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.

Danger was never far away. At one point, a far left terrorist group that considered the patrician, left-centrist Democrat reactionary, planted a bomb in her home. Then on November 27, 1978, gun-wielding Supervisor and homophobic ex-policeman Dan White, charged into San Francisco City Hall’s Room 200 and assassinated pioneer, gay activist Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Fienstein's office was only steps away. Her dress was still bloodstained when she announced the tragedy to the press. 

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
 Strangely, we had just run a   story by a local insider about Moscone's extreme frustration in trying to deal with the city's notoriously hateful factionalism. An image of the mayor peering through a cracked window accompanied the piece. It felt ominous in retrospect. 

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
Feinstein approached a costly and controversial construction problems at Candlestick Park similarly in 1980s. The baseball park, then home of the Giants, was owned by the city. The Giants planned to move. Nobody wanted to take on costs for mandated, earthquake retrofitting. Feinstein managed to put the financing together. The work was done. Turned that this saved hundreds, possibly thousands of lives when the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake struck in October 1989, just as a World Series opening game was about to start there before a capacity crowd.

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)
Like most big-city mayors, she was all in for law and order,  putting cops on the streets and so forth. But she also stood up to the police establishment after cops invaded the city's gay Castro District indiscriminately in reaction to the White Night riots that followed assassin Dan White getting off with a light sentence (on grounds of "temporary insanity") for the murders of Milk and Moscone.

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. 


Umberto Tosi's novels include his highly praised, Frank Ritz, Hollywood noir detective mysteries The Phantom Eye, and Oddly Dead plus his story collection, Sometimes Ridiculous. His epic historical novel Ophelia Rising continues to earn kudos as does his holiday novella, Milagro on 34th Street. His nonfiction books include High Treason (Ballentine/Putnam), and Sports Psyching.  His short stories have appeared in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. His stories, essays and articles have been published widely in print and online since the 1960s.



Enjoy Umberto Tosi's Hollywood noir detective thrillers: The Phantom Eye  and Oddly Dead.

 "Tosi writes with tremendous style and a pitch perfect ear for everything that makes the classic noir detective story irresistible. Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, make room for Frank Ritz!" - Elizabeth McKenzie, best-selling author of The Dog of the North, The Portable Veblen and managing editor of Chicago Quarterly Review.




Peter Leyland said…
That's a great article about the senator Umberto. I read The Guardian's Obituary by Ewen MasAskill yesterday and was impressed but yours has added so much more. Thanks
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you, Peter!
What a fantastic and very effective life she led. I enjpyed reading about her - thank you.

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