latest news Barabak: Feinstein’s biographer does not see her leaving the Senate

Other than family and close friends, few people have a longer history with Dianne Feinstein or a better understanding of the ailing U.S. senator from California than Jerry Roberts.

The former political writer and newspaper editor — now host of the singular Santa Barbara show “Newsmakers with Jerry Roberts” — first covered Feinstein nearly 50 years ago.

She was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; Roberts was a reporter for the city’s alternative newspaper, the Bay Guardian.

In 1994, he published the biography “Dianne Feinstein: Never Let Them See You Cry”. It remains essential reading for students of the 89-year-old lawmaker, who is facing intense pressure to resign amid doubts about her mental and physical health and her ability to do her job in the Senate.

Our conversation about Feinstein, past and present, has been edited for length and clarity.

Start with a few words to describe the senator.

Difficult. Independent. Persistent. Brave. Driven.

She had a remarkable career. But her life hasn’t always been easy or happy, starting with a horrible childhood.

Her father was a prominent surgeon at UC San Francisco. They were well off and, outwardly, kind of a perfect family. But her mother was violent, both emotionally and physically. She was an alcoholic. She used prescription drugs. And Dianne, as an eldest, was kind of in charge of protecting her. two younger sisters.

There were many incidents that her sisters described to me, one of which involved her mother trying to drown the youngest in the bathtub when she was around 5 years old. Within the walls of the house there were many problems. But it was a secret no one was supposed to hear about.

Feinstein’s first marriage, at a young age, ended in divorce. Her second left her a widow in her forties.

Her second marriage was to a very famous surgeon, Bert Feinstein, whose name she kept all her life. It was a very happy marriage, but he died of colon cancer in 1978. He was really, I think, the singular love of her life, so it was difficult for her.

That same year, Feinstein was set to quit politics, after two unsuccessful runs for mayor. She was then propelled to the position of chair of the board of directors, when Mayor George Moscone was assassinated. How do you think all the drama and tragedy shaped Feinstein?

I’m not a psychiatrist, but I think it definitely strengthened her and gave her some sort of armor. That’s why I called the book “Never Let Them See You Cry”. It was actually a suggestion she made in an article written for a women’s magazine about how to be successful at work.

She always had a very brave, professional and very polite public image, even when she was experiencing a lot of private angst and pain.

How do you think the context informs this particular moment?

Independence is probably Feinstein’s most salient character trait. But also a self-confidence to the point of stubbornness, where no one is going to tell her what she can or cannot do. She is a huge believer and confident in her own strength and ability. And in fact, the best way to get her to do something is to tell her she can’t.

It really dates back to her first election to the board of supervisors in 1969, when everyone told her — including her father, whom she idolized — that a woman can’t win. I think that really pushed her to dig in to prove people wrong. She was never what you would call a movement feminist, but she was a feminist in the sense that she always wanted an equal opportunity to do things. And she wanted equal treatment.

Do you think this pressure will make Feinstein even tougher stop smoking?

It has always been an independent political force. She was never a regular at parties, an accompanying person. So to have people say, “Well, the Democratic Party wants her to do this” – that’s silly. I mean, it doesn’t matter what the Democratic Party wants or doesn’t want in terms of what Dianne decided to do.

Is there anyone in this world who could push her away, or even try?

Not that I know of. I think another thing that contributes to this whole situation that isn’t mentioned much is the death of Richard Blum.

Her third husband, whom Feinstein married in 1980, deceased in February 2022.

It was not an easy time. He was sick for a long time. She traveled back and forth across the country to be with him.

She listened to his advice, both politically and personally. They really were a team. But beyond that, I can’t think of anyone else that I know of whose advice she would seek on this matter. She is 89 years old. She went to many funerals. Many advisers, many advisers, many allies are no longer there.

You talked about Feinstein as a feminist. Do you believe that sexism is behind efforts to put it aside?

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi certainly made that point, and I find it hard to disagree. Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy was absent for months after being diagnosed with brain cancer, and I don’t remember anyone saying, “Oh, Ted Kennedy should quit. And there are also many other examples. So I think there is an element of that.

I think there is also an ideological element. The left wing of the Democratic Party tried to get rid of Feinstein in 2018, when she ran for re-election and they endorsed Kevin de León. So when you see people like Reps. Ro Khanna and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez come out and call for him to step down, that’s part of it.

Will this sad end tarnish Feinstein’s legacy? Should he?

I don’t think it should. Look at all the things she has accomplished politically and culturally. Look at the generations of female politicians who have come out of the Bay Area – the Vice President of the United States; the former Speaker of the House; Senator Barbara Boxer; women members of Congress. They all followed in Dianne’s footsteps.

His work in the Senate — protecting the desert, exposing the government’s use of torture to fight terrorism, banning assault weapons for 10 years — speaks for itself. The role she played on complicated California issues: water, immigration, lots of things.

There is a recency bias to this. People see what is happening today and often don’t really know how much she has accomplished. It will be a few lines in his obituary. But that’s all.

Pelosi’s eldest daughter, Nancy Corinne Prowda, has been a constant alongside Feinstein. Some see politics at work, since Pelosi is Adam support rep B Schiff to succeed Feinstein. But you don’t buy it.

Start with the fact that Pelosi and Feinstein lived across from each other for 30 years. Nancy and Dianne have a personal relationship that predates their political relationship. Dianne knows all of her children.

They were the two who really brought the Democratic National Convention to San Francisco in 1984. When Rep. Sala Burton died in 1987, Dianne briefly considered running for Congress, but deferred when Nancy decided to run.

If Feinstein were to stop, there are speculations This Governor Gavin Newsom would name Rep. Barbara Lee, a Schiff rival, as his successor, giving Lee an edge in the 2024 election for the Senate seat.

I don’t see any policy. He’s trying to be half way too smart, connecting the dots. The idea that this is all a plot to elect Adam Schiff seems like the dumbest kind of speculation.


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