SAN FRANCISCO — At the memorial service for the late U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein held on the steps of City Hall — where tragedy propelled her into the national spotlight four decades ago — she was heralded by President Biden as an “American hero,” by Vice President Kamala Harris as “an icon of California,” and by former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as San Francisco’s “forever mayor.”
Perhaps most poignant of all during the ceremony Thursday were the remarks of Feinstein’s granddaughter, Eileen Mariano, who recounted a family story that on the day she was born, her grandmother bragged she looked just like her. Now, Mariano, who retains the resemblance, is making a career for herself working for San Francisco Mayor London Breed.
“She showed young women everywhere that they can be leaders,” she said, “they can make an impact, and they deserve a seat at the table.”
It was an accolade echoed over and over during the hour-long outdoor ceremony held on one of the hottest days of the year, as temperatures hit 86 degrees and the Blue Angels repeatedly roared over City Hall’s gilded dome during practice runs for Fleet Week and frequently drowned out speakers.
“That’s an American amen,” Rabbi Jonathan Singer said as the jets interrupted his remarks on the dais.
President Biden, whose comments were recorded and played on big screens flanking the City Hall steps, said that Feinstein “turned passion into purpose” and built a legacy “for generations to come.”
Some 1,500 dignitaries, including 30 U.S. senators and 20 congressional members, as well as San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Gov. Gavin Newsom, all paid their respects to Feinstein, San Francisco’s former mayor and the longest-serving woman in the Senate, who died last week at age 90. She cast her final vote on the day she died, wearing a dark suit and walking gingerly to the Senate floor in a moment recorded by C-SPAN. She voted “aye” on legislation that helped keep the government funded.
Feinstein’s newly sworn-in replacement, U.S. Sen. Laphonza Butler, was in attendance, as were two Democrats running to permanently replace her when the term expires at the end of next year: U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland and U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff of Los Angeles.
On Wednesday, Feinstein lay in state in the City Hall rotunda where people lined up for a final farewell. She will be buried in a private family service.
Feinstein was remembered for rescuing and restoring the city’s famed cable cars, preserving the clarity of Lake Tahoe, funding AIDS research and passing legislation that banned assault weapons and prohibited torture tactics by the CIA.
The vice president told the story of driving across the Bay Bridge in her Toyota Corolla from her job as an Alameda County prosecutor to celebrate Feinstein’s first election to the Senate. It was 1992, in what became known as the “Year of the Woman.”
“Today, I traveled from Washington, D.C., on Air Force II,” said Harris, who served alongside Feinstein as senator before becoming vice president. “Dianne, the women of America have come a long way, our country has come a long way, and you helped move the bar forward and our nation salutes you.”
U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, who also spoke to the crowd, said Feinstein was a powerful colleague and close friend. He told the story of Feinstein calling him after his daughter moved to San Francisco, asking whether she had anyone to spend the Jewish high holidays with. When Schumer said no, she responded, “Well, she’s going to services with me.”
“I will miss her ability to win over doubters and detractors — not by putting them down but with her elegance, her poise, her piercing wit,” he said.
Pelosi, one of Feinstein’s San Francisco neighbors who admired the senator’s prized hydrangeas from the window of her home, was so close to the senator that she accompanied Feinstein’s body from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. In her last months, Feinstein had grown visibly feeble but resisted calls to step down. Pelosi said she lived long enough to confirm 140 judges appointed by Biden, and said “she left on her own terms.”
For all her accomplishments, it was the day in 1978 that remains burnished into the hearts of many San Franciscans — the day Feinstein, then a San Francisco supervisor, stood before a phalanx of cameras inside City Hall and announced that Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had been assassinated.
It’s that memory that compelled two women, Juliet Sampson and Claire Myers, who were both 10-year-old fifth-graders when the tragedy struck, to circumnavigate the Civic Center’s barricaded perimeter searching for a way to sit in a coveted few general admissions seats.
“She was the woman who took over when the mayor was shot — and she did so with such aplomb and dignity that her character was really emblazoned on our youth,” Myers, 55, said. “And so we carry that with us. We all had a need to mourn Dianne because she was so important to us.”
Former U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, running for San Mateo County supervisor, shared her feelings in an interview after the service. Just 10 days before the assassinations, Speier was severely wounded during an ambush while on a congressional mission to the Jonestown cult in Guyana. Her boss, U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, was killed. She was emerging from a hyperbaric chamber in a Baltimore hospital when she heard of the assassinations. At the memorial Thursday, she still carried the scars on her arms.
“I thought the world was coming to an end,” said Speier, who left Congress and is running for San Mateo supervisor. They didn’t talk about the twin tragedies, she said, but they had a bond “that was understood.”
Gov. Newsom, another former San Francisco mayor, said after the service that Feinstein took over the role at the city’s lowest point and brought the city together. She had the same ability in the U.S. Senate, he said, where she was “someone who could work across the aisle.”
That talent may be missed most of all, he said.
“They don’t govern like her anymore.”