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Dianne Feinstein

This is the original unedited version of my interview with Dianne Feinstein. A new (British) editor inexplicably removed all reference to Richard Blum, now Dianne's husband.

They had called her many things. Some did it with malice, some with envy, some with concern, some with disappointment, but all with more than a twinge of respect. Goody Two-Shoes. Cassandra. Joan of Arc become the Wicked Witch of City Hall. They said she was too independent, too brilliant, too cold, too beautiful, too humorless, too ambitious.

But when Dianne Feinstein tood up, tall and pale and dignified , on that bitter, cold, grey morning of Wednesday, November 29 1978, she kindled a flicker of hope in the hearts of numbed San Franciscans. As she offered a warm and eloquent tribute to the murdered Mayor, George Moscone, and the slain supervisor, Harvey Milk, she began to restore the city's shattered sense of self-respect.

Only nine months earlier, she had contradicted Milk during the swearing-in ceremony for new supervisors. " A true function of government," that generous gay man had said, "is not just to pass laws and approve appropriations, but to give hope."

"Hope is fine," replied the pragmatic president of the 11-member legislative board, "but you can't live on hope. The name of the game is six votes."

On that bleak November morning, she rose above the rules of the game. For a city still steeped in shock and bewilderment at the Guyana mass suicide-murder orgy ignited by a false messiah, the subsequent double-murder by a "law and order" supervisor seemed like the extension of a nightmare. Minutes after Feinstein heard shots in the office adjacent to hers, she was the first person to reach Harvey Milk. "I tried to get his pulse," she later recalled, "but a bullet had gone through his wrist; all there was was blood."

As thousands gathered to grieve in Civic Center, the Acting Mayor re-affirmed the essential quality of a community that has been stunned too often by bizarre tragedies.

"The spirit of this city," the native daughter declared with unshakeable conviction, "is one of promise and hope, of progress, of generosity, of love, tolerance and forgiveness. If today's vision of the city is clouded and if our spirits are numbed, tomorrow's future can be a bright one."

Listening to this calm-faced woman, few realized how heavy an echo of personal heartbreak and loss permeated her words. She was just regaining her own sense of equilibrium after the long drawn-out painful death seven months earlier of her husband, Dr. Bertram Feinstein, a distinguished and popular neurosurgeon. Theirs had been an unusually close, mutually supportive and happy 15-year marriage. In 1975, cancer had also struck down the father she idolized: Dr . Leon Goldman, a highly respected professor who was internationally known for his contributions to surgery of the digestive and endocrine systems.

She was only beginning to recover from this double-blow, when she was helped by a new friendship with Richard Blum. A lean and lanky 6'4" self-made millionaire at 43, Blum was founder and co-chairman of Mayor Moscone's Fiscal Advisory Commission. He and Feinstein had met about a year ago when she asked him to explain his Commission's report.

Then in the fall of 1978, after months of looking worn and ashen, a radiant Dianne Feinstein suddenly emerged in public, escorted by the recently divorced Blum. The occasion was the 50th wedding anniversary of Morris Bernstein, an old family friend and a Democratic power broker. Everybody who was anybody was there.

Later in mid- November, the city's ace columnist Herb Caen reported that a sick Dianne Feinstein had been flown out of the Himalayas on a Royal Nepal helicopter while on a mountain climbing expedition with Blum.

The popular diagnosis was "Delhi belly," Feinstein said, grimacing and laughing about the ailment during an exclusive interview at her home five days after being elected Mayor by a 6-2 vote of the depleted board of supervisors. The dissenters were her two former conservative allies. Her other ally and protege, Dan White, a former city fireman and policeman, was in jail, charged with the murders of Moscone and Milk. But if a municipal election had been held that week, it is a safe bet that the dedicated woman, known as the city's only full-time supervisor, would have been the overwhelming choice of an exhausted electorate, inspired by her fortitude and grateful for her leadership. What the public didn't know about was the courage she showed during the past few years when she had lived with the constant threat of violence aimed expressly at her. The Feinsteins had had police protection since December 1976 when Katherine, her daughter by a brief first marriage, looked out of her bedroom window, spotted a plastic package clearly marked "Gel Explo" and called police. They came immediately and dismantled the bomb. The following March, police were called in again to examine damage caused by BB gun shots at the Feinsteins' beach front vacation home, south of the city. But Feinstein told me that she doesn't live in fear. "You can't live that way," she emphasized, ignoring the presence of a police officer sitting in an unmarked car across the street from the Mayor's elegant old brick and stucco Victorian Classic house. "I've seen a lot of death since I've been in public life," Her Honor said. "When a policeman is shot, I've made it a practice to see him and how the trauma unit is working at San Francisco General Hospital. So I've seen a great deal of blood and emergency work and sat with policemen's wives while their husbands were dying. It's just a risk we all take. You do what you can to be prudent. Beyond that, you take your chances."

She seemed more uneasy about taking time from her new duties to give an interview that she felt should have been postponed. Her Saturday afternoon calendar was crowded with urgent city business. The strain of the preceding week was obvious. She had lost 15 pounds during the Himalayan illness and had a nagging cough . Still, she seemed younger than her 45 years and more vulnerable than her public persona had ever indicated. In her casual light blue cotton slack suit, she didn't look like the $55,596-a - year chief executive of a $1 billion municipal empire, but she is . Everything in her life has pointed to this moment.

Although she had been elected supervisor twice — the first time in 1969 — with the highest number of votes and thus automatically elevated to the presidency of the board, she had been decisively defeated in two mayorality bids in 1971 and 1975. However, the achievement of her dream through the city's tragedy brought no sense of elation.

For the moment, she is relaxed in the handsome spacious living room with its comfortable green velvet chairs and sofa. The walnut-paneled entry hall is richly carpeted in crimson. Samantha, their Yorkshire terrier, barks sharply and then subsides. Everything is a reminder of the life the Feinsteins shared.Her husband who was 20 years older and took enormous pride in his wife's achievements, did not hesitate to use those priceless surgeon's hands to nail up her campaign posters.

While she read books on government and history in her spare time, he played "great jazz" on their Baldwin piano. The new mayor is a demon player too - of charades involving old movie titles. Once when no one understood why she was vigorously waving the flag, she lay down on the floor, realistically simulating a woman in labor - and voila! "The Birth of the Nation." On the wall is a friend's portrait of husband, wife and daughter, dressed in identical white Irish sweators, against a painted Persian rug backdrop. The lovely Robert Russin sculptured torsos are all inspired by the poetry of Omar Khayyam. A large softly polished bronze entwined man and woman is titled: "This is my beloved."

The tears she had controlled all week flowed when she mentioned her husband's six terrible months of unremitting pain and his unwillingness to accept death.

Her pale grey-blue eyes welled again when she recalled the generous bachelor uncle who had exerted a "profound influence" on her. He was a "character," she said lovingly, a gambler, a man with little education and a great admiration for the non-violent teachings of Gandhi. A woman's clothing manufacturer, he had put her father and another uncle through medical school. She used to tag along with the big, heavy -set, genial, white-maned man on his long walks, greeting derelicts and big shots alike, all over the city. She accompanied him on his fascinated visits to what he called the "board of stupidfiers," as well as to baseball games where he bet on every pitch. At the opening of the 1979 season, she'll be the first "lefty" mayor to throw out the ball. Dianne's Uncle Morris constantly lectured her about the importance of education. With his pals, he wagered early on that his precocious and pretty little niece would one day become the mayor.

Although she has the air of a woman who has led a charmed and protected life, the reality was not quite so simple. Despite her "establishment" credentials of graduation from the Convent of the Sacred Heart high school and Stanford University, her Jewish father and Russian Orthodox mother both came from families which had experienced extremely difficult struggles.

"My father's father came from Romania. He was one of 11 children. They were very poor. My grandmother worked in their shoe store. A couple of her children were born in the back room. She was very proud that she was able to deliver one child and then go back and complete a sale. Each child was designated to take care of the next youngest. The chain of responsibility went right down the line."

Her mother was born in St. Petersburg, the daughter of a Czarist Army officer who left Russia, taking his family through Shanghai to Eureka, California, where he died at 32, leaving his widow and four children destitute. Later, Dianne's beautiful mother became a model for one of San Francisco's most fashionable boutiques.

"My mother's mother was so bitter about her early experiences in this country that she never spoke English, even to us. My mother grew up ill. She had tuberculosis and came to San Francisco as a small child. This is where my story becomes more difficult.

"It turned out that when she was very young, she contracted a kind of flu - somewhat like encephalitis. It later comes back in terms of brain atrophy. My mother is now in a locked facility, her brain almost totally deteriorated. She had some very disturbing - and self-destructive - behavior patterns. It made my life very difficult and it had a profound effect on me and my two younger sisters. When we looked for psychiatric help for her, we couldn't get it because she had no insight. That portion of the brain which controlled insight was gone."

They did not understand the reason behind her behavior until the early '70s when the CAT scanner was developed.

"I don't know if my childhood experience explains the reason I am able to take pressure," the mayor said. "I FEEL all the time I'm taking pressure, but it has been a part of my life. My mother would do strange things. The night before I took my college boards, I was kicked out of the house and slept in the car in the garage. But you learn. You do go on. You perform . I don't have any explanation for it."

"Was your father a source of strength during all this?"

" My father,"she responded , drawing out the phrase with loving pride, "was very much a scholar. He didn't care at all about material possessions. He'd get a hole in his shoe and put cardboard in it. He was a wonderful, wonderful man, a real teacher. When I was a child, he would take me out on his rounds and I'd get sick to my stomach.I'd sit out there on those wooden benches in the hallways of the old hospital, waiting for him. I grew up hating hospitals. Each time I'd go in, I'd have a physical reaction. He wanted me to be a doctor. The only "D" I ever got in my first year at Stanford was in biology. I told him, 'See, I can't possibly be a doctor,' but he said he got a 'D' too. I knew that wasn't true.'

Her parents' conflict over religion was another source of tension. Dr. Goldman wanted Dianne raised as Jewish. The mother wanted her daughters to have every advantage she had lacked - and a Catholic upbringing. So while Dianne attended Jewish confirmation classes at the impressively domed Temple Emanu-el, she also had to go to lessons in doctrine at Sacred Heart.

"I raised a number of questions about doctrine which were answered. I had a chance to develop a great respect for the faith and understanding of it. Catholicism at the time was very appealing to me because of the warmth of the church, the amount you took on faith. It was something I didn't have to think about. But then I went to Spain while I was at Stanford and I saw the problems where the church controls the government so much. I was also exploring Protestant religions because I was pinned to a football player who planned to become a minister. I asked our Spanish guide where we could find a Protestant church and he wouldn't tell me. It was right around the corner. "

At Stanford, she learned "that the question of faith plays a role when you're making a life-long decision." She began studying comparative religion and the impact of religion on people. "I think as the years went on, my identity as a Jew grew stronger. Judaism is not as — how to say it? — it's a much simpler religion. It doesn't have a lot of crutches in it."

During college she finally gave up earlier romantic dreams about becoming an actress and indulging what she calls the "swashbuckling" side of her personality that loved "The Scarlet Pimpernell" and Horatio Hornblower adventures. She just didn't do well in drama classes. What came naturally was her incisive interest in political science and history. She was elected vice-president of her class, the top spot that a woman could hope for then. Soon after graduation, she became a fellow in the Coro Foundation, an organization that inables young people to get intensive practical education in government by placing them as trainees in public agencies.

As a Coro intern, she visited most of the penal institutions in northern California to do a study on the adminstration of criminal justice. While observing the San Francisco District Attorney's office, she met and eloped with a brash young assistant district attorney, Jack Berman, who at 18 had been president of the California Young Democrats. They had one daughter , but the marriage ended in bitterness four years later.

At the same time, she became active in her first political campaign: working for Adlai Stevenson. Years later she admired the Kennedys as the "bright hope for America" and worked hard in Bobby's presidential campaign.

Her Democratic activities didn't make life any easier for daughter Kathy, "practically" the only Democratic child at the exclusive Sarah Dix Hamlin school. Kathy survived the snobbery with uncommonly good common sense and a solid appreciatiion for the first-rate education.

Now a student at the University of California in Berkeley, on the eve of her marriage to an amiable young contractor, she feels out of Momma's shadow for the first time. Kathy allows that she is the only person with the nerve to speak up frankly to her mother. However, when Kathy - who is interested in writing - assisted her on a newspaper article and frankly suggested that the by-line read, "By Frick and Frack Feinstein," it didn't cut any ice with Mom. She was not amused.

For five of Kathy's early years, Dianne worked as Governor Edmund 'Pat' Brown's appointee on the California Women's Board of Terms and Parole. She lost 25 pounds that first year in a job that called for 10 working days a month involving sentencing and parole programs. It gave her an insight into less fortunate lives that she is not about to forget now. When she married Dr. Feinstein in 1962, they actually honeymooned adjacent to the women's prison at Corona. "I had to go to work and hear cases the rest of the week," she recalled. Their second honeymoon the following year wasn't so different. She visited 13 prisons in Hong Kong and Japan.

"Bert was delighted that I had this kind of interest. He didn't marry me to be a housewife. His neurosurgery was very taxing. His practice was largely people who were total catastrophes - that others would not help. People with cerebral palsy, very bad epilepsies. The tragedy of his death was that he was making some real breakthroughs in the surgical treatment of uncontrollable epileptics by implanting electrodes deep in the brain."

Dr. Feinstein was as interested in her prison and political work, as she was in his practice. Two instances came to her mind immediately. He sat in on one of her first cases involving a woman sentenced for traumatic injury to a child. The child who had become hydro-cephalic as a product of the beating had been brought by the grandmother to Dr. Feinstein for treatment.

"It was an incredible happenstance. Bert got very interested because of the terrible things done to the infant by the mother and the lack of insight that mother had into reasons for her actions."

Mrs. Feinstein began reading his medical books in order to understand his specialty. 'I became interested in aneurisms for some reason," she said, laughing and looking very young. " One night he had to operate on an aneurism and there were two ways of handling it. An aneurism is a weak spot in the wall of a blood vessel. If it pops, it can be fatal. If it stabilizes for 10 to 15 days, the surgeon may put a clip at the base of the aneurism or tie the blood vessel before it gets to the aneurism. I asked which procedure he was going to follow and he told me. I said, 'I think you should do it this way.' We were debating and suddenly he looked at me and said, 'My God, what's wrong with me? I'm listening to you!'" The reader may feel free to assume he beat a hasty retreat to the sanctuary of his surgery.

Her kind of inquiring intelligence combined with a demand for the same perfectionism in others has driven some of her staff up the wall. Aides used to complain that she doesn't have to know everything, do everything, dot the I's, lick the stamps or insist on a proper green salad at a campaign luncheon in an Irish saloon where the main dish is Irish stew and it's exotic enough to see 'Feinstein' inscribed on the green banners.

On the other hand, people on her staff are awed by the gutsy dame who rushed out of a city car to apply mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a man who had collapsed in the street. When he vomited, she gamely spit it out and continued trying to save his life. (The incident occurred three months after her husband died.)

Liberals who admired her for marching against the Vietnam war, working for civil rights and supporting school integration felt she had become too "law and order" oriented in her demands to drive the smut-peddlers and sleazy movie operators out of the high-crime, inner-city "Tenderloin." Not many of her opponents would do what she has done: don a frowsy blonde wig and stand alone in the dark to study conditions and determine if parolees she knew were back on the streets, strung out on drugs again. She made it clear in the first days of her new office that a high priority was to accomplish a police clean-up of the "Tenderloin" to make it safe for the elderly poor.

That concern with law and order may have displeased liberals, but then Feinstein, like all politicians, is not beloved by all factions. Feminists have occasionally attacked her for not adopting some of their favorite positions, although she fought for the ERA, Head Start programs, child care and maternity leave. She also has the support of the gay community - the nation's largest homosexual voting bloc. And while she fought for an ordinance that prohibits discrimination against homosexuals, she says: "The right of an individual to live as he or she chooses can become offensive. The gay community is going to have to face this. It's fine for us to live here respecting each other's lifestyles, but that doesn't mean imposing them on others. I don't want San Francisco to set up a backlash."

Above all else, she wants to bring the city she loves together in a spirit of unity and reconciliation. San Francisco has never been out of her mind for very long. When she returned from her Himalayan vacation that "traumatic Guyana Saturday, " before she heard the deadly news, she was reflecting on the beauty of the skyline and her own happiness in being in government service.

"I kept thinking about how much we do to help people as compared to Nepal, and India where you have 600 million people and a caste system and very old ideas. They have incredible problems and a very low quality of life. We also visited the Dalai Lama and saw what was happening with the Tibetan refugees."

The Tibetans had become an interest of Blum's when he studied Eastern religions for a year at the University of Vienna. He became attached to the non-materialistic philosophy of Buddhism, even though he was studying business administration at UC. During six trips to the Himalayas, he has observed the progress of the Dalai Lama's followers, and also founded a Sherpa scholarship fund. These Eastern interests are combined with volunteer work aimed at restoring jobs and communities in urban inner cities.

Blum and Dianne had decided not to visit Calcutta and Bombay, Mrs. Feinstein said, "because those are very heavy experiences in terms of human suffering. I had enough of it in New Delhi. It was the first time I had ever seen lepers in large numbers. One woman came up with a normal six-month old child in her arms - and as you know, leprosy is contageous over long periods. That kind of thing would never happen here. People so severely afflicted would receive help from the government. In Nepal, there was nothing. People were leaving hospitals which couldn't help them and literally coming to this place to die."

The new mayor has had enough of bloody headline-making deaths and the deeper private pains. "Personally , I knew I had to make a new life for myself or I was going to drown in grief. I might not be able to forget the past, but I couldn't live in it.

"Dick Blum has been super. He's interested in government, a good thinker and dedicated. He's been a good friend through some very hard times for me. He understands what I am going through. I think there are very few men who wouldn't be threatened because he knows how much I cared for Bert and still do. I think it's hard for women to be totally alone without a form of emotional support in this political process. Bert always gave me that support and I depended on it. I feel very good to have someone I can depend on now."

The suffering, grief and loneliness had been terrible, she noted, "but you have to chart a course that's right for you. Finally, I feel better able to give to people in a much warmer way. I think I'm a better person for the tragedy I've gone through than I was before. I think it's made a marked change in my personality. I used to be much more categorical. I'm not so fast to condemn. It's easier for me to relate to people now, to speak more directly in a human sense than ever before. After all the learning and academia that's been poured into you, you need the other qualities too because people don't respond necessarily on the basis of clear reason, but because you have appealed to them one on one."

A black pharmacist who has admired her work in the black community for years watched her at a Christmas party for the elderly poor and said, "Thank God, we have people like Mrs. Feinstein to step in here."

A cynical woman voter put it more cautiously: "It would be nice to have someone to admire again."

The Ladies Home Journal March 1979

 

 

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