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 is not only the state’s longest-serving U.S. senator, she is one of the most meaningful and accomplished lawmakers Californians ever put in office.
It is not just her legislative achievements, in areas like environmental protection and gun control, that distinguish Feinstein’s more than half-century-long public career.
Just as significant, if not more, is the path she helped blaze for women in politics, first by seeking and winning elected office and then, once empowered, by showing that a woman could more than hold her own among the far greater number of men jostling around her.
As San Francisco mayor, a role thrust upon her by the assassination of her predecessor, Feinstein steadied herself and then braced the city at a time it seemed ready to slip its axis.
As a senator in Washington, she was an important voice on issues such as crime, national defense and intelligence, including the CIA’s detention and interrogation practices, all of which were once seen beyond the purview of a female lawmaker.
“If you go back 30, 40 years, women went on the education committee, or maybe dealt with healthcare. Whatever little bone was thrown their way,” 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 get pigeonholed as a ‘woman’ senator.”
Bowing to age and political reality, the 89-year-old Feinstein made the right decision Tuesday in announcing she would stand aside and not seek reelection next year to a sixth full term.
The past few years have not been kind to Feinstein, filled as they were with repeated accounts of her obvious physical and cognitive decline. While she performed adequately enough, thanks to resourceful staff work, California deserves better.
So does Feinstein.
Had she run again, she would surely have lost to one of the younger, more vigorous contestants lining up to replace her, providing a sad coda to a remarkable career.
Another no less significant reason that Feinstein faced certain defeat is the passing of a political style and era that, to her detriment, she came to very much embody.
Never a favorite of the political left — in San Francisco she was considered a conservative and, worse, mocked as a prig — Feinstein routinely infuriated fellow Democrats by reaching across the aisle to work with Republicans.
In true fashion, she made yet another pitch for the virtues of good old-fashioned bipartisanship as she stood aside Tuesday.
“Even with a divided Congress, we can still pass bills that will improve lives,” Feinstein said in a written statement announcing her decision.
Worse still, performative politics — the showy stunt, the devastating Tweet, the viral moment that have become the campaigner’s coin of the realm — has never been Feinstein’s forte.
Even before she was kept out of sight by nervous handlers, the senator was more apt to be found burrowed in a briefing book or plowing through a mountain of research than making news on the cable chat-show circuit.
It would be tragic and wrong, however, to remember Feinstein as some kind of relic, as if we only remembered Willie Mays — another San Francisco icon — for the final years he spent stumbling around the outfield.
“Yeah, OK, maybe she hung on too long,” said Stanford’s Bruce Cain, another political scientist who followed Feinstein’s career over the decades.
“But she’s right up there with Nancy Pelosi and Jerry Brown in a class by themselves in their ability to keep working productively over many decades and through all the changes in the political system.”
There are deeply cinematic aspects to Feinstein’s career, which could have easily been conceived in Hollywood.
Overcoming an abusive childhood and being widowed at a young age.
Suffering heartbreaking political loss, including two unsuccessful tries for San Francisco mayor.
She was planning on quitting 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 president of the board, Feinstein assumed the job that long exceeded her grasp.
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 nominee for California governor, losing narrowly to Republican Pete Wilson. She made history again in 1992 when she was elected to the Senate alongside Barbara Boxer; the two were California’s first female senators.
There were questions how Feinstein, used to being in charge as chief executive — and an imperious one, at that — would function as one of 100 senators. But she proved a highly adept negotiator and lawmaker.
She passed, among other legislation, a landmark desert protection bill that had been stalled before she arrived and pushed through a 10-year ban on assault-style weapons in the face of fierce opposition from the National Rifle Association and its political allies. (President George W. Bush allowed the law to lapse in 2004.)
Earlier this week, as the Beltway burbled with speculation about California’s Senate seat, the liberal commentator Jonathan Capehart shared his thoughts on Twitter.
“There is a way out for Feinstein that would also allow her to help make history,” he wrote. “She could resign the seat now and allow Gov. Newsom to fulfill his promise to appoint a Black woman to succeed her.”
But that misses the point.
Feinstein has already made history multiple times over. Nothing that’s happened in recent years will change that or take away from all that she accomplished.