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picture of an oil painting of Feinstein in her office

Senator Dianne Feinstein, A Woman of Valor

The senator's legislative assistant remembers not only that she got stuff done, but did it with unparalleled grace.

Words: Robert Levinson
Pictures: Robert Levinson
Date:

The various retrospectives that have been written about the late Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) are almost formulaic by necessity. They all include the sentence “The first woman to (fill in the blank),” and then proceed to list the many instances where this applies. The first woman to head the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The first woman mayor of San Francisco, the first woman senator from California, the first woman to chair the Senate Intelligence Committee, the first woman to chair the Senate Rules committee. The list is long. 

She not only broke many proverbial glass ceilings but, as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in his tribute to her on the Senate floor the day after she passed, “She gave a voice, a platform and a leader to women throughout the country for decades. Dianne didn’t just push down doors that were closed for women, she held them open for generations of women after her, to follow her.” Schumer continued, “Today, there are 25 women serving in this chamber and every one of them will admit they stand on Dianne’s shoulders.”

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Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) riding a cable car in her beloved San Francisco, sometime in the 1980s while serving as the mayor. Photo taken by Robert Levinson in her office in San Francisco in August 2023.

The way she forever changed the perceptions of women in leadership was probably captured best by her close friend Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who told the story at her memorial service in San Francisco that after Mayor Feinstein had served in that job for 10 years and left office, several men declared their candidacy to succeed her and a child asked Pelosi, “Can a man be mayor of San Francisco?” Pelosi paused, looked over at the city’s current female Mayor London Breed, and said, “I guess.”

It was the honor and privilege of my life that I was hired by the senator in April 2023 to take the lead of the team that handled her defense, foreign policy, and veterans’ portfolio until her passing last month. So, while her many accomplishments in a public life that spanned over half a century are extraordinary, I wanted to take the opportunity to share some more personal perspectives from myself and others so that people could know a little more about Dianne Feinstein the person, in addition to Senator Dianne Feinstein, the dedicated public servant.

On Team Feinstein 

When I got hired, I kind of had to pinch myself that I was now working for a historic figure. I am from the San Francisco Bay Area, though, as the senator schooled me, I wasn’t actually born in the city, so couldn’t really claim it as home, and I have strong memories of her bursting onto the national scene in the wake of the tragic assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. When both she and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) were serving California in the Senate, I remember telling my daughter, “You see Samantha, in California, nice Jewish girls grow up to be senators.” 

Like most Senate staffers, my time with her on a regular basis was usually pretty short as I would brief her on an upcoming vote, a confirmation hearing, a bill to cosponsor or introduce, or a letter to sign on to. Coming from a military background, it was my reflex to call her “ma’am.” After a few weeks, she finally said to me, “You need to stop calling me ma’am, it’s very Southern, and I don’t like it. Just call me Senator.” I responded, “Yes Ma’am,” and she smiled, though I did manage to break the habit. To the staff, she was affectionately known as DF, nobody called her Dianne. And our office softball team was known as “Never Say Di.”

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A framed photo of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Steiner Street in San Francisco in 1981, two years after being elected mayor. Photo taken by Robert Levinson in her office in San Francisco in August 2023.

Over time, I got to know a little bit more about her. She was always impeccably dressed with her hair and her makeup just so. Her granddaughter said at her funeral that her grandmother advised her to always pack a black pantsuit. According to the Feinstein rules of fashion, there was never an occasion when a black pantsuit wasn’t suitable. She had strong opinions about her staff’s attire and was not shy about letting us know. In the office, she never once saw me without a jacket and tie. We represented her to the people of California and others, and we always had to look the part. Just before she died, the Senate relaxed the dress code, then reversed course. She was undoubtedly smiling from above.

But what really struck me was the way she cared for others around her. If we were working at the office late and sent out for dinner, she would always say, “Make sure there is enough for everybody.” As she had a sweet tooth, both in her office and her Capitol hideaway, she always had to have a box of chocolates handy. When she brought them out, she’d take one and then pass the box around and encourage everyone to take some. 

Once, when I was walking with her through the Capitol, a reporter stopped to ask her if she had heard about a health issue Senator Minority Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had had. She hadn’t heard but immediately said that she knew he was strong and would be okay. When the reporter walked away, she turned to us and said, “I need to send Mitch a note.”

During another late night, as she had to vote on amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act, we brought her memos explaining each of them. She was a bit irritated and asked us why she was just seeing these now, 30 minutes before she would vote on them. All who knew her knew how hard she worked. She wanted to study every issue well and was always prepared before making any decision. We replied that we had just received notice of these amendments an hour before. Her tone transformed, and she apologized for being curt with us. No apology was, of course, necessary because we were frustrated as well with the short notice, but that was just her way. 

Where I really got to know her was on her last trip home to her beloved San Francisco for the August 2023 recess. I needed to visit a cleanup and decontamination site at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco and offered to fly back with the senator. The day started a little hectic as I got to the house, and we were running late. The senator was still upstairs getting ready. Meanwhile, our chief of staff is texting me, telling me to get a move on. I hate rushing my wife to the airport, and now I had to rush the senator. I inadvertently stepped across the threshold of her bedroom, which she didn’t like at all. She asked, “Do we need to leave right now?” “Yes, senator, please.” As we left for airport, the senator, as always, was in the front seat with her dog Kirby on her lap. We got there and made the flight on time. 

This was an experience I will always treasure, as I had her all to myself for about the next nine hours. She shared with me stories of growing up in San Francisco and exercising polo ponies. We talked about Tony Bennet’s recent passing, and she sang to me a few lines from his iconic “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” She still missed her late husband, who passed in 2022, and she wanted me to ensure that Kirby, in the carrier below our feet, was ok. She really loved that dog. 

There are people in your life that you admire and respect, and she was certainly one of those for me and many others. And then there are people in your life you wish to emulate. If people one day will say that I have the grace of Dianne Feinstein, that will be high praise indeed.

What shined through for me that day was what can only be described as her grace. To every person who helped her that day, the TSA security personnel, the flight attendants, and others, she always took the time to say thank you. She also would compliment random people we passed on their clothing or their hair or just being nice to her. When we got to San Francisco Airport, we had to wait in the terminal for a few minutes, and people recognized her and came up to say hello. To every one of them, she was just as sweet as could be, asking who they were and where they were from and thanking them for being so supportive. I was frankly a bit tired from the flight, but she, at 90 years old, never skipped a beat. 

When we got to her lovely home in Pacific Heights, I thought, “Ok now she’ll want to rest.” But she insisted on giving me the tour. After the downstairs, she wanted to show me the upper floors. I headed to the elevator, but she insisted on the stairs, and up she went with me in tow. Then she suggested that we sit down with a glass of her favorite, California chardonnay. She kept bottles of the stuff around the office and hideaway. The day after she passed, the staff broke out the remainder and toasted to her. As I got up to leave, she asked if I had a place to stay. My family lived nearby, so I said I did. I do not doubt that she would have given me a room in her home had I needed it. 

There are people in your life that you admire and respect, and she was certainly one of those for me and many others. And then there are people in your life you wish to emulate. If people one day will say that I have the grace of Feinstein, that will be high praise indeed.

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Photo taken by Robert Levinson in her office in San Francisco in August 2023.

When I was hired, her long-time chief of staff told me, “You know Rob, Senator Feinstein isn’t about making statements, she wants to get stuff done.” And her track record certainly proves that point. But it wasn’t just the big things like the torture report or the Assault Weapons Ban or the myriad other big bills but little things that changed individual lives. Congress used to pass personal bills that addressed an individual person’s problem, often related to immigration. The senator has more of these than anyone else, I think, by a wide margin. 

One couple came into our office and looked me in the eye, and the husband said, “You tell Senator Feinstein she saved our son’s life.” Their son had been in the military with a serious medical condition. The military hospital couldn’t treat him, and so he needed to be moved to a civilian hospital for the specialists required. There was some bureaucratic hang-up about who paid that was delaying the move. The parents called our San Francisco office, and our constituent services chief got on the phone with the Department of Defense and sorted it out in record time. The parents said if that had not been done, their son would be dead. I kind of choked up. That was Team Feinstein.

Saying Goodbye

Little did I know that when I signed on to her staff, I was joining this amazing fraternity and sorority of more than 400 people (we have a Facebook Group!) who had been part of Team Feinstein. 

Their devotion to her was demonstrated by how many flew out to San Francisco for her memorial service. They have great stories that we shared over beers and laughed quite a lot. Most of these took a similar form: there was some moment when this giant of the American political scene showed her very human side that just cracked us up. But along with the laughter and a few tears was a common realization. As so many went on to other jobs in the public or private sector, our boss had prepared us well. To be on her staff, you had to know your stuff. As nice as she was, she could be tough as nails and set high standards. I know I’m biased, but ask around the Senate and people will tell you that the Feinstein staff are pros. Even with my short time, I am immensely proud to be part of this elite group.

There is much else I could share, and if you ever bump into me, please ask, and I’ll tell you more. I’m really a bit surprised as to how big an effect this woman had on me in such a short time. But talking to other staffers, that’s not unusual.  

At her funeral in San Francisco, the Rabbi quoted from Proverbs 31:10-31. It begins in the Hebrew Eshet Chayil, which is normally translated as “woman of valor” but could more literally translated as “Woman Warrior.” A few lines that fit her to a tee: 

“A woman of valor who can find? For her price is far above rubies … Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the law of kindness is on her tongue… Many daughters have done valiantly, but you rise above them all … Give her of the fruit of her hands and let her works praise her in the gates.” 

Feinstein never shied away from a fight for what she knew to be good and right and just in the world. And she did it with such grace, dignity, and goodwill. On her last day with us, she did what she knew was her duty and walked on the floor of the Senate and cast a vote to keep the government open. As one of our staff said appropriately about a Californian who loved horses, “She died with her boots on and she wouldn’t have had it any other way.” 

Her family, her extended family (that is her staff both past and present), her country, and her world shall miss her terribly, but we are ever so grateful for the time we had with her. She was indeed a woman of valor, a Woman Warrior, and her value was far, far above rubies.

Robert Levinson

Robert Levinson is a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel who served as Senator Diane Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) Legislative Assistant for Defense, Foreign Policy and Veterans Affairs from April 2023 until her death in September 2023.

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