Obituary: Dianne Feinstein

The California senator was a passionate advocate for gun control


WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 6: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on judicial nominations on Capitol Hill September 6, 2023 in Washington, DC. During the hearing the committee considered five judges for federal vacancies. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In March, 2009 Dianne Feinstein, chair of America’s Senate Intelligence Committee, was faced with the decision of her political life. Whether to release the report of her committee’s investigation into the CIA’s alleged use of torture in the aftermath of 9/11. She wavered over the moral and political implications. Her old friend Secretary of State John Kerry said releasing the report would lead to violence. US intelligence agencies warned it would damage America’s international reputation. She would have blood on her hands.

But her mind was made up. In December, 2014 the intrepid Feinstein published her report that made claims about the scale and brutality of the CIA’s actions and its attempts to mislead Congress and the White House. As the exhausted but steadfast Senator took to the Senate floor, she said: “History will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say ‘Never Again’.”

The 500-page summary from the 6,700-page report, which is still classified, made allegations about the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” — a euphemism for waterboarding, stripping detainees naked and putting them in nappies, chaining them in stress positions, depriving them of sleep for days at a time, menacing and threatening them. And other alleged methods.

Dianne Feinstein, who has died aged 90, spent five decades running openly as a US Jewish politician. A Democrat, she was not soft on crime. She upheld her government’s policy of “targeted killings” via drone, considered Edward Snowden a traitor for revealing national security secrets, and had at one time supported the death penalty.

Her courageous, moral stand against the CIA may have surprised observers who saw American politics in simplistic terms: Democrat equals left wing: Republican: hard right. She regarded herself as a centrist, even a pragmatist. She voted for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although she would live to regret the former, and defended Republicans in defence procurement projects. These attitudes were often challenged by the Democratic left, and earlier this year some sought her resignation arguing that her physical and mental health  were in decline. She decided against seeking re-election in 2024.

Feinstein’s star rose in 1978 when, after two unsuccessful attempts, she was elected mayor of San Francisco. It followed the assassinations of her predecessor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to an official position in the US. As a supporter of both gay rights and gun control, the dignified Feinstein led the city through the Aids crisis in the 1980s, while other politicians refused even to discuss it. She also achieved limited success in seeing gun control through the Senate in 1994.

During her long political career, she railed against antisemitism and fought for pro-Israel  policies, while rarely sharing her personal Jewish story. But while campaigning for governor of California in 1990, she admitted to having received anti-Jewish hate mail, telling a Jewish women’s group in Oakland:  “I’ve had graffiti on my home, Stars of David and religious and sexist slurs painted on the walkway, and I just go out and take them off.”  As mayor, Feinstein rejected a proposal to make San Francisco a sister city with Leningrad because, she said, the Soviet Union prevented Jewish emigration and had “repressive Soviet policies toward Jews.”

If Feinstein was a Jewish feminist icon, she may have been the last of her kind. According to Rabbi Jay Michaelson, writing in The Forward: “When Feinstein was at the apex of her power in the Senate, most American Jews were pro-Israel, pro-choice and pro-Democrat. They were socially liberal but often more conservative on criminal justice issues; they were Democrats and patriotic. In many ways, Feinstein’s combination of views reflected the general centre of the American Jewish community.

“Now, we seem more fragmented. What was once the consensus position of liberal Zionism has been out of power in Israel and Washington for most of the last two decades.” Feinstein expressed pride in Israel’s achievements but did not flinch from criticising the Jewish state, if necessary. In the 1990s, Feinstein publicly denounced the Israeli government’s role in arming Americans with assault weapons, urging PM Netanyahu to try to stop the transfer.

The eldest of three daughters, Feinstein was born to Dr Leon Goldman, a prominent surgeon and professor at the University of California, and Betty née Rosenburg. Her mother, though Jewish,  was brought up in the Russian Orthodox tradition and Dianne’s early Jewish education was followed by the Convent of the Sacred Heart, a private high school favoured by her mother. She became its first Jewish graduate.

She left Stanford University with a BS in history in 1955, and was now actively involved in politics, joining the Young Democrats. She then worked as an intern in public affairs for the Coro Foundation and continued to study public policy.

In 1956 Feinstein eloped with Jack Berman, a San Francisco superior court judge, but they divorced after three years when their daughter, Katherine was nine months old. She then married a man 20 years older, neurosurgeon Bertram Feinstein. He died in 1978, and two years later she tied the knot with investment banker, Richard Blum. Feinstein was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969 and became its first woman president for the 1970-1971 year.

She was elected mayor of San Francisco in 1979 and was noted for her tough legal and social reforms. Re-elected in 1983 to a second four-year term she was named by City & State magazine as America’s Most Effective Mayor in 1987.

In 1992 she became California’s Senator, followed by a six-year term in 1994. She introduced the Gun-Free-Schools Act in 1994 and her attempts to legislate gun control have been recognised by the major American  bodies fighting gun violence.

Strong on health issues, Feinstein championed funding into HIV/Aids and cancer research. Her international interests led to positions on Senate sub-committees overseeing the Middle East, African affairs, and East Asian and Pacific affairs.

In 2009 Feinstein became the first woman to chair the Select Committee on Intelligence. She was also the first woman to serve as top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2017. She was involved in the  investigation into Russia’s interference in the election of 2016 that brought Donald Trump to power. She opposed  Trump’s discriminatory Muslim travel ban in 2017 by introducing  legislation to repeal it. Subsequently, President Biden rescinded the Muslim ban on his first day in office.

Feinstein received many public service awards and honorary degrees, including the French Legion d’Honneur. Plaudits came from several Jewish organisations, among them the American Friends of the Hebrew University, B’nai B’rith, the American Jewish Congress and the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Recalling her pivotal achievement in publishing the CIA torture report,  Feinstein reflected:  “Publishing the torture report did not cause bloodshed. It would not remove the stain of torture committed in Americans’ names. But it did say to our people, and the world, that America is big enough to admit when it’s wrong, and confident enough to learn from its mistakes.”

A 2019 film, The Report, covered the CIA investigation, with Annette Bening starring as the Senator.

Dianne Feinstein is survived by her daughter Katherine, three step-daughters and a grand-daughter Eileen. Richard Blum predeceased her in 2022.

Dianne Feinstein: born June 22, 1933. Died September 28, 2023

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