Dianne Feinstein — the path-breaking politician, doyenne of old school California Democrats, and the longest-serving female senator in U.S. history — died on Thursday. She was 90.
Feinstein was the oldest member of the Senate, and her physical health had been faltering in recent years. She was hospitalized in February with a case of shingles, the complications of which kept her away from the Senate for three months — and she faced growing calls for her resignation over her prolonged absence and questions about her mental acuity.
Feinstein announced she would not be running for reelection shortly before her hospitalization. In doing so, she maintained the bipartisan spirit she held throughout her career. “Even with a divided Congress, we can still pass bills that will improve lives,” she wrote. “Each of us was sent here to solve problems. That’s what I’ve done for the last 30 years, and that’s what I plan to do for the next two years. My thanks to the people of California for allowing me to serve them.”
Feinstein was born in San Francisco, the city where she would later launch her political career, to Leon Goldman, a surgeon and professor of medicine, and his wife Betty, a former model whose traumatic brain injury left her prone to fits of rage. Raised Jewish, Feinstein attended an exclusive Catholic high school in San Francisco, followed by Stanford University, where she studied political science and was elected vice president of the student body — the highest office allowed to female students at the time.
She became active in local politics as a young single mother, after her first marriage ended in divorce. She remarried, then later ran for, and won, a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors at the age of 36. Feinstein’s political rise was “forged from tragedy,” as a campaign ad would later intone: she was appointed mayor of San Francisco after two of her colleagues, Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, were gunned down by an embittered ex-colleague. (Feinstein would later survive other brushes with violence, including a bomb planted in the window box at her daughter’s bedroom by the New World Liberation Front.)
She was the first woman to hold the office of mayor in the city — the first of many firsts for Feinstein, who would go on to become the first female senator to represent the state of California, first woman to chair the Senate Rules Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Part of a wave of female lawmakers swept into Congress in the aftermath of Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, Feinstein distinguished herself early as a champion for gun control. In 1994, she authored the Assault Weapons Ban, a landmark piece of legislation that banned civilian use of semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines for a decade.
In her role as chair of the Senate intelligence committee, Feinstein played an integral role in publicizing the Bush’s CIA’s post-9/11 torture program. Feinstein pushed for the committee’s key findings to be released publicly. The full, unredacted report Senate Torture Report remains classified to this day. From the Senate floor, she called the CIA program a “stain on our values and on our history.” She, with colleague Sen. John McCain, later spearheaded legislation to ban agencies from continuing to engage in the practices described in the report.
Speaking about the CIA’s use of torture, years before her death, Feinstein said, “America is big enough to admit when it’s wrong and confident enough to learn from its mistakes.” One day, perhaps, the same will be able to be said of America’s leaders.
Feinstein’s impressive political accomplishments were overshadowed in her twilight years by her stubborn refusal to leave the halls of power. A political heavy in her prime, Feinstein was reduced, after her three decades in the U.S. Senate, to a punchline, the subject of pity and scorn, and case study of America’s increasingly enfeebled gerontocracy.
Rolling Stone reported in May that the senator’s staff had begun “restructuring around her mental limitations” as early as 2019, and have even implemented a system — “unbeknownst to Feinstein herself” — to ensure the elderly stateswoman never walked the corridors of Capitol without a companion, out of fear of what she might say, unsupervised, to a reporter.
It’s unclear who will replace Feinstein in the Senate. Several prominent California politicians — including Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter, and Barbara Lee — have already announced their candidacy for her seat in what promises to be a high-profile and extremely expensive 2024 race. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, will appoint someone to replace her in the interim.
This is a breaking news story and will be updated.