Perspective: Remembering Dianne Feinstein’s trailblazing impact on the nation and my family
Dianne Feinstein’s life story is a veritable litany of ‘firsts’ and boundaries broken as she became a trailblazer
Much has been written in the days since Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s death about her notable and historic career — with more surely to come. Her life story is a veritable litany of “firsts” and boundaries broken, but my somewhat more personal reflections stem from the way her life’s work interacted with my own family’s story.
In 1978, Feinstein became the first female mayor of San Francisco. Two years later, my father, Tom Lantos, was elected as a member of the U.S. Congress, the first (and still only) Holocaust survivor to ever serve in this capacity. His district covered a portion of San Francisco, so he and Feinstein inevitably crossed paths.
While it might not be fair to say they had a close relationship, I know they recognized in each other the mark of a trailblazer and shared a deep mutual respect. Moreover, they shared a rapidly diminishing space in American politics, as leaders who managed to be progressive while retaining a strong pragmatism that often led them to the center.
Beyond this, they shared their proud Jewish heritage — in fact, Feinstein was the first female Jewish senator. She recounted that she faced antisemitism early in her political career, and as mayor she traveled to the oldest Jewish ghetto in Europe, where she affirmed the vital importance of speaking out against antisemitism. She also helped create a Holocaust monument in San Francisco.
In the same era, my father introduced legislation in the U.S. Congress to make Raoul Wallenberg, a Swede responsible for saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, an honorary U.S. citizen.
Dianne Feinstein and Tom Lantos were both proudly patriotic and understood America’s global role as the indispensable nation. They both had a profound commitment to human rights and the protection of human dignity for all people. For my father, this commitment led him to co-found the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. Feinstein exhibited her own deep commitment time and again through legislation aimed at addressing human trafficking and putting an end to the use of torture by the United States.
Feinstein’s political career also intersected with my husband’s own in a meaningful way. She was deeply impacted by the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978, and she became a fierce and lifelong advocate for gun control and gun safety.
She authored the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, which still stands as one of the most successful and impactful efforts to address gun violence in America. My husband, who was then a congressman from the state of New Hampshire, cast a critical vote in favor of the Assault Weapons Ban, which only passed the House by two votes. This earned him death threats and lost him his congressional seat, but he never regretted his decision to vote for what would prove to be Feinstein’s lifesaving bill. Without her leadership, this legislative action would never have come to pass.
When my father passed away in 2008, Feinstein generously wrote of him, “He stood tall in the most difficult of circumstances … with a dignity and a forcefulness that’s unprecedented.” She went on, “The Bay Area has lost a great one.”
Fifteen years later, the same can surely be said of Feinstein. The Bay Area and the entire country has lost a trailblazing, boundary-breaking force, but her legacy will live on for generations to come.
Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett is president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and an associate professor at Tufts University.