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Former Rep. Jane Harman on Sen. Dianne Feinstein's trailblazing legacy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

People are remembering the longest-serving woman in the U.S. Senate. California Democrat Dianne Feinstein has died at the age of 90. Beginning in the 1960s, she took on roles that had previously been held by men, from mayor of San Francisco to chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Her good friend Jane Harman was the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. She was also one of the last people to visit Feinstein yesterday before the senator's death. Congresswoman Harman, thank you for joining us. And I am sorry for your loss.

JANE HARMAN: Well, I'm sorry for all of our losses, especially California's loss.

SHAPIRO: I do want to talk about Senator Feinstein's professional legacy, but can you begin by telling us a personal memory that you've been thinking about today?

HARMAN: Oh, I'm thinking how lucky I was that on a whim, basically, I decided that I wanted to go and say hello to her yesterday. I arrived at 4. She was there looking absolutely beautiful - frail, but beautiful. Some of the press commentary notwithstanding, she was vital to the end. She knew why she wanted to stay in Congress. It was to fight for California. And she knew she brought experience and - she would never use this word, but I will - fearlessness to the task.

SHAPIRO: If I could ask you to look back on the decades that you both served the state of California in Congress, you in the House and she in the Senate. What did you learn from her?

HARMAN: Oh, wow. We were both elected to Congress in 1992, the so-called year of the woman, when California and I think one other state elected two women senators, Barbara Boxer being the other, and a number of new House members. Certainly, a memory that is important was her leadership on the assault weapons ban, which came up for a vote in 1994. And there was never an issue in my mind that I would support it, even though I, like her, was in a fairly politically precarious position. And I almost lost reelection in '94 because of that vote.

SHAPIRO: Her work on the assault weapons ban that was signed into law in 1994 will be one of the most remembered parts of her legacy. And there was a moment in the debate over that bill when Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho suggested that she didn't know about guns. And this is what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I am quite familiar with firearms. I became mayor as a product of assassination.

LARRY CRAIG: I'm aware of that.

FEINSTEIN: I found my assassinated colleague and put a finger through a bullet hole.

CRAIG: Yeah.

FEINSTEIN: I proposed gun control legislation in San Francisco. I went through a recall on the basis of it. I was trained in the shooting of a firearm when I had terrorist attacks with a bomb at my house, when my husband was dying, when I had windows shot out. Senator, I know something about what firearms can do.

SHAPIRO: Jane Harman, what comes to mind when you hear that?

HARMAN: Oh, right on, Dianne. Good God.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

HARMAN: The thought that some guy, just because he's a guy from a Midwest state, knows about guns and some woman who was an absolute courageous, fearless champion for her city after the devastation from firearms boggles the mind. That was vintage Dianne.

SHAPIRO: Let me ask you about her work on national security, because she started serving on the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2001 and eventually became chair. And I can remember, after 9/11, covering hearings with Bush administration officials, where she was ferocious in asking tough questions about torture, surveillance and other abuses. What do you think her legacy will be in the field of intelligence and national security?

HARMAN: Well, I think it will be huge. That was a sorry chapter in the early Bush administration. And they violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. They violated the Geneva Conventions. And America has a big black eye from that. And Dianne did the investigation. And in the end, the Republicans on the committee didn't want to release it, although they were part of it. She will be remembered as a giant who was not afraid to say what was good but also highlight what was bad about things our country did in the recent past.

SHAPIRO: Is there anything else that you would like younger people and future generations to know about her and her legacy?

HARMAN: I really would. I don't think we saw anyone like her before her. I think we have seen some since her. But at any rate, I think the younger generation will one day think of her in the way that they think of some of the very courageous women in other fields like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That's what I think.

SHAPIRO: Jane Harman, former top Democrat of the House Intelligence Committee, now board chair at Freedom House. Thank you for remembering your friend, Senator Dianne Feinstein, with us.

HARMAN: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kai McNamee
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.