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Column: Civil Feinstein delivered results but irked ideologues

A woman in a blue jacket and pants and patterned blue scarf smiles as she walks in front of several men near a doorway
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) arrives at the Senate chamber for a vote at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 14, 2023.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
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Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California’s most accomplished senator, became an anachronism. She practiced civility and compromised with the other side.

That’s how the state’s first female senator has gotten so many important things done in an increasingly antagonistic political world.

It’s the way major legislation used to be passed before social media and cable “news” provided wide-ranging platforms for demagogues and nurtured the ideological extremes on both sides.

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Now, civility and compromise are considered too old-fashioned, particularly among many younger political activists.

Republican voters in California never have really accepted the Democrat, who’s California’s longest-serving senator — 30 years — and currently the Senate’s oldest member. That’s largely, I suspect, because her hometown is uber-liberal San Francisco.

And polarized progressives of her own party have become increasingly intolerant of the pragmatic centrist, contending she’s too soft and out of touch with today’s smash-mouth politics.

“I like to work in a bipartisan way,” she told me two years ago. “Some people on the left don’t like that. But that’s what the Senate should do. It benefits people.”

One of her most inexcusable “sins” was hugging a Republican.

OK, maybe it wasn’t the smartest gesture, given the heated political climate.

She was the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2020 when President Trump’s third Supreme Court nominee, conservative Amy Coney Barrett, was up for confirmation. Feinstein was criticized by liberals for an alleged weak performance. But there was nothing any Democrat could have done to block Barrett from the court. Republicans controlled the Senate.

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After the hearings concluded, Feinstein congratulated committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) for that day’s well-run session.

“I shook his hand and he gave me a hug and I got holy hell,” she told me later.

“If I can’t have good relationships with someone simply because they’re a Republican … that’s not good.”

The whole hugging controversy seemed bizarre. Watch any professional basketball or football game and you’ll see the players embracing after a contest. But that’s no longer allowed in America’s most important game: government.

Another Feinstein sin: Publicly hoping that the Republican president would get his act together and become a good leader. Sure, it was the offensive, no-class Donald Trump. But have we really become so polarized that it’s taboo to wish an American president well?

“Look, this man is going to be president, most likely, for the rest of this term,” she told San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club in 2017, eight months into Trump’s presidency.

“I think we have to have some patience…. I just hope he has the ability to learn and to change. And if he does, he can be a good president. And that is my hope.”

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Boos from the audience.

“I have to be able to get things done,” she told the crowd. “You have to work with people. And a punch in the nose isn’t going to do it.”

But Trump became more abysmal. And Feinstein often denounced his policies, which included trying to drill for oil off the California coast, implementing a “hateful deportation program” and “placating American Nazis.”

Yet, she was considered too soft. Soft?

Battling the CIA and the intelligence community for years to expose the un-American torture of terrorism suspects was hardly soft.

Neither was fighting the gun lobby to pass a 10-year federal ban on assault weapons. She paid a political price for that.

One moment will long be etched in my memory from Feinstein’s 1994 reelection campaign that she barely won.

She was in Chico. A man in jeans and a girl of around 8 were on a sidewalk. As Feinstein stepped from her car a few feet away, the man took the child by her hand, knelt and pointed his finger.

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“Look,” he told the girl. “That’s what you don’t want to grow up to be like.”

A U.S. senator — an object of hate in this father’s eyes — was no role model for his young daughter. How warped was that?

The white male was among scores of gun worshipers protesting the senator’s assault weapons ban.

Feinstein’s greatest sin, of course, was growing old. She’s 89 and suffers memory lapses, it has been widely reported.

“I don’t feel my cognitive abilities have diminished,” she said in December 2020 when I asked her about it. “No, not really. Do I forget something sometimes? Quite possibly.”

But it apparently has gotten worse. She was under pressure from party activists and pundits to resign or at least announce she won’t run for a sixth term. I’m guessing she didn’t need the pressure. She’s a realist.

On Tuesday, Feinstein announced what was anticipated: She’ll serve out her term and retire at the end of next year.

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“This time has come,” she told reporters outside the Senate chamber. “There’s time for all things under the sun.”

As always, she’ll be aided by a skilled, loyal staff. She drives them hard.

“She’s a constant manager, a real stickler for details and doing her homework. And she insists on everyone else doing their homework,” said Gil Duran, her former Senate press secretary and a journalist.

He added: “Most people I know who are senior staffers have deep respect for her. There’s a difference between demanding and demeaning.”

Former political writer Jerry Roberts, who wrote a Feinstein biography that centered on her tenure as San Francisco’s first female mayor, said: “When she started her career, she was a raven-haired beauty and everyone thought of her as a show horse. But she was a workhorse.

“All she cared about was the work, figuring out how to fix stuff. We have a great shortage of that in California these days.”

Thankfully she decided to finish out her term rather than resign. So, millions of California voters will choose her replacement — not one governor.

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