With her trademark pearls and the stiff dress code she imposes on her staff, Dianne Feinstein, the senior senator from California, has something of the boarding-school headmistress about her. An institution within an institution, she is dignified, reassuring and always ready with a steadying hand and sympathetic ear when times are rough. But get her on a rampage and you’d better reach for the blotting paper.
That Ms Feinstein, who turns 81 in June, has a fearsome side should surprise no one. Maybe it comes from having been a woman working in a mostly man’s world ever since she embarked on politics and public service in San Francisco more than five decades ago. (But, with 20 female members of the Senate now, it’s better than it used to be.) Or is it to do with the time she found two of her colleagues shot dead?
“She’s very polite,” Bill Carrick, her long-time campaign consultant, told Time magazine. “But she’s also tough as nails. She’s been involved in a lot of tough issues over the years.” That is for sure – many, but not all, of them since she first won her Senate seat in 1992. While gun control, climate change and gay rights attach easily to her name, Ms Feinstein’s largest legacy will stem from her chairmanship since 2009 of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She is the first woman ever to hold the post.
While most of the squabbling on Capitol Hill happens behind closed doors, Ms Feinstein is capable of blowing up in full public view on the Senate floor. She did it last week with a scorching 40-minute speech in which she accused the CIA of trying to impede the Intelligence Committee’s five-year-long investigation into its interrogation and torture of terror suspects during the George W Bush era. Computers given by the agency to her research staff to comb through relevant documents were illegally hacked into, she fulminated, and legal action was threatened against those same staff for allegedly accessing an internal review the CIA didn’t want them to see.
Until then it seemed nothing was more certain to set her off than the topic of guns – and male colleagues patronising her on the subject. The author of the 1994 assault weapons ban that expired 10 years later, she despaired as Congress last year failed to resurrect it in the wake of the Newtown school massacre. “Show some guts,” she lamented. Brandishing a newspaper cover that read “Shame on US”, she added: “When 20 beautiful first-graders are slaughtered, our government has failed” in its duty to protect.
The subject is personal for Ms Feinstein because of the twin slaughter she herself witnessed. It happened in November 1978. Then a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in City Hall, she asked for a few words with Dan White, just sacked by the then mayor, George Moscone, as city supervisor. Instead, he walked straight past her office and shot dead both Moscone and the new supervisor, Harvey Milk. She was the first to find their lifeless bodies and later had to break the news to a stunned city and country.
Former Idaho senator Larry Craig surely recalls provoking her during a 1993 debate on the original assault weapons ban by saying that the “gentlelady from California” didn’t know much about them. “I am quite familiar with firearms,” she responded. “I found my assassinated colleague [Harvey Milk] and put a finger through a bullet hole trying to get a pulse. Senator, I know something about what firearms can do.”
She was no more tolerant last year when Ted Cruz, the Tea Party-backed senator from Texas, attempted to school her on the second amendment protecting gun-owners’ rights. “I am not a sixth-grader,” she replied. “I have looked at bodies that have been shot with these weapons. I have seen the bullets that implode. In Sandy Hook, youngsters were dismembered. It is fine you want to lecture me on the constitution. I appreciate it. Just know I have been here for a long time.”
The power of her put-downs is all the greater because of her pedigree. Tuesday’s blast at the CIA, for instance, came in spite of her long record of defending America’s intelligence community, including its use of drones under Barack Obama. “When Feinstein takes to the Senate floor to level explosive charges against the CIA, as she did on Tuesday, attention should be paid,” USA Today concluded.
Born to a former model mother and a surgeon father on 22 June 1933 in San Francisco, Ms Feinstein went to Stanford University to study medicine but emerged instead with a degree in history and an interest in politics. Still in her twenties she was appointed by the then California governor, Pat Brown, to the Board of Paroles and in 1970 won an election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. She became mayor by default upon Moscone’s assassination and was elected to remain in the job twice. There had been speculation in 1984 that Democratic nominee Walter Mondale would pick her as his running mate, though in the end he chose another woman, Geraldine Ferraro. Her third husband, Richard Blum, whom she married in 1980, is an investment banker whose ties both to companies that have enjoyed government contracts and to businesses in China have on occasion brought Ms Feinstein unwelcome scrutiny.
In 1992, Ms Feinstein easily won a special election for a vacated seat in the Senate and she has been re-elected three times. She recently spurred speculation that she will retire in 2018 when her current term expires. In Washington, her reputation has been one of a pragmatist, ready to reach out to Republicans when compromise can be made. For liberal Democrats she is a darling sometimes, and sometimes not. On gay rights, she was first to push for the overturning of the Defence of Marriage Act that forbade federal recognition of same-sex marriage and she is vociferous on global warming. But she voted against President Bill Clinton’s North American Free Trade Act, for the Iraq War – though she later expressed regret – and defended the US Patriot Act, the key anti-terror law of President Bush that encroached on civil liberties.
Most striking, though, has been her consistent willingness as chair of the Intelligence Committee to defend the intelligence community from assault from the left, whether over the expanded use of drones by the CIA or the furore triggered by Edward Snowden’s leaks on the practices of the National Security Agency. “I don’t look at this as being a whistle-blower,” she said of his revelations. “I think it’s an act of treason.”
Then came her speech on Tuesday. She and CIA director John Brennan are the two most powerful figures in Washington on intelligence matters. He is working for a Democrat administration; she is a leading Democrat on the Hill. Yet now they are at war with one another. At stake, she insists, is the ability of Congress to execute its responsibility to oversee the actions of the executive branch, the CIA included.
“I’ve heard thousands of speeches on this floor. I cannot think of any speech by any member of either party as important as the one the senator from California just gave,” Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said when she was done.
Life In Brief
Born: Dianne Emiel Goldman, 22 June 1933, San Francisco, California.
Family: Parents are Betty, a former model, and Leon Goldman, a former surgeon. Married Jack Berman and has a daughter, Katherine. Divorced twice. Married Bertram Feinstein in 1962 and Richard Blum in 1980.
Education: Attended Convent of the Sacred Heart School in California and studied history at Stanford University.
Career: Member of the California Women’s Board of Terms and Parole until 1966. Joined San Francisco’s County Board of Supervisors, becoming president in 1978. Twice ran unsuccessfully for mayor of San Francisco, before being elected in 1978 after George Moscone was assassinated. Re-elected in 1979 and 1983. Won a Senate seat in 1992.
She says: “Ninety per cent of leadership is the ability to communicate something people want.”
They say: “She’ll decide issue by issue what’s right, and that means sometimes she displeases the liberals, sometimes she displeases the conservatives. She’s not predictable.” Joe Lieberman, former senator