither was it due to recalling the few times we had crossed paths over the years. Nor was it an unavoidable reminder that, at age 86, I could well be next -- lucky to have lived this long myself. No. It was from what I'll call post-embarrassment guilt syndrome -- a half-forgotten missed lunch.
It seems like a triviality from the perspective of the late senator's lifetime of monumental accomplishments. Nevertheless, it makes me wince.
Her distinguished political career spanned more than half a century, including ten years as mayor of San Francisco and thirty one years as a U.S. senator. The longest for any woman in the US Congress with a long lists of firsts, it took in tragedies, wars, losses and triumphs.
Few have had greatness thrust upon them as brutally as Dianne Feinstein. And few live up to such great challenges as capably as she. Like Harry S Truman and America's present commander in chief, few have been as underestimated or under-appreciated.
She endured a distressed childhood as the daughter of a disturbed abusive mother during the Great Depression when she was tasked with caring for her younger siblings. Perhaps this helped her develop the equanimity and resourcefulness for which she was known. As the child of a prominent physician she attended the best schools, including Stanford University from which she graduated as a history major.
With the exception of occasional, restrained fits of pique, she seemed unflappable amidst the contentiousness of San Francisco city politics in which she came up in the 1970s and became president of the city's board of supervisors.
I was editor of San Francisco Magazine at the time. Our office was not far away from City Hall. My staff and I were stunned like the rest of the city. It was a JFK assassination moment.
| Harvey Milk and George Moscone
San Francisco's Board of Supervisors appointed Feinstein to step into Moscone's job. She became the city's first female mayor, a job she did in exemplary fashion for the next nine years, balancing downtown business, neighbourhood, ethnic and left-right ideological factions and running City Hall with a no-nonsense style.
Although her prim, prep school style contrasted with San Francisco's free-wheeling zeitgeist, all in all, Feinstein is considered San Francisco's most effective mayor ever. Among her most notable mayoral accomplishments: raising federal, state and private funds to restore the city's iconic, by then deteriorated cable car system.
| Loma Prieta Quake damage, 1989, SF-Chronicle
She gets credit for dozens of other less spectacular, but equally positive accomplishments as mayor. She championed gay rights and medical research to counter the AID/HIVs epidemic, at a time when Ronald Reagan's Administration turned a blind eye to what the religious right labeled "the gay disease" - giving tacit credence to social conservative demagogue Patrick Buchanan's calling AIDS "divine retribution for homosexualty."
Undaunted, Feinstein led an unrelenting campaign to increase funding for AIDS research and care.
Her balancing act wasn't easy.
| White Night protest-(SF-Gate)
Feinstein concluded her mayoral tenure in early 1988 by leading a spectacular junket to Hong Kong. I went along to cover it as editor of San Francisco Magazine, myself a lame duck soon to take another position with a publishing company in the East Bay. It was to celebrate San Francisco and Hong Kong becoming "sister cities." (The city has had about 15 of them.)
The San Francisco entourage filled two jumbo airliners with performers, officials, and other delegates, including a celebrity softball team, the press corps, the entire San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and San Francisco's leading ballet company. (All the hoo-haw notwithstanding, the "sisterhood" broke up when the United Kingdom handed Hong Kong back to the People's Republic of China in 1997.)
Fast forward a few years - 1988-1992 proved the nadir of Feinstein's political career during which she failed in her run for California governor and faded to near-nobody status -- by choice rather than hitting the chicken-and-rice circuit. The biographies would come later.
Now comes my Dianne Feinstein faux pas. By 1989 I was editor-in-chief of Diablo Publications in San Francisco's suburban East Bay Contra Costa County, running its modest list of periodicals. I set up an interview with the former mayor over lunch in the city for a monthly column. I would ask her about her political plans, and personal life including a rumoured run for US Senator or another race for governor.
But I stood her up! There's no easy way to put it. I wasn't exactly on top of my game at that time, but there was no excuse. I didn't find out until her office phoned. I had gotten the date wrong through a tangle of mix ups. I sent a note and apologized over the phone, but there was no rescheduling. That train had left the station!
At least I didn't seem to have done any damage except to my own self-esteem. Dianne was too tough to let a local journalist's snub get her down, even during her lowest period.
| Rep. Nancy Pelosi
The rest is history, of course. Dianne Feinstein went on to become a US Senator from the nation's richest, most populous state, a post she held for more than 30 years through several re-elections.
She chaired some of the most important committees in Congress and sponsored one historic bill after another, including the US assault weapons ban that was law, saving lives, for two decades until George W. Bush let it expire.
One could debate her priorities, for instance, in pushing military spending as a long-time maven of armed services committees. But she also pushed public education, health, public assistance and civil rights legislations just as vigorously. And through all those years of trust, power and influence, never even a hint of scandal or demagoguery, unlike too many of her current Washington colleagues, particularly MAGA extremists.
Many Democrats talked about her as presidential timber -- one of the US Congress' most powerful politicians along with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi - another San Francisco powerhouse I had the honor of encountering during those days.
Feinstein's San Francisco tenure marked the ending and beginning of eras, now rapidly receding and transforming into what is to come. Those days of beauty and struggle, as all are, my friend.
A painful childhood taught Feinstein that people of ill will abound in this world, sometimes right next to us. The soft-hearted must also be tough-minded. You can't fix broken people without fixing a broken society and you can't fix a busted society without empowering those in it, at least enough of them. Above all, Dianne Feinstein was a realist.