‘Great American hero’ Dianne Feinstein honoured by Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi at San Francisco memorial

Late Senator was remembered for her leadership in California, her fight against torture, and boundary-breaking career as woman in politics

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Thursday 05 October 2023 20:50 EDT
Senator Dianne Feinstein dead at 90

Even in death, Dianne Feinstein’s legacy in San Francisco was immediately apparent.

As family members and dignitaries gathered on the steps of San Francisco City Hall Thursday afternoon for a memorial service, the roaring engines of the US Navy Blue Angels demonstration squadron could be heard as part of Fleet Week, the annual event started by Feinstein in 1981 when she was mayor of San Francisco.

The Angels, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi later noted from the podium, were flying in a missing person formation, in honour of Feinstein, who died at age 90 at the end of September, after an illustrious career as a city supervisor, mayor, and powerful US senator, known for her efforts to investigate the CIA’s use of torture during the War on Terror.

President Biden, in remarks delivered virtually, said Feinstein, “often the only woman in the room, she also mentored generations of women and men alike to imagine a bigger and more hopeful future for themselves, their country, and the world.”

Speakers remembered Feinstein, who lay in state at City Hall on Wednesday rather than the US Capitol, as a towering figure who used her time leading San Francisco through a series of crises – taking over after the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, bringing attention to the HIV/AIDs epidemic when national politicians like President Ronald Reagan ignored it – to inform a more than three-decade tenure in the Senate.

“Through times of tragedy and triumph, Dianne Feinstein showed us the meaning of San Francisco’s motto: ‘Gold in peace, iron in war,’” San Francisco mayor London Breed said. “She showed us a world where women lead, where we lift each other up so that girls like me can follow in her footsteps.”

Dignitaries, from left to right, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Vice President Kamala Harris, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. and Dianne Feinstein’s granddaughter Eileen Mariano stand during a memorial service for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023, in San Francisco

Feinstein was the first female mayor of San Francisco, serving for a decade in the position, before being elected to the US Senate in 1992, part of California’s first female delegation to the upper house alongside Barbara Boxer.

“San Franciso politics is rough and tumble, some even say it’s a bare-knuckled sport,” Vice-President Kamala Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney, said. “And this city requires its elected officials to engage on a daily basis in complex discussions with informed constituents who will raise the most intricate of local issues.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein was remebered for her LGBTQ advocacy, efforts to investigate torture, and legacy as a boundary-breaking female politician

The vice president, who served with Feinstein in the Senate, said she saw this thoughtful presence regularly while working together on the Senate intelligence committee.

“Dianne with her trademark grin, would pause, lift up her memo, glance knowingly at the rest of us on the dias, and question the witness in the way this former prosecutor always admired,” she continued. “In that room, there was give and take, substantive debate, and problem-solving, and that was quintessential Dianne at her best.”

Eileen Mariano, Feinstein’s granddaughter, shared stories of how her grandmother taught her to play chess and told her never to give up.

She elicited laughter from the crowds remembering how her grandma recommended always packing a black pants suit no matter where she was traveling to, even if it was to Joshua Tree, the famed California desert landscape Feinstein championed to become a national park in 1994.

Feinstein’s achievements continued through the present, former Speaker Pelosi said in her remarks.

“She left on her own terms,” the California representative said. “She was proud to confirm over 140 Biden judges. And Chuck [Schumer] can attest that she walked onto that floor last Thursday, which would be her last day, she walked onto the floor and voted to advance legislation to keep the government open for the people.”

That leaving process, however, forms a complicated part of Ms Feinstein’s legacy.

Her final years in office were dogged by accusations the California senator was no longer mentally fit to serve in office, following a series of public instances and private reports of Feinstein appearing confused or nonsensical about the details of her work and surroundings.

At City Hall, at least, Feinstein was celebrated as someone both incredibly tough and warmly cooperative.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer shared a story about Feinstein spending all day walking with an ankle injury that turned out to be a fracture.

When he asked her how she kept going through the pain, Feinstein replied, “I just did.”

The New York senator said Feinstein, for all her fierceness, was also “the living embodiment of what the Senate should always be: an institution built on cooperation.”

She was remembered, in the words of the song sung by the San Francisco Girls Chorus at the service, as someone willing to “dream the impossible dream / To fight the unbeatable foe / To bear with unbearable sorrow / To run where the brave dare not go.”

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