Hanging Tough

updated 09/10/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/10/2001 01:00AM

In the seventh of PEOPLE's occasional series on the 13 women currently in the U.S. Senate, we profile California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who was first elected in 1992. Born to privilege, she overcame her mother's physical and emotional abuse, a husband's sudden death and the horrifying murder of two close colleagues to become one of the most powerful women on Capitol Hill.

When shots rang out on the morning of Nov. 27, 1978, Dianne Feinstein, then president of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, was in her city hall office. Rushing down the corridor, she found colleague Harvey Milk collapsed in a pool of blood. Feinstein felt for a pulse, but instead her finger found a bullet hole. Minutes later she learned that former board member Dan White had gunned down not only Milk, the city's first openly gay elected official, but also Mayor George Moscone.

Then 45, Feinstein had just returned from a trip to Nepal with Richard Blum, who would become her third husband, and was contemplating leaving politics. The shooting changed all that: She had become acting mayor, forced to face the cameras to soothe a panicked city. "We will carry on as best we possibly can," she said, her camel skirt stained with blood. Says Feinstein today: "I think back a lot to that day. I guess I learned I'm good in a crisis. I just keep going."

Her calm handling of the emergency propelled Feinstein to national prominence, first as mayor in her own right and eventually as a U.S. senator. Once mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate, she is known as an outspoken lawmaker who does not hesitate to take political associates to task. Feinstein, now 68, openly chastised fellow California Democrat Rep. Gary Condit a few weeks before his recent media blitz, saying that he had lied to her about his relationship with missing intern Chandra Levy. "I don't think that there's anything he can do to regain his credibility," she said of Condit, who drew fire from pundits and constituents alike for refusing in interviews late last month to answer questions about whether he had had an affair with Levy.

To be sure, the buttoned-down Feinstein—whom the late San Francisco Mayor Joe Alioto once called "a Goody Two-shoes" because of a local antipornography campaign she ran—has high standards of personal conduct. Once a Clinton loyalist, she felt he had violated the public trust during the Lewinsky flap and crafted a resolution of censure. Never put to a vote, it would have condemned his behavior but allowed him to remain in office. Says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute: "It was reflective of how she looked at the impeachment issue: It shouldn't have gone to trial, but he shouldn't have just walked away."

Feinstein's record on Capitol Hill is clearly colored by her personal experiences. Having lived through a double assassination, she pushed through a 1994 assault-weapons ban. Recalling her own struggles as a young divorced mother looking for a job in the late 1950s, she ardently backed the family-leave bill passed in 1993. And when moved by an issue, she never lets up. "At times she drives her staff nuts," says Kam Kuwata, her friend and campaign manager. "She always has another question." Feinstein rankled Democrats this year by supporting the Bush tax cut, although she has also criticized the President, notably for what she felt was a tardy response to California's energy crisis.

On the face of it, Feinstein would seem to have led a pampered life. But she has overcome daunting obstacles. The oldest of three daughters born to San Francisco surgeon Leon Goldman and his wife, Betty, a homemaker, Feinstein idolized her late father. But she lived in terror of her physically abusive mother, later diagnosed with brain damage, possibly stemming from an early bout with encephalitis. "There would be pummeling, slapping, hitting," recalls her sister Lynn, 60, a San Francisco restaurant manager. "Dianne was our protector. She was the one to pull my mother off us." When their mother forbade snacking between meals, Dianne and her sisters would raid the family's World War II victory garden. "We'd pull up radishes and carrots," Feinstein recalls.

Dianne found escape in equestrian competitions and high school plays. At Stanford University, where she majored in history, she discovered a love of politics and became student-body vice president. Later, interning at the San Francisco district attorney's office, she met prosecutor Jack Berman, and they eloped in 1956. The next year Feinstein's only child, Katherine, was born. But the rocky marriage ended in 1959, and Feinstein had trouble finding work. "I was alone with a child," she says. "People didn't want me."

Then-Gov. Pat Brown named her to a board overseeing female prison inmates in 1961, the same year she met neurosurgeon Bertram Feinstein, almost 20 years her senior. They wed the next year. "As a marriage it was a 10," she once said. Bertram backed her bid for Board of Supervisors in 1969, when women in politics were still a novelty. As the top vote-getter—in part because of an extensive TV campaign—she became board president, serving in turbulent times. Heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped, and a radical group targeted local politicians, among them Feinstein. A bomb was planted in a window box at her home but failed to detonate. Some of her windows were shot out, prompting her, briefly, to keep a .38 for protection. Then came her husband's 1978 death from cancer. "I didn't think I would ever remarry," she says.

But a few months later she began dating Richard Blum, a wealthy investment banker who had served as a fiscal adviser for the city. "She has the ability to act out of clarity and passion," says Blum, 66. "That's one reason I fell in love." It took both qualities for Feinstein to rise to the occasion when a distraught Dan White, who had resigned as a supervisor but wanted his job back, violently propelled her to the mayoralty. Reelected twice, Feinstein ran for governor in 1990. She lost narrowly to Pete Wilson but then won his vacated Senate seat in 1992, joining five other women senators. Criticized in her 1994 reelection bid for sometimes voting for issues that helped her husband's businesses, she has said she tries to be "very careful" about avoiding conflicts and points out that she has supported bills that hurt him.

Away from the Capitol, Feinstein enjoys gardening, drawing and decorating her homes in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Aspen and Stinson Beach, Calif. She cherishes her grandchild Eileen, 8, daughter of Katherine, 44, a San Francisco superior court judge who, Feinstein says, "has learned how to handle life much better than I did. For me it was much bumpier." Still, she has learned some lessons from her bumpy journey: "If you really think you're meant to do what you do, you can be kind of a phoenix. You rise from your own ashes."

Thomas Fields-Meyer
Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C., and Penelope Rowlands in San Francisco

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