In mid-2001, President George W. Bush nominated me for U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce. The subsequent 9-11 terrorist attacks held up my U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing because the Senate turned its attention to establishing the Department of Homeland Security, confirming a new FBI director, and other pressing issues. It was not until late 2001 that the White House notified me that the Judiciary Committee had calendared my hearing.
"But I have some bad news for you," the presidential liaison officer added. "A committee staffer called and told us that Senator Dianne Feinstein is going to chair your hearing. The staffer snickered when she told us. It sounds like the committee Democrats want to get even for you almost running against Feinstein last year."
It was true. Since I faced a near-impossible 2000 congressional reelection campaign following my role in impeaching President Clinton (who held a 75% approval rating in my Los-Angeles and Hollywood studios-based district), I gave serious consideration to a go-for-broke statewide U.S. Senate race against Dianne. The national Democrats had made my House seat their Number One target, and my constituents remained furious at me for helping to impeach Clinton. Since I had more donors and had raised more money than any other member of Congress—Senate or House—I had nothing to lose in making the longshot race against Dianne. In the end, GOP House leaders talked me into taking a pass on the Senate run. I went home to defend my House seat against Democrat State Senator Adam Schiff, who clobbered me in November 2000. No matter: given the utterly disastrous GOP showing statewide in California that year, Dianne wouldn't have clobbered me.
She would have annihilated me.
Back to my story: The Democrat committee staffer who thought she was sharing nail-biting news about Dianne chairing my hearing didn't know that I had a good relationship with my state's senior senator. We had worked together on several California projects, and I helped her when I could on nonpartisan issues. Beyond that, city blood was thicker than water: Dianne and I were both San Francisco natives, and she knew that when I was a young kid (and back then an ardent Democrat), I had passed out her literature in her S.F. Board of Supervisors and mayoral campaigns. Once, during the Clinton impeachment trial, Dianne approached me on the Senate floor during a recess. "Hey, Jim," she asked, "remind me. What part of San Francisco are you from?"
"I'm from the Mission District, Dianne. Fourth generation."
She shook her head. "No wonder you're so damned tough," she said.
We got along.
When my White House hand-holder finished kvetching about Dianne chairing my hearing, I told him not to worry. I called Dianne directly and I asked her to be my sponsoring senator introducing me to the committee.
On the morning of my confirmation hearing, Dianne presented me to her colleagues with such compliments that when my turn came to address the committee, I chided her gently: "Madam Chairwoman, of all the kind things you just said about my background, you left out the one that's most important for today's hearing."
Dianne looked puzzled as my mild push-back, and then she invited me to share the missing ingredient. I smiled: "Last year, I had the infinite good sense not to run against you for reelection."
A couple of years later, Dianne gave me private OK when President Bush nominated me to the federal bench. That was not enough to get me through, because the Democrat-controlled Senate blocked most of Bush's judicial nominees near the close of his second and final term.
In more recent years, and toward the end of President Trump's term, I was a finalist for consideration by the White House for nomination to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Near the end of the lengthy back-and-forth between the Trump White House and California's two Democrat senators (Dianne and Kamala Harris), Dianne opened private negotiations with President Trump's people—a negotiation that, with her blessing, would have included my nomination as part of a package deal. Unfortunately, this was only a few days after Republicans had become infuriated with Dianne for sliding in a surprise witness at the high profile confirmation hearing for Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. The witness sandbagged Kavanaugh with decades-old allegations of sexual improprieties. When word leaked out that Trump's people were now negotiating with Feinstein over federal judges after her Kavanaugh assault, conservative columnists and talk radio hosts lit up in condemnation for Trump in negotiating anything with the woman responsible for the Kavanaugh slander. Overnight my name dropped from the list, and the White House nominated a non-Feinstein vetted person as a sop to outraged conservative thought leaders.
Most conservatives who pay attention to politics disliked Dianne Feinstein. I was not one of them. Although our politics rarely meshed, she was a serious legislator, and she was old school. Although she remained in the game long past her expiration date, I liked Dianne Feinstein, and I mourn her passing this week at age 90.