Most people of integrity enter public life intending, or at least hoping, to “make a difference”.
For all of us short-lived humans, time rushes by and reality sets in and, as John Lennon reminded us, life happens while we’re busy making other plans. For the career politician, meanwhile, ambition makes harsh demands of compromise and countless tactical choices. Suddenly, all too quickly, the mid-point of life is passed, and then what?
Political “legacy” is a luxury of the very few. After decades of sweat and tears on the hard-ball court, most political people who’ve landed high enough on the ladder of position have neither the will nor the opportunity to reflect on what, if anything, they’ve accomplished and what may still lie ahead. Even those fortunate enough to arrive at a fateful crossroads of choice may not clearly see a path that offers a last chance for unique and enduring accomplishment.
Dianne Feinstein, the senior United States Senator from California, has held public office for forty years, ten of those as the first woman Mayor of San Francisco, and, sixteen in the upper house of Congress, once the most exclusive men’s club in America. She not only commands the respect of her Senatorial colleagues, but, somewhat amazingly, of the great majority of California voters, probably the most ethnically and racially and socially diverse - and finicky - ballot-casters of any democracy on earth.
Senator Feinstein was born three months after Franklin Roosevelt reassured a panicked people that they had nothing to fear but fear itself. Yes, that was a long time ago. But to look at it another way, if Feinstein is blessed with the longevity of the late unlamented Strom Thurmond, she could have another 25 years of legislative accomplishment on Capitol Hill.
Feinstein was the first woman to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee and the first woman to chair the Senate Rules Committee.
According to political scuttlebutt, she will soon Chair the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the first woman to hold that significant position as well.
But there have been other political rumors floating about – that in a year, Feinstein might return to California to run for Governor. If she made that choice in 2010, no other prominent Democrat would be likely to oppose her in the Democratic Primary election, and given her broad popularity among the voters, it’s very likely that she would be elected the 39th Governor of the most populous – and perhaps most troubled – state of the union.
On the surface, it doesn’t seem like much of a choice. If Feinstein remains in the Senate during the Obama Administration, she might influence the future course of the vast American Intelligence Community which has come to play a significant (if often unseen) role in American foreign relations. Or she could succeed the iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger in Sacramento, and be burdened with all the headaches of a politically-hamstrung and economically-depressed State Government.
But let’s look a little deeper and ask – which of these roles might offer Feinstein the more enduring political legacy? In which position could she make the greatest difference?
Having seen something of both CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia and the State Capitol at Sacramento, I’d argue for the second.There are many things about the Intelligence Community that need fixing after eight years of endless crisis and bungling. Congressional overseers may help prevent future abuses such as those we’ve come to associate with Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
But the more fundamental and earth-shaking problems of Intelligence – symbolized by the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks, the faulty strategic assessments that justified the Iraqi quagmire, and, more generally, the inability to meet radically different demands of Global Security in a multi-polar world - are complex and thorny and simply can’t be “fixed” by members of Congress, no matter how astute. These remedies – if any can be found - must come from the Executive Branch.
California, on the other hand, is also at a crossroads. The political, economic and social problems of the State are overwhelming, but there are concrete remedies. What’s lacking – what’s been lacking throughout the forty years of Dianne Feinstein’s political career – is an effectual Governor with both widespread popular support and seasoned political skills.
Dianne Feinstein has both and there is no other declared gubernatorial candidate of either party who can say the same. Would she want the job? She wanted it 20 years ago when she ran for Governor and was narrowly defeated. Why would she want it now? Perhaps because she could make an enormous difference. A Feinstein administration in Sacramento could change the entire course of California politics and set the state on a new road of political bi-partisanship, economic well-being and the scientific, environmental and intellectual innovation the world has come to expect from this ever-dynamic society.
The choice is Dianne Feinstein’s. This may be the defining moment of her political life.