Monday, July 22

Column: Feinstein reigns one last day at San Francisco memorial


For one last day, Dianne Feinstein reigned.

She reigned over this lovely, enchanted, vexing and deeply troubled city. The city where she was born, the city that nurtured and sustained and tortured her, and sometimes broke her heart.

Dignitaries arrived and tributes flowed from around the country as those closest to the late U.S. senator and former mayor gathered for a final remembrance outside San Francisco’s majestic City Hall.

President Biden, in taped remarks, extolled Feinstein’s character and steel-rod spine.

“She was always tough, prepared, rigorous and compassionate,” Biden said.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer hailed her as “one of the Senate’s great deal-makers.”

“There are many adjectives that rightly describe Dianne Feinstein,” he said. “Strong. Unflappable. Winning. Practical.”

It was a service befitting a monarch — Feinstein lay in state Wednesday in City Hall’s grand rotunda — which is how she carried herself: regal and at times imperious.

Lawmakers and ex-lawmakers, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, friends, former aides, former antagonists — all sat in a fan of folding white chairs arrayed before the beaux-arts landmark, sweltering in unseasonable 85-degree heat.

For all its grandiosity, however — the 1,000-plus in attendance, repeated noisy flyovers by the Blue Angels — the ceremony was also a homecoming, a sentimental farewell from a place Feinstein never forgot or left behind.

“Senator Feinstein. That is her official title,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said. “It’s how Californians and people all over the world knew her. But to us San Franciscans, she was Mayor Dianne Feinstein.”

San Francisco may be a world-class destination. But its size (a mere 47 square miles), its rivalries and close-quarters political combat can make it a very small town.

In a brisk program lasting just under an hour, Feinstein was remembered by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Vice President Kamala Harris — a former district attorney — and Breed.

All elected at different times by San Franciscans. All of whom followed in Feinstein’s trail-blazing path.

Breed said for girls like her, born in the 1970s, it was normal to think a woman could be in charge and achieve anything a man could. But not so for her elders.

“My mother’s generation didn’t have that,” the mayor said. “My grandmother’s generation certainly didn’t. But millions of girls my age and long after me have grown blissfully free of the yokes our grandmothers wore, because Dianne Feinstein wrestled them off.”

The memorial service was originally planned as a come-one, come-all affair. But security concerns changed that, and only invited guests were allowed to attend.

The move was both a sign of these politically angry times and a reminder of the violence that stalks our daily lives.

Feinstein knew both well.

She survived an assassination attempt as a member of the Board of Supervisors, and two years later became the city’s mayor after a gunman killed her predecessor.

The office where George Moscone was shot overlooks the steps that served as Thursday’s stage. Its gold-filigreed balcony shone in the sun.

Feinstein’s resolute performance the day of Moscone’s murder — standing on those steps and announcing the deaths of the mayor and Harvey Milk, her fellow supervisor — braced the city as it reeled and nearly buckled.

It set a template for the rest of her political career: unbending, strong, determined.

Feinstein was also crisp and focused, and much of Thursday’s service reflected that public face. (In private, she could be hell to work for, as Feinstein was the first to admit, and the memorial included references to that as well.)

Biden and others remembered Feinstein for a broad range of achievements in the face of steep odds, among them a 10-year national ban on assault-style weapons, protections for a vast swath of the California desert and efforts to stop the CIA practice of torturing detainees overseas.

But for a hometown audience, what might have been most appreciated was how she mastered San Francisco’s knife-fighting politics and won the respect and affection of its demanding residents.

“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,” Harris said, “no matter if you are walking through the Presidio or attending an event at Delancey Street.

“This environment, I do believe, guided Dianne’s style of leadership,” the vice president said, “even after she reached the heights of national and global power.”

Pelosi, a personal friend and Feinstein’s longtime neighbor, put it succinctly.

She called her “San Francisco’s forever mayor.”

“Forever mayor,” Pelosi repeated.

The sweetest eulogy came from Feinstein’s 30-year-old granddaughter, Eileen Mariano, who bears a striking resemblance to a young Feinstein.

Mariano spoke of playing hide-and-seek, gardening, chess matches, the terrible haircuts Feinstein insisted on giving her — and, of course, the first-hand lessons in San Francisco history.

Feinstein taught her resilience, Mariano said, and the importance of humility and hard work. Her life demonstrated that gender was no obstacle to achievement.

“She showed young women everywhere that they, too, can be leaders,” Mariano said, “that they can make an impact and that they deserve a seat at the table.”

There was practical advice as well.

“She would also say to me, ‘If you ever go out of town, no matter where you’re going — doesn’t matter if you’re going to a city or the desert or a beach or the mountains: Always pack a black pantsuit,’” Mariano said, raising a ripple of laughter.

“‘There is no occasion to which you can’t wear a black suit.’”

Feinstein, who died last week at age 90, came to political success the hard way.

She twice ran for mayor, and lost, inheriting the job only when Moscone was killed in November 1978. Five years later, she had to beat back an attempted recall.

Like any politician, Feinstein made enemies.

Gay activists who thought she was too prudish. Neighborhood advocates who believed she was too beholden to downtown’s moneyed interests.

Gun owners who considered her too liberal. Liberals who considered her too conservative.

But on Thursday, all was forgiven if not wholly forgotten.

The city, her city, sent her off in triumph.

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