Dianne Feinstein Doesn’t Need a Do-Over

Confronted by passionate schoolchildren, the senator held a master class in patience, grace, and asserting her well-earned authority.

Dianne Feinstein
Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

On Friday morning in San Francisco, the Sunrise Movement faced off against the Sunset Movement—and the Sunset Movement won. It won big.

A group of jackbooted tots and aggrieved teenagers showed up at the local office of Dianne Feinstein—85 years old and holding—with the intention of teaching her about climate change and demanding that she vote for the Green New Deal.

The resulting encounter was so gonzo that it made Gran Torino look like The Pajama Game. At the 13th hour of a long career, Feinstein did something that the kids weren’t expecting. She took them seriously, and she patiently explained some truths about American political life that they didn’t understand. And then she did the one thing that an old woman isn’t supposed to do. She said that she wasn’t good at her job in spite of being old, but because of it.

The kids hailed from groups including Youth Vs Apocalypse, the youth group of 350 Bay Area, and the Sunrise Movement, a self-described “army of young people” who have adopted a by-any-means-necessary approach to stopping climate change, which apparently means marching into old women’s offices and demanding that they vote for the Green New Deal. The Sunrise Movement first came to national attention when 150 young people staged a sit-in in the Capitol, occupying the waiting room of Nancy Pelosi’s office and looking glum.*

Their slog through political action was electrified when they were visited by an angel, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Although she had not even been sworn in, she exhibited the remarkable political skill that has made her famous. Outside the office, she told reporters that she had great respect for “Leader Pelosi” and her work on climate change. Inside, she told the kids, “I just want to let you all know how proud I am of each and every single one of you for putting yourselves and your bodies and everything on the line.”

Putting their bodies on the line? The kids were sitting on the floor of the Longworth Building, one of the most heavily fortified structures on the planet. What was she worried about—that Mitch McConnell was going to show up and kickbox them? But questions about inflated diction were irrelevant. In the fierce urgency of now, there is no difference between a fact, an exaggeration, hyperbole, and an outright fantasy.

AOC has so much star power, charisma, beauty, and political chutzpah that even older people are moved by her. To the young, she approaches the status of Barack Obama himself; soon, she will probably exceed it. She is perfectly attuned to them, and they respond to her in the deeply emotional way that signals something important is happening. Fools dismiss her; when a natural shows up, things happen that are beyond the control of the powerful systems that normally dominate Washington.

When the young people of the Sunrise Movement arrived at Feinstein’s office, what they had going for them is the kind of perfect and complete understanding of the Green New Deal that only those still freshly acquainted with the worlds of magic and make-believe can achieve. These kids hadn’t spent harassing hours trying to distinguish among the actual bill, a working draft of the bill, and a possibly nonexistent hoax version of the bill. They had not tried to chew their way through a bewildering set of FAQs, nor had they watched one of the bill’s principal architects, the law professor Robert Hockett, trying to decide on live television whether the bill did or did not offer a living wage to people “unwilling to work.” In other words, these kids weren’t a bunch of losers. They weren’t hung up on details when the clock was tick, tick, ticking on the end of the world.

“We’re going to share it in front of Feinstein,” one of the little girls said outside the office building, neglecting the honorific, and unrolling a scroll of demands that were at once precocious and misguided. The implication was that “Feinstein” was a planet-crisping goon and that the kids were the last, best hope of life on Earth. In a pink-and-red sweater and her hair in a ponytail, she exuded the self-confidence of a child about to ace her speech for fifth-grade class president. But standing in front of Feinstein (blue pantsuit, hands clasped behind her back, patience of Job) she was quickly cowed. When the youngsters realized that they weren’t going to get what they wanted, they started falling apart. By the time Feinstein told them, “You know what’s interesting about this group is I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I know what I’m doing. You come in here and say, ‘It has to be my way or the highway.’ I don’t respond to that,” they looked like someone had canceled Christmas.

It’s the most wildly transgressive thing you’ve ever seen. Children are our future! They must be coddled and exalted, their ideas about politics and the environment received as though they are the unpublished thoughts of Bertrand Russell. Seeing their rudeness treated in the measured and unyielding way that adults use to speak to misbehaving children is weirdly thrilling. She never lifted her voice, but compared with the way politicians usually respond to children, she came across like W. C. Fields.

After the visit—which the Sunrise Movement promoted in a two-minute video on Twitter—the movement’s young founder, Varshini Prakash, made her own short video justifying the event, saying this: “These children went to Senator Feinstein’s office precisely because she’s been in office for 30 years, and people like her have been in office for 30 years and failed to do anything commensurate to the magnitude of what we are experiencing.”

Dianne Feinstein is the longest-tenured woman in the U.S. Senate, and the senior senator of the state that almost single-handedly allowed the U.S. to meet its target numbers for the Paris Agreement in 2018, even though Trump had already pulled out of it. California met its 2020 goal for lowering greenhouse gasses four years early; the United States Climate Alliance has named California as having the best practices in the country. To send schoolchildren to Feinstein’s office to educate her on the science of climate change was, at best, unwise. To set them up for the titanic humiliation of trying to bully an adult into doing their bidding was cruel.

But it was the sanctimonious comments of one of the teenagers in the group that provided the astonishing highlight of the film. “Senator,” the young woman said in a patronizing voice, “we are asking you to be brave.”

Brave? She wants Dianne Feinstein to be brave?

Feinstein was the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978, at work in city hall on the day Dan White murdered Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. She was the person who found Milk’s body and who announced the murders—calmly and with no indication of how physically close she had been to the danger—to the horrified city at an ad-hoc press conference an hour later. She was, by then, used to the confluence of violence and politics. She had previously been targeted by one of the lunatic revolutionary groups that operated in California in the 1970s, which attempted to bomb her San Francisco home and shot out the windows of her beach house. She served out the rest of Moscone’s term and went on to serve two full terms as mayor before her first senatorial campaign. You can say many things about Feinstein, but to suggest she lacks bravery is the assumption of someone who can’t imagine that old people have often had their characters forged by experiences in which they displayed great valor.

But what made the short video so rich is that these activists were too young to know something important about old women. Old women have finally—finally—given up on the notion that they are expected to be agreeable to rude people. They have often done hard things: raised children, buried parents, worked at demanding jobs, and seen a lot of history. Bust into the office of an old woman with the intention of telling her how uninformed she is? That probably won’t go well for you.

The children had been taught that confrontation is the way to achieve political goals. But the senior senator from California knows more about climate science and American realpolitik than all the fifth graders in the world. As a woman who stormed into the male world of city and national politics when it was an actual boys’ club, she’s had to put up with more rudeness and bullying than many of us can imagine; she’s used to people underestimating her. If she’s going to lose any of her famous courage, it’s not because angry children showed up to teach her a lesson.

By the end of the encounter, she had adroitly right-sized the young people. When one of them reflexively asked the great question of their generation—“Can I get an internship here?”—the teen finally received the constituent-friendly answer she craved. “You want an internship here?” replied Feinstein, the old pol, the woman who wouldn’t have won so many elections if she didn’t know how to play the game. “You got one.”

* This article has been updated to clarify that more than one group was involved in the protest.