Opinion | Dianne Feinstein Is Old, Absolutely. She’s Also an Absolute Giant.

Send any friend a story

As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.

By Frank Bruni

Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.

Beginning next week, I’ll be taking a monthlong break from the newsletter, which will be written by guest authors in my absence. I’ll return to the newsletter on Thursday, April 6.

The speculation about who might replace Senator Dianne Feinstein — and several Democrats’ maneuverings to be the one — create the impression that she’s already gone. No. She plans to leave the Senate at the end of 2024, almost two years from now, and she announced that only last week. But within hours, she was old news. Nothing to see here, folks, not anymore. Let’s move on.

But let’s not — not yet. Let’s give this formidable trailblazer her considerable due, especially in light of all the scorn heaped on her over the past few years, all the people pointing her toward the exit.

By the milestones and the numbers, she’s extraordinary, a giant: the first woman to be president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (that’s what they call the city council out there), then the first woman to be mayor of San Francisco and then, in 1992, the first woman to be elected to the Senate from California, the nation’s most populous state. In 2021, she became the longest-serving California senator in history. In 2022, she became the longest-serving female senator ever.

She’s 89 now, the oldest current senator, and there has been much talk about whether she brings adequate vigor and optimal acuity to the job. That coincides with a larger conversation, tied to President Joe Biden’s apparent determination to seek a second term that would end when he’s 86, about age, ability, optics and when a leader should cede the reins. It’s a fair and necessary discussion.

But it should never diminish, or distract us from, all that a person accomplished. It should never minimize the kind of moral authority that can come from an accretion of years — from all that a person has lived through, all that she has seen and survived. It should never delete scenes from her highlights reel.

Two of Feinstein’s scenes, chosen from scores of them:

In March 2013, she fought successfully to push a reinstatement of an expired ban on assault weapons through the Senate Judiciary Committee. At one point Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican with a hoary and literalist interpretation of the Second Amendment, questioned her constitutional fluency. “I’m not a sixth grader,” she responded. “I’m not a lawyer. But after 20 years, I’ve been up close and personal with the Constitution.” That’s called experience. And that’s an example of the poise it engenders.

The next March, she took to the Senate floor to excoriate the C.I.A. as part of her long, dogged effort to hold the United States to account for its use of black sites, torture and the like after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Her impassioned speech — which would garner a standing ovation from fellow Democrats at a party luncheon later that day — cemented the role she seized, despite furious blowback, as the country’s conscience regarding the treatment of detainees in the war on terror. She was then, at 81, already the oldest serving senator. And that fit. That gave her the stature — and fearlessness — to buck the Obama administration and do what she felt she must.

Feinstein has always gone her own way, following her own compass, never nearly progressive enough for the left, not as predictably and consistently moderate as centrists wanted her to be, idiosyncratic, ornery.

She has lavished as much thought and energy on curbing gun violence as any American politician of her stature, and no wonder: In 1978, she saw, up close, what firearms can do, kneeling beside the gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk to check for a pulse after he was fatally shot and feeling her finger slip into a bullet hole.

She insisted on dignity for gay people long before that was fashionable — or even, to many Americans, tolerable. She was eloquent and emphatic about a woman’s right to choose. She was erudite, devotedly learning what she needed to when she took an issue on. She was fierce.

She was also, incidentally, the author of one of the most frustrating experiences of my career.

Sometime in late 1999 or early 2000, an editor at The Times Sunday Magazine asked me to do a big profile of her. Feinstein and her staff indicated that they’d cooperate, but first she wanted to ease into it and get to know me better. In a bistro on Capitol Hill, we had a long, relaxed dinner, with ample chardonnay, but it was off the record.

Weeks later I met up with her in California, traveling with her to various political events. Our conversations were colorful, candid — and always, at her insistence, off the record. We’d fix that soon, she said.

Then she looked up one day with surprise that I was still around: Didn’t I have enough for my article? I reminded her that she hadn’t answered questions in a way that I could actually use. In one long and stilted session at her home in San Francisco, she finally did — and said nothing nearly as interesting as she had when we were just chatting.

The article I turned in was killed. That had never happened to me before and has never happened since.

So: I resented her? No. I respected her. She cared less for getting the glossy magazine treatment than she did for discretion. She could only peacock so much. She had work to do, and Dianne Feinstein has always been about the work. That’s how she climbed so high. That’s how she lasted so long. And that’s how we should remember her.

For the Love of Sentences

In The Los Angeles Times, Patt Morrison noted how the Hollywood sign “rambles horizontally, across 400 feet of hillside, its letters at slightly irregular levels. If they were a starlet’s teeth, they would long since have been straightened out by studio dentists.” (Thanks to Penny Paden of Cloverdale, Calif., for spotting this.)

In The Washington Post, Robin Givhan examined former President Jimmy Carter’s recent change of residence: “Hospice care is not a matter of giving up. It’s a decision to shift our efforts from shoring up a body on the verge of the end to providing solace to a soul that’s on the cusp of forever.” (Ellen Wolf, Bend, Ore.)

Also in The Post, Sally Jenkins took a fresh whack at the Saudi-funded sport venture that everybody loves to hate: “The airborne toxic event called LIV golf is slowly dissipating, and soon all that will be left is the mere faint scent of its portable toilets.” (Bruce G. Smith, Manhattan, and Jeffrey Wruble, Los Angeles, among others)

In USA Today, Rex Huppke puzzled over Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s bizarre recent expectoration about breaking up with America: “I initially assumed Greene wanted a national divorce so she could start dating another country she met at CrossFit.” (Ramin Dowlati, Danville, Calif.)

In The Atlantic, Tom Nichols was not impressed with Nikki Haley’s entry into the 2024 presidential sweepstakes. “Right now,” he wrote, “Haley is polling somewhere between Mike Pence and a dust bunny.” As for the Republican primary voters whose favor she seeks, they “want Trump, unless he can’t win; in that case, they’d like a Trump who can win, a candidate who reeks of Trump’s cheap political cologne but who will wisely wear somewhat less of it while campaigning in the crowded spaces of a general election.” (Pam Pifer, Bothell, Wash. and Robin Stonecash, Sydney, Australia, among many others)

Also in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson reflected on alarming new research about depression and anxiety among today’s teenagers, who are in thrall to social media: “Modern internet culture has adopted therapy-speak while repeatedly setting fire to the actual lessons of modern therapy. It’s a bizarre spectacle, like a hospital where fake doctors know the words for every disease but half of the surgeries result in sepsis.” (Brian Palmer, Providence. R.I.)

In The Times, Thomas Friedman nailed the nature of a certain media beast: “Fox News is to journalism what the Mafia is to capitalism — same basic genre, but a morally corrupt perversion of the real thing.” (Monika Komrad, Shrewsbury, England, and Rick Samuelson, Orinda, Calif., among others)

Also in The Times, Manohla Dargis observed that “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” features not only special effects but also big stars like Michelle Pfeiffer and Bill Murray, “who briefly drifts in on the vapors of his celebrity and flirts with Pfeiffer before drifting out to cash his paycheck.” (Christy Stewart, Waunakee Wisc.)

And Jessica Grose confessed that “a snippet of ‘Running Up That Hill’ will periodically rotate into my brain’s inner Muzak, a bit of audio detritus that reminds me of absolutely nothing. It’s as if Proust’s madeleine was made of Soylent.” (Jaemes Shanley, Albuquerque, N.M.)

“For the Love of Sentences” will, like me, be on a March hiatus, but will resume in April.

What I’m Doing, Not Doing, Watching and Reading

When I announced last week that the newsletter would have guest authors in March, several of you wrote to me to say that Regan, pictured above, should do the chores. Don’t be ridiculous. She’s all tied up with the ghostwriting of my next book! Several others said: You can disappear, but not Regan. That compelled me to provide just one more image of her before she, with me, steals away for a bit.

About those guest authors: There will likely be five, chosen because of their connection to me, to subjects I write about or to both. For example, you’ll meet and hear from my sister, Adelle, whose different line of work (executive search) and experience as a mother and wife give her a vantage point distinct from mine. I’ll let the rest be a surprise.

I recently recorded an episode of Kate Bowler’s excellent “Everything Happens” podcast that should be available here next Tuesday, Feb. 28. We talked at length about my memoir “The Beauty of Dusk.” A new book of hers, co-written with Jessica Richie, was published just last week. It’s called “The Lives We Actually Have: 100 Blessings for Imperfect Days,” and it brims with her signature soulfulness.

Apple TV recently unveiled “Sharper,” a flamboyantly twisty story of double-crossing con artists played by actors, including Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan and Briana Middleton, who seem to be having a grand time. Their engagement is contagious.

I’m eager to start the book “We Should Not Be Friends,” by Will Schwalbe, which was published on Tuesday. It’s about his decades-long relationship with a college classmate who at first glance seemed to be the kind of person Schwalbe avoided. That makes it a testament to something I believe in ever more fervently: the importance of building bridges across the divides that separate and segregate us.

On a Personal Note

“Law & Order” has become my calmative, my decompression, my lullaby. Lately, before nodding off, I watch one, two or two and a half episodes of the original “Law & Order” or the revamped “Law & Order” or the various “Law & Order” spinoffs: “Special Victims Unit,” “Criminal Intent,” “Organized Crime,” “Traffic Violations.”

I’m kidding about the existence of that last one but not about my new habit — an odd one. Body counts instead of counting sheep? Maybe I’m drawn to the predictable arc and beats of “Law & Order.” Maybe I’m soothed by the altitude of the content, neither highbrow nor lowbrow and perfect for a bedtime brain.

Maybe I’m just my mother.

I recently flashed back to when she was in her late 50s — I’m 58 — and how she would end most nights: under a blanket on the sectional in the den, watching television until her eyes fluttered shut.

And on the screen? Reruns of the original “Law & Order.” It was her lullaby, too.

I remembered that only last week, when I was thinking about her — she died more than 25 years ago, at 61 — and a flood of images and scenes came to me. Since then, I can’t shake the feeling that my devotion to “Law & Order” isn’t so much an unconscious tribute to her as it is my chromosomal destiny.

Aspects of my physical appearance are an inheritance from her, as is the ease or difficulty with which I manage various tasks in life. So why not the lure and balm of certain kinds of stories? Why not my 10 p.m. attraction to the squad room, the courtroom, crime and punishment?

In ways obvious, subtle and just plain strange, our parents live in us. I’ll be on the phone with my sister, Adelle, and I’ll wish I had a transcript or recording of a similarly wide-ranging conversation with my mother from decades ago, because I’m sure that Adelle and I are inadvertently recreating it: same topics, same tempo, same trust. I’ll walk behind my younger brother, Harry, and notice that his forward tilt and clenched hands are my father’s when he was Harry’s age. I don’t think Harry is mimicking him. I think my father inhabits Harry, as surely as my mother inhabits me.

How much of who we are and what we do is destiny? How much is choice and how much compulsion? That question colors many episodes of “Law & Order,” in which defense attorneys often argue that their accused clients couldn’t help themselves.

It also colors my consumption of those episodes. I can’t answer it with percentages or with any certainty, but I’m sure of this: Our days are a constant tug of war between our resolves and our programming, a ceaseless seesawing between the plots that we devise for ourselves and the scripts to which we simply revert.

Site Index

Site Information Navigation

Source: Read Full Article