September 22, 2019

Barbara Boxer’s gloves come off

Politics isn’t for sissies.

That’s the essential message of California Sen. Barbara Boxer’s new memoir “The Art of Tough,” a 270-page reflection on her 40-year career in politics — from the Marin County Board of Supervisors to the House of Representatives, and ultimately, the Senate, where she has served four terms.

“I wasn’t always so nice,” Boxer writes in her casual, matter-of-fact style. 

At 5 feet tall, “maybe five-foot-three in heels,” the Brooklyn-born Jewish senator had to toughen up early: In sixth grade, then the audacious Barbara Levy, she stopped a boy who was bullying her by stabbing him with a pencil. 

Though she immediately regretted her “loss of control,” she’s never stopped sticking it to those who’ve abused her. Years later, when John McCain insulted her on the Senate floor, she threatened to leak his misbehavior to the press — until Joe Biden diplomatically intervened and delivered McCain’s apology note. To this day, Boxer writes, “Whenever I am in John McCain’s sphere, I never know whether he is going to give me a hug or the evil eye.” 

At 75, Boxer has decided not to run for re-election — and not because of “all the partisan fighting” in Congress, or even “because of my age,” she admits — but because in the “battle for America’s soul” she feels she can be more effective fighting elsewhere. And besides, one battle she’s happy to retire is the struggle to fundraise: She’ll never again have to worry about raising as much as $40 million just for the campaigns to keep her job. “All that time, stress, and the constant pressure of raising the money for myself: it’s awful for me,” Boxer writes in the book.

Boxer has never minded going toe-to-toe with colleagues in Congress, though, even when it made her unpopular there: She famously railed against the war in Iraq, fought “climate deniers” in the Senate on bills that would damage the environment and defended Bill Clinton against charges of impeachment. As a junior member of Congress, she made a name for herself denouncing inflated military spending, famously appearing on the front page of The Washington Post holding up a $7,600 coffee pot and declaring, “It might as well be gold.” 

Her chutzpah extended to foreign powers: On an official visit to the Middle East early in her career, she defiantly walked out on the King of Morocco, one of Israel’s close allies back then, when he referred one too many times to the machinations of “the Jewish mind.” Some colleagues complained that she had risked an international incident, but Boxer stood firm: “ … the king’s remarks were not about one person; they were about the Jewish people, and they came from someone who I had thought was a friend of Israel.” In the end, the king apparently forgave, sending off the American delegation with boxes of hand-painted chocolates.

“I’ve always done it my way,” Boxer writes in the book. “I’ve always had this emotional fire, this art-of-tough way of operating. I’ve always believed if you are pleasing everyone, then you’re probably not doing a heck of a lot. And doing nothing for me is not an option.”

Boxer grew tough because she had to be. As a woman aspiring to a career in politics in the 1970s, the odds were against her — and many sought to discourage her from the pursuit.  

“It was really difficult to run for office in the early ’70s,” Boxer told me during an interview this week. “There was a huge amount of prejudice. If you were a mother, you were abandoning your kid; if you were married, you were abandoning your husband; if you were single, there was something wrong with you. Coming out of the ’50s, after World War II, women were expected to stay home. That was the role for women. So anyone questioning that, there was something wrong with them. They weren’t a good mom or a good wife, or they were gay, or a spinster.”

When Boxer was first elected to the Senate, she was one of only six female senators; today, as she prepares to depart, she is one of 20. So the odds are improving, even if some of the old prejudices remain. Boxer can run off a litany: “ ‘She can’t do the math.’ ‘How can she understand weapons?’ ‘What does she know about guns?’ ‘She’s too emotional.’ ‘She’s too strident.’ All those old prejudices still exist,” she said. “But, at the end of the day, there are people who actually would prefer a woman.”

For her part, Boxer is gunning to see the first female president. And she has an unusual relationship with the Democratic front-runner: Boxer’s daughter, Nicole, married Hillary Clinton’s youngest brother, Tony, in a 1994 ceremony in the White House Rose Garden while Bill Clinton was in office. They had a child together but later divorced. In the ensuing years, Boxer and Clinton have remained friends, and Boxer is throwing her weight behind Clinton’s candidacy.  

“One of the things men have to come to grips with,” Boxer told me, “is that they think they’re being macho when they vote for a man over a woman. But I think the opposite is true: I think strong men vote for women because they’re not threatened, and they’re willing to share power. 

“I want to make a button that says, ‘Real men support women.’ ”

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Senator Barbara Boxer will appear in Los Angeles with Paula Poundstone on Sunday, June 12, 2016 at 4:00pm

Presented by The Wallis and Writers Bloc