You wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers, but Sen. Barbara Boxer served her country valiantly last week. In her grilling of Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice, Boxer finally named the elephant in the hearing room, which is more than the war itself. It’s the lies that got us there.
Finally, a national television audience could watch a member of Congress ask tough questions in language that didn’t pussyfoot around. From all the commissions, studies and news reports, we now know pretty much what Rice knew and when she knew it. What we don’t yet have is an explanation for why Rice didn’t tell us what she knew and at times even told us the opposite.
Boxer asked Rice if “your loyalty to the mission ... to sell this war overwhelmed your respect for the truth.” Rice, without explaining a thing, coolly accused Boxer of impugning her integrity. No explanation of why her stories of yellowcake uranium, aluminum tubes and a potential Saddam Hussein mushroom cloud did not constitute an (over)selling of the war.
For her trouble, Boxer was blasted -- even by those who agreed with her -- not so much on substance but on style. Sen. Robert Byrd gets called “irascible.” Why can’t women get called irascible? It’s so much nicer than the other words we get called.
Women don’t have a lot of leeway in how they comport themselves. Could any woman behave on TV like Bob Novak or Bill O’Reilly and get her own show? Female pundits are rarely called “sharp and incisive,” only “shrill and strident.” Women in politics have less margin for error. During his 30 years as a columnist, I can remember William Safire calling only one person a “congenital liar,” and it just happened to be Hillary (D-Whitewater).
In the Senate, you still hear women described as “ladylike.” The models for admission to the club are Sens. Elizabeth Dole and Dianne Feinstein, in their pumps and matronly dresses. If a woman takes on a man, she must do it in florid language or behind closed doors. If she takes on another woman, she’ll be labeled a catfighter, unless she’s a white-haired grandmother in triple strand pearls and does it in verse. (Remember when Barbara Bush called Geraldine Ferraro something that “rhymes with witch”?)
In a chamber where they still call each other “esteemed colleague” at the oddest times -- as they were killing off Trent Lott, for instance -- it was as if Boxer had said “liar, liar, pants on fire,” when she hadn’t said anything of the sort. If only Boxer could be a couple inches taller, have a deeper voice, do something with her hair -- and be, as Henry Higgins sang, more like a man? Well, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), seated a few seats down, is 6 feet 4 with a basso profundo and the best hair in the business, and he couldn’t land a punch. Mr. “I Voted For It Before I Voted Against It” lacked what Boxer showed: spine, and the simple courage to call “misinformation” by its right name.
But all she got for it was the pasting of a lifetime. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said such Democratic foolishness risked “adopting our enemy’s view of the world.” Even Boxer’s supporters deducted points for style without adding any for degree of difficulty. She was ridiculed in a skit on “Saturday Night Live,” looking like a homeless person with gray hair flying, ranting at the cool, composed, perfectly turned-out Rice.
The Los Angeles Daily News accused Boxer of embarrassing herself with uncivil bombast. “The edge in her voice was jarring,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle. The Washington Post’s Colbert King took on Boxer for “slurring Rice.” In blog- land, Boxer was called, among other things, “old, burnt out, shrill and saggy looking.”
Perhaps a more diplomatic interrogation could have saved herself some grief. But it’s hard to find that pitch-perfect voice within the range of civility on these subjects. On Wednesday, the U.S. suffered its biggest one-day loss in Iraq. The war’s body count is at 1,400. Insurgents vow a bloodbath on Sunday. In Washington, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice sail on, and everybody’s mad at Barbara Boxer.