Dianne Feinstein Is Giving a Master Class in How to Ruin a Legacy

8 minute read

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

Dianne Feinstein had already made history back in 1978, when she became the first woman elected to lead the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, effectively setting the agenda for the legislative arm of the country’s eighth-largest economy at the time. She was, in practice, the Speaker of the S.F. House. But when a former-colleague-turned-assassin returned to City Hall with the intent to kill four political rivals, it was Feinstein who found her colleague Harvey Milk dead in his office. Five bullets struck Milk, America’s first openly gay politician, including two directly into his head at point-blank range, just down the corridor from Feinstein’s office.

“I walked into one and found Harvey Milk, put my finger in a bullet hole trying to get a pulse,” Feinstein said in a 2017 interview, one of the few times she has spoken of the day that instantly made her into a national figure and one whose star has never dimmed. “But you know, it was the first person I’d ever seen shot to death, and you know when they’re dead.”

The assassin had dodged metal detectors at City Hall by climbing through a first-floor window. Before reaching Milk’s office, he had killed Mayor George Moscone, leaving a vacuum that demanded Feinstein immediately rise to become the first female to lead San Francisco. For Feinstein, the circumstances of her promotion felt deeply unrewarding, but she would go on to win the seat on her own and serve for 10 years. It was one of the string of firsts that would mark a remarkable career in politics stretching from her first appointment in 1960 to the California Women’s Parole Board until now, when she is the oldest member of the Senate—and, owing to challenging health these days, its most debated figure.

To say Feinstein, now 89, is facing mounting pressure to resign would be to undersell the swelling frustration even among her biggest fans, both in progressive circles and in the Senate Dining Room. If anything, Feinstein is fast becoming a masterclass in how to spoil a legacy, one that should be taught in books about leadership for decades. Her and her office are providing a stunning demonstration in how to soil an inevitable obituary with tales of missteps rather than of purpose, and how to willfully ignore the well-meaning nudges that have been coming for years now. Rather than being M.I.A., she is now seen as A.W.O.L., even among her apologists.

More from TIME

Sen. Dick Durbin, by no means a radical in his caucus and Feinstein’s successor as the top Democrat of the powerful Judiciary Committee, made clear this past weekend how much the narrative had shifted.

“I want to treat Dianne Feinstein fairly. I want to be sensitive to her family situation and her personal situation, Durbin said on CNN. “I don’t want to say that she’s going to be put under more pressure than others have been in the past. But the bottom line is: the business of the committee and of the Senate is affected by her absence.”

Feinstein’s absence for the last two months has left the Senate largely paralyzed, and Democrats paused on the most important thing they can do without the cooperation of the Republican-led House, and that’s to confirm federal judges. What started as a murmur has become a boil, and even some of her most temperate colleagues and friends are starting to hint that it’s time for Feinstein to make clear her timeline to return to the Senate and provide the deciding vote for lifetime judgeships or to step aside and allow another Democrat to take the place.

Democrats in 2020 changed their rules to allow Durbin to step into the chairmanship while still serving as the caucus’ No. 2 player, a rare double-dip but one justified by Feinstein’s uneven performance in recent years. During a Supreme Court confirmation hearing earlier that year, she praised a partisan and rowdy day as “one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in,” sparking calls for her immediate resignation. She seemed confused during other hearings. The buzz about her health challenges grew more acute after the 2022 death of her husband, and her absences became harder to ignore.

When Republicans took the House in 2022, they effectively ended Democrats’ hopes of Congress governing in partnership with the Biden administration. The two years that started in January were largely about small-bore bipartisan initiatives, necessary stopgaps, and packing the courts with Democratic nominees. But to do this, Democrats needed to approve those nominees out of the Judiciary Committee, and Republicans refused to heed Feinstein’s reluctant request to allow Democrats to substitute a different lawmaker onto the panel. It was partisan, sure; it was not unpredictable.

Absent a functioning Judiciary Committee—and, to be clear, it could be working just fine had Republicans not predictably gummed it up, as is their right—Democrats in the Senate are largely left to chase bipartisan fever dreams and bat back House Republicans’ press releases masquerading as governing ideas. Put bluntly: Feinstein may leave her Democratic colleagues stuck in park for the 118th Congress.

Feinstein in her prime surely would have better understood the moment. After all, the Stanford-educated historian had a savviness that was rarely seen in politicians of any gender. In 1984, she nearly made history as the first female nominee for Vice President from a major party; that role fell to Geraldine Ferraro, although Walter Mondale thought plenty hard about his selection. Since her election to the Senate in 1992, her fingerprints have been all over signature legislation, like the assault weapons ban and the Gun-Free Schools Act, both from 1994. She was the first woman to preside over an inauguration, not to mention the first woman to chair the powerful-but-low-key Rules Committee and its more selective intelligence panel.

From that last perch, she made her own history. In 2014, ignoring tremendous pressure from her own party and the Obama White House, she released a 600-page summary report of the CIA’s torture program—and continues to fight for the protection and the full release of an accounting of those blemishes on American greatness.

Put simply: Feinstein has been a remarkable force for good if you share her grounding in Democratic politics. Her run is almost unrivaled by any of her colleagues, male or female. Yet the political pressure bearing on her now is impossible to ignore.

Questions about Feinstein’s political future have festered for years. Ahead of her 2018 re-election bid, the California Democratic Party passed over the incumbent and endorsed a charismatic, 51-year-old state senator named Kevin de León. (California readers will note his recent political problems—and survival—while on LA’s City Council.) That same year, she drew liberal outrage by waiting to pass along to the FBI a note alleging then-nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted a classmate in the 1980s until after the Judiciary Committee had seemed to have finished its work; the re-opened hearings—chaired by Feinstein—turned highly acrimonious, and Justice Kavanaugh now sits on the Supreme Court. And last year, as she was set to become the Senate President Pro Tempore and third in line to the presidency, she declined the place in the line of succession, citing her own legislative ambitions and the recent death of her husband.

Feinstein’s reluctance to call it a day for health reasons would not be without precedent. Republicans Johnny Isakson and Thad Cochran both left before their terms ended. But those moves are, indeed, rare, especially in a body that is known for having staffers run so much of the show. “There’s a joke on the Hill, we’ve got a great junior senator in Alex Padilla and an experienced staff in Feinstein’s office,” one Hill Democrat told The San Francisco Chronicle for a piece last April that gave D.C. permission to have a more open discussion about Feinstein’s mental faculties.

Absent answers, Democrats are in a lurch. They had hoped for some time with their friend this week, but she is keeping her return vague—as is the right of anyone facing such a personal decision rooted in a health crisis. But her 40 million constituents deserve someone to represent them, and absent a voting lawmaker for months, that’s getting tougher and tougher to defend.

Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com