During a recent vacation trip to the South Dakota Badlands, my family and I made a short detour to a defunct nuclear...
From the July 2005 Issue
In her third term in the U.S. Senate, Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, has come out swinging, the most visible and vocal opponent of the Republicans and George W. Bush in Washington, D.C. The petite, Brooklyn-born grandmother won a landslide reelection victory in 2004, receiving the third-highest number of votes in the nation, right behind John Kerry and George W. Bush. She wasted no time before she got down to the business of opposing the President. On January 6, she joined Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Democrat of Ohio, in objecting to the certification of Ohio’s electoral votes in the 2004 Presidential election. It was the beginning of what activists dubbed “The Boxer Rebellion.” On Valentine’s Day, fans sent 4,500 roses to Boxer’s office, as thanks for her stand against voter disenfranchisement and for talking back to the Bush Administration. She hasn’t let them down since.
In her celebrated clash with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during Rice’s confirmation hearings, Boxer turned what was supposed to be a cakewalk into an aggressive inquiry into Rice’s role in misleading the public into the 2003 invasion of Iraq. She also opposed Bush’s Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, pointing to his memos condoning torture.
Shortly after we spoke, Boxer made national news for her role in trying to scuttle John Bolton’s nomination as Bush’s ambassador to the U.N. She managed to delay a floor vote, citing the State Department’s failure to provide the Democrats with adequate information on Bolton’s intimidation of State Department staff, among other issues.
Born November 11, 1940, Boxer studied economics at Brooklyn College, married Stewart Boxer, a lawyer, shortly after graduation, and went to work as a stockbroker on Wall Street.
As an active opponent of the Vietnam War, she volunteered on Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 campaign. In 1972, she made her first run for public office, for a seat on the Marin County Board of Supervisors on an environmental platform. The fact that she had two young children at home became an issue in the campaign, and she lost—in part, because voters thought she belonged at home with the kids. Four years later, in 1976, she ran again and won, largely thanks to the support of women.
Throughout her political career, Boxer has been both a trailblazer and a champion for women’s rights.
As a member of Congress, she was one of seven women who marched to the Senate to demand a fair hearing of Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Boxer won her Senate seat in the 1992 “Year of the Woman” election, and played a pivotal role in her colleague Bob Packwood’s demise after revelations that he was an infamous sexual harasser.
While she is a figurehead for the left in Washington, among her constituents on the left coast, she is not too far out on the progressive end of the political spectrum. She disappointed some when she chose not to support San Francisco’s legalization of gay marriage and was roundly criticized by the San Francisco Bay Guardian for supporting the privatization of the Presidio.
Still, in endorsing her, the Guardian wrote, “Her voting record is consistently the most progressive in the Senate.” She voted against NAFTA and fast track, against the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, and she has been a tireless advocate for abortion rights and an enthusiastic supporter of gun control.
On the flip side, Boxer voted for the Patriot Act (while calling for future amendments to fix provisions that trampled on civil liberties) and supported three strikes legislation and the war on drugs.
During the week, Boxer lives in Washington with her daughter, Nicole, and grandson in a row house near the Capitol.
I spoke to her on a weekday in late April, catching up with her as she emerged from the Senate floor. She’d been mobbed with interview requests recently, especially after her tough questioning during the Rice and Bolton confirmation hearings, her press secretary noted. “It’s kind of fun since she’s become such a rock star,” he said.
We spoke for about an hour in a private meeting room at the Capitol. She was heading afterward to a meeting with members of the Democratic leadership to discuss the standoff over Bush’s judicial nominees. Sitting on a couch in a tweed pantsuit, sipping water with her feet pulled up, Boxer smiled a lot as she spoke. From the gleam in her eye, it seemed clear that she was enjoying her role as an agitator tremendously.
Q: Were you surprised in the Bolton hearings when Senator Richard Lugar, the chair of the committee, prevented you from raising a point of order?
Barbara Boxer: I was amazed. I mean, one of my fondest relationships here is with Dick Lugar. I have found him to be totally fair. This was an exception. I can believe he is being asked to behave like this. And it doesn’t suit him. He’s really uncomfortable, I can tell.
Q: Do you think the cracks are beginning to show in the Republican Party?
Barbara Boxer: The American people are beginning to see the Republicans’ willingness to trample over 200 years of history, to step on the minority, to push everybody out of the way because they want 100 percent. It’s rubbing the American people the wrong way. One-party rule is not good. The American people as a whole are really pretty moderate. They’re not, as a whole, conservative or liberal. The right wing is marching the Republican Party off a cliff.
Things are definitely not going well for this Administration because this lust for power has overtaken their common sense. Take the President’s Social Security plan. It is so obvious that the people don’t want to privatize this program that has worked so well and lifted 50 percent of seniors out of poverty. He has gone so far as to hint that the United States might default on its debts. This is the President of the United States. What a message! For sixty years they’ve been waiting for the moment when they could frighten people into thinking Social Security is going broke. When, by the way, it isn’t at all.
Q: So what can the Democrats do better as an opposition?
Barbara Boxer: I think Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are doing very well. They’re clear on what they’re saying, that it’s dangerous to have a one-party system, it’s dangerous to gag the minority. They are tough. They have muscle. The Democratic Party has awakened. We’ve not been awake since 9/11, in many ways. We had moments, sporadically, where we woke up. But I think we were so hit by 9/11, as the whole country was, that we didn’t get our legs back. It took a while. Now the Democratic Party is back. I’ve never seen it as united. Sure, we have a ways to go. We have a lot of ground to cover. But if we keep this up—we’re tough, but we show that we’re not so ideological that we can’t offer a compromise when it would be fine to try—I think the American people will come home to us. I really do.
Q: Do your colleagues think it’s OK for you to be as outspoken as you’ve been?
Barbara Boxer: Not one person ever came up to me and said, “Don’t say those things, don’t engage.” What’s happened is the opposite. I see a lot of my colleagues now speaking out, forcefully. If you look at the Bolton nomination, you look at Joe Biden, you look at Chris Dodd, it is wonderful—it’s a thing of beauty. Today, Evan Bayh on the floor of the Senate standing firm on up-armoring our vehicles. And he won.
After I did what I had to do, which was to ask some tough questions, other Democrats recognized, come to think of it, that’s our job. And more are doing it. And I couldn’t be more proud. I’ve always thought of myself as a catalyst.
Look, it’s not without its perils. Ann Coulter called me “learning disabled.” The things people write about me.
Q: What’s your response to that?
Barbara Boxer: I must be doing something right. I was raised to stand up to the bully in the schoolyard, and you don’t lose that. It’s good I was born in Brooklyn. You learn how to take care of yourself.
Q: You described having a change of heart after 9/11. You were going to retire. And you said it was Tom DeLay’s aggressive speech to the Democrats not to criticize the Bush Administration that made you decide to stay.
Barbara Boxer: Yes. Absolutely. I’ve always thought the most patriotic thing you could do in a democracy is to speak the truth as you see it. And that’s what we’re supposed to be about in America. Freedom of speech. We were very upset because the economy was going down and education was not being funded after No Child Left Behind. There were so many issues being neglected. And we were very upset because there wasn’t enough attention being paid to homeland security. So we went down and in a very appropriate way we talked about these things. And, boy, he came out and called us every name in the book. Said we were arrogant and unpatriotic, and that’s when I said this is not the time to leave. The system itself of democracy is being threatened.
Q: What about the Patriot Act? Why did you vote for it, and what do you think about it now?
Barbara Boxer: It was really important to pass a lot of elements of the Patriot Act, because we were living in a time when technology had outrun us. In the old days you had a home phone, and you got permission to tap that particular phone number. Now people just throw away their cell phones and buy a new one. You can’t keep running back to court. So we want to have the permission attached to the individual. There were a lot of other things about cooperation among agencies that were very important.
There were also problems. There’s the library piece that I’m trying to undo. And there’s the sneak and peek piece that I’m trying to undo. We needed to pass an act that included some of it, but I didn’t agree with all of it. Pat Leahy amended it in a way that made it a lot more palatable. For example, there were some parts of it that said you could hold people in detention forever, and he was able to change that.
Q: You’ve just returned from Iraq. Did you see anything that made a deep impression on you?
Barbara Boxer: It’s a nightmare. We don’t understand the insurgency. It’s very deep, it’s very broad. We have no plan for success. And we need one. Bush said we’re there as long as necessary, and that is a message to the insurgents that we’re permanent occupiers. That just fuels the insurgency. So it’s a terrible circle. It just keeps going round and round.
Q: Do you think the U.S. should leave Iraq, or is it too difficult now?
Barbara Boxer: I think the U.S. should set a goal to be out of there within a year or two. If we don’t, I think it’s bad news all around. In all ways. First of all, the insurgency is fueled. Second of all, the Iraqi government is going to rely on us and not pay attention to the security that they are really responsible for. It’s very tough. But I’m telling you now, the status quo is as dangerous as it can be. My daughter’s friend Marla Ruzicka was killed there, an innocent victim, as she was helping innocent victims. And it just keeps going on and on. It’s such a tragedy. It just is God-awful. So I think we should amass a strategy for success, and set out the milestones. We need to help them get their democracy up and running, we’ve got to help them train their military and police and security people, and we’ve got to start moving out.
Q: What did Baghdad look like?
Barbara Boxer: We were not able to drive on the road. We flew over the city in Blackhawk helicopters with machine gunners on either side and decoy helicopters all around. It looks like a desolate, dusty place with palm trees. I don’t know how else to describe it.
Q: Did you get to talk to any civilians there?
Barbara Boxer: You can’t. You can only talk to the people who are in the American embassy. Or we met with the country’s elected people—the Kurds, the Sunnis, the Shiites—but we weren’t really able to meet with other people because it’s just too dangerous. And everywhere we went we had two machine gunners plus bodyguards.
It’s unacceptable, the situation there. Even for our embassy people. It’s just not safe.
Q: What about choice? It seems like abortion is less of a primary issue than it used to be for the Democrats. The Senate leader even defines himself as pro-life.
Barbara Boxer: Harry’s been in the leadership a long time. He’s a Mormon, and it’s a very Christian view. But he has never, ever made it a big point. And he is always with us on contraception and against the gag rule. He’s always been very, very good on those issues.
Q: Do you think it makes sense for Democrats to compromise on any of these issues of choice, like the interstate transportation of minors to get an abortion?
Barbara Boxer: Each one has to be looked at as to whether or not it threatens a woman’s health or her life, and if it does, you can’t support it. And if she just wants to have her legal right to an abortion, she should be able to do it. As to what they called partial birth abortion—there is no such thing—I said that would be overturned by the courts, and it was. So that’s done. The bill prohibiting the transportation of a minor: That’s going to put grandmas in jail. That’s ridiculous. I can’t ever support that.
The point is that what we want, Democrats, and what we’ve always wanted, is to make abortion safe, legal, and rare. They’re the ones who don’t seem to care about women. I mean, we said we would ban all abortions in the late term, unless it’s necessary to save the life of a woman or save her health. They wouldn’t go along with that. So they’re the ones who are so radical on it.
Q: I saw that you introduced a bill on this issue of pharmacists trying to prevent women from getting their birth control pills.
Barbara Boxer: Actually, the bill doesn’t deal with contraception. It deals with any prescription. We say that anybody who has a prescription, where the pharmacist can ascertain that it is not going to damage her, and she has it from a doctor, she should get that filled—he or she should get that prescription filled. It has happened on contraception. And it just seems to me really radical and against women’s health if she’s told not to go on birth control.
Q: Does it feel like we’re slipping backwards, to have to defend women’s access to birth control?
Barbara Boxer: Oh, sure. Absolutely. There’s an effort on the part of many people to attack women’s rights, women’s health, and the ability to control our own lives. No doubt about it. And it is not a majority of the country, in any way, shape, or form. I know on the contraceptive issue, 70 percent of the country agrees with me. Will that stop my opponents? No. Because they are so radical. They chip away and chip away.
Q: In your first run for office there was a huge outcry over your being a mother. How have things changed since then?
Barbara Boxer: Well, I don’t think it’s perfect at all. But there’s a huge difference in the attitude of the people of the United States of America toward women in politics. It has taken an enormous turn toward equality. Just enormous. To the point where when I first ran there were at least 10 to 20 percent of the people who would never vote for a woman, ever. Now there are an equal number who would automatically vote for a woman over a man. Now you have an equal chance. Now a little girl can think of being if not yet President then a U.S. Senator. In my day, no.
Q: In your book, you talk about how you first got into politics. Can you compare that moment to today?
Barbara Boxer: When John Kennedy was assassinated I was twenty-three, a stockbroker on Wall Street and married, and I never ever thought that politics would be anything that I would be a part of. But I realized that I had to get involved. Then, when Martin Luther King was assassinated and the Vietnam War was raging, I felt that my world was falling apart. I had these two beautiful children—three and one—and I just said, “I have to make it better.” It sounds so corny. But it’s a simple fact. Women my age and even a little younger seem to have gotten into politics because of the issues. Whereas, if I can make a generalization, men get into politics because, from the time they’re little boys, they’ve been wanting to be President.
Q: What makes you stay hopeful that you can make change?
Barbara Boxer: I’m an optimist, and I think you have to be an optimist to be in politics. And the thing is, it’s all about growing up. The day you realize you’re a grownup is the day you realize that you have to do something. When we’re kids, we don’t have to do anything. Then all of a sudden you realize, if I want this to be better, I’ve got to do something. Every American at some point has got to make the connection between their own hopes and dreams and who is elected to office. It’s essential. It’s very easy to pull the covers up over your head and say, “I can’t handle it. Too much.” But we just have to handle it and we have to accept that it’s our job. Each of us. Nobody is going to take care of it. Barbara Boxer is not going to make it all better. It’s got to be everybody. Everybody in the progressive community. Everybody has to take part.