Other than family and close friends, few people have a longer history with Dianne Feinstein or a better understanding of California’s ailing U.S. senator than Jerry Roberts.
The former political writer and newspaper editor — now host of Santa Barbara’s singular broadcast “Newsmakers with Jerry Roberts” — first covered Feinstein nearly 50 years ago.
She was on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; Roberts was a reporter for the city’s alternative paper, the Bay Guardian.
In 1994, he published the biography “Dianne Feinstein: Never Let Them See You Cry.” It remains a must-read for students of the 89-year-old lawmaker, who faces intense pressure to quit amid doubts about her mental and physical health and capacity to do her job in the Senate.
Our conversation about Feinstein, past and present, has been edited for length and clarity.
Start with a few words to describe the senator.
Tough. Independent. Persistent. Courageous. Driven.
She’s had a remarkable career. But her life hasn’t always been easy or happy, starting with an awful childhood.
Her father was a very prominent surgeon at UC San Francisco. They were well-off and, outwardly, sort of this perfect family. But her mother was abusive, both emotionally and physically. She was an alcoholic. She used prescription drugs. And Dianne, as the oldest, was kind of put in the role of protecting her two younger sisters.
There were a lot of incidents that her sisters described to me, one of which involved her mother trying to drown the youngest one in the bathtub when she was about 5 years old. Within the walls of the house there was a lot of trouble. But it was a secret no one was ever supposed to hear about.
Feinstein’s first marriage, at a young age, ended in divorce. Her second left her a widow in her 40s.
Her second marriage was to a widely regarded surgeon, Bert Feinstein, whose name she has kept her whole life. That was a very happy marriage, but he died of colon cancer in 1978. He was really, I think, the singular love of her life, so that was difficult for her.
That same year Feinstein was ready to quit politics, after two unsuccessful runs for mayor. Then she was thrust into the job, as board president, when Mayor George Moscone was assassinated. How do you think all the drama and tragedy shaped Feinstein?
I’m not a psychiatrist, but I think it certainly steeled as well as gave her kind of an armor. That was the reason I called the book “Never Let Them See You Cry.” It was actually a suggestion she made in a piece written for a women’s magazine about how to succeed in the workplace.
She always put on a very brave, professional and very polished public image, even when she was experiencing a lot of anguish and private pain.
How do you think that background informs this particular moment?
Independence is probably Feinstein’s most salient character trait. But also a belief in herself to the point of stubbornness, where nobody is going to tell her what she can or cannot do. She has tremendous belief and confidence in her own strength and her own ability. And in fact, the best way to get her to do something is to tell her that she can’t.
That really goes back to her first election to the Board of Supervisors in 1969, when everyone told her — including her father, whom she idolized — a woman can’t win. I think that just really made her dig in to prove people wrong. She was never what you would call a movement feminist, but she was a feminist in that she always wanted an equal opportunity to do stuff. And she wanted equal treatment.
Do you think this pressure will make Feinstein even more resistant to quitting?
She’s always been an independent political force. She’s never been a party regular, go-along person. So to have people say, “Well, the Democratic Party wants her to do this” — it’s silly. I mean, it doesn’t matter what the Democratic Party wants or doesn’t want in terms of what Dianne has decided she’s going to do.
Is there anyone in this world who could push her out, or would even try?
Not that I know of. I think another thing that’s contributing to this whole situation that doesn’t get mentioned much is the death of Richard Blum.
Her third husband, whom Feinstein married in 1980, passed away in February 2022.
It was not an easy time. He was sick for a long time. She was flying back and forth across the country to be with him.
She listened to his advice, both politically and personally. They were very much a team. But beyond that, I don’t see anyone else that I’m aware of whose counsel she would seek on this. She’s 89 years old. She’s gone to a lot of funerals. A lot of advisers, a lot of counselors, a lot of allies aren’t around anymore.
You spoke of Feinstein as a feminist. Do you believe sexism is behind efforts to push her aside?
Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has certainly made that point, and I find it hard to disagree with. Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was absent for months after being diagnosed with brain cancer, and I don’t recall anyone saying, “Oh, Ted Kennedy should resign.” And there’s lot of other examples as well. So I think there’s an element of that.
I think there’s also an ideological element. The left wing of the Democratic Party tried to get rid of Feinstein in 2018, when she ran for reelection and they endorsed Kevin de León. So when you see people like Reps. Ro Khanna and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stepping out there and calling for her to resign, that’s a part of it.
Will this sad ending tarnish Feinstein’s legacy? Should it?
I don’t think it should. Look at all the things she accomplished politically as well as culturally. Look at the generations of women politicians that have come out of the Bay Area — the vice president of the United States; the former speaker of the House; Sen. Barbara Boxer; women members of Congress. They all followed in Dianne’s footsteps.
Her work in the Senate — desert protection, exposing the government use of torture to fight terrorism, the 10-year assault weapons ban — speaks for itself. The role she played on complicated California issues: water, immigration, many things.
There’s a recency bias to this. People are seeing what’s happening today and a lot of times don’t really know everything she’s accomplished. It will be a couple of lines in her obituary. But that’s it.
Pelosi’s eldest daughter, Nancy Corinne Prowda, has been a constant at Feinstein’s side. Some see politics at work, since Pelosi is backing Rep. Adam B. Schiff to succeed Feinstein. But you don’t buy it.
Start with the fact that Pelosi and Feinstein lived across the street from each other for 30 years. Nancy and Dianne have a personal relationship that predates their political relationship. Dianne knows all her kids.
It was the two of them that really brought the Democratic National Convention to San Francisco in 1984. When Rep. Sala Burton died in 1987, Dianne briefly thought about running for Congress, but deferred when Nancy decided to run.
If Feinstein were to quit, there’s speculation that Gov. Gavin Newsom would appoint Rep. Barbara Lee, a Schiff rival, as her successor, giving Lee an advantage in the 2024 election for the Senate seat.
I don’t see any politics. It’s trying to be too clever by half, connecting dots. The idea this is all a plot to elect Adam Schiff seems the silliest kind of speculation.