When then-Sen. Barbara Boxer pondered her retirement, she envisioned informally advising President Hillary Clinton and a Democratic Senate, traveling the country to deliver speeches and spending more time with her husband of 55 years.
“I was so excited,” Boxer told an audience of several hundred Friday at UC Berkeley, where she donated her congressional archives. “Whoops.”
After the November election took place, with Donald Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, where Boxer served for 34 years, her retirement plans shifted — to countering the new president and preparing to go to battle in 2018.
“It all took a turn. I was determined not to lose my voice or in any way slow down,” she said.
Boxer, in her first major speaking event since retiring from the Senate, discussed the 2016 election, Trump’s presidency, her tenure and her future at the inaugural speech of the Barbara Boxer Lecture Series, which will occur annually at Berkeley.
The former senator blamed Clinton’s loss on poor turnout in Midwestern states that lean Democratic, caused by the negativity of the campaign and the investigations of Clinton’s emails, which the Democratic nominee did a “terrible job” of dealing with, Boxer said.
Boxer, 76, said she could not bear to watch Trump’s inauguration speech, but read it instead. Then she reviewed inaugural speeches by 10 previous presidents, both Republicans and Democrats.
“They lifted you up,” Boxer said. “I fought Ronald Reagan in hand-to-hand combat…. His speech was uplifting: We’re all together. Nobody fought harder [than me] against George W. Bush. I read his speech: uplifting, beautiful.”
She said the sole call for unity in Trump’s speech was when he said all Americans spill the same blood.
“That’s dark. And that was about the happiest thing he said,” she said.
Boxer said she was initially hopeful that Trump, who made inflammatory remarks about women, immigrants, the disabled and others throughout the campaign, would be tempered once he took office.
“It’s way worse than I expected. I was one of those people who thought once he gets there, he’s impacted by the magnificence of the White House, he’s basking in the glow of victory and history, and he’ll change,” Boxer said in an interview with The Times. “He’s gotten way worse, and I think we’re in a very dangerous time.”
She accused Trump of acting like a dictator and a tyrant, criticizing him for focusing his attacks on the press, which he has labeled an enemy of the American people.
“As an elected official, the press made me completely crazy,” she said. “At the end of the day you accept it because we know it’s probably the most important foundation of our Constitution … an institution that has been protected for a reason, to protect against someone like this.”
She said it was not only the legacy of former President Obama that is at risk, but the ideals and values the nation was founded on. She referenced a familiar rallying song embraced by organizers: “Freedom is a hard won thing. / You have to work for it / fight for it / day and night for it / and every generation’s got to do it again.”
“That’s both heartening and disheartening,” Boxer said. “You think something is settled, like voting rights, like civil rights, like human rights. No discrimination, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, you think it’s all settled. Then you wake up one day and it’s all at risk. And guess what, that day is here.”
She said she was heartened by the marches and protests, but cautioned that it was critical to harness that energy and use it to win elections.
“We can say, ‘Oh, I did a great job. I marched five miles.’ No. You’ve got to do more and more,” Boxer said. “Become a leader; 2018 is the first chance to check and balance the right-wing forces in Congress. You need to stand up because this is an assault.”
Boxer said she sees her role as part motivational speaker, especially to young women.
“What I see happening is an amazing awakening, and an alarm has gone off and I think people are moving to take control of politics, which before maybe they were part of around the edges — or maybe not at all,” she said. “I know how to do this. I know how to win and I know how to run campaigns.”
Part of Boxer’s retirement plan remains intact: She is still getting paid to make speeches and is cooking more frequently at home — lamb chops are a particular favorite of her husband, Stewart. And she’s throwing monthly dinner parties at their Palm Desert home.
But a large part of her energies are devoted to tapping her enviable donor rolls to raise money for her political action committee to help candidates and voter turnout in the midterm elections. She expects to raise $1 million by June.
Boxer, never known as a shrinking violet during her time in office, has also taken to using social media to needle Republicans in the nation’s capital.
“I figured if [Trump] tweets, I’m tweeting,” Boxer told a capacity crowd at Hertz Hall on the college campus.
On Friday, as the House worked to replace Obamacare, she tweeted, “To GOP: What did you do today at the office, dear? I took insurance away from 20 million people.”
Boxer has been out of office for only two months. It’s a new phase for her, after spending a decade in the House and then 24 years in the Senate.
“It feels like a year and half since I left; that shows how busy I’ve been,” she said.
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