Barbara Boxer has had a title in front of her name for four decades — first, Marin County supervisor, then member of Congress, and now United States senator. Soon it will be “former,” as the lifelong Democrat departs Capitol Hill to come back to California. There’s another moniker too – “author.” Her new book is a memoir called “The Art of Tough,” about her life, private and public, her decades crusading for the environment, women’s rights and gay rights, and her “no” vote on the Iraq war. Like her other books, this one, too, got written on an airplane, shuttling between California and the Beltway that she is soon to leave behind, a place different from when she arrived, but in other ways still very much the same.
I want to ask you what happened in Nevada at the convention there, and about Sen. Sanders’ candidacy. You said it was “frightening,” a “scary” situation. What was happening?
Yes, I did fear for my safety and clearly after I left, it got worse for the head of the party there. I talked to Bernie about it — Bernie’s my longtime friend. He had called for civility, so I tried to calm the crowd down. When I walked in, they were right at the foot of the stage and they were angered.
I thought I could turn it around, you know. So I said, Look, Hillary wants us to be civil, Bernie wants us to be civil, and it got worse. It was crude gestures and comments and angry faces, red faces – it was really bad. I tried every approach — nothing worked.
But I did tell Bernie, I said look Bernie, you need to get control of this. This is awful and it’s not you. And what was interesting is that 98% of the Bernie people were terrific — they were sitting in their seats. The people who were shouting were not young people, they were older people. So he said, Well, that sounds odd, because most of my people are young people. I said, Well, check it out — maybe they’re not your people.
So I don’t know what came of this, but I also hope that that will be the last we see of it.
What is it that Sen. Sanders’ candidacy is tapping into? There’s something very powerful going on.
Your book is called “The Art of Tough,” and you start by quoting your critics: Ann Coulter said that you were a great candidate for the Democratic Party because you are “a woman and learning-disabled.” And California Republican congressman Darrell Issa reacted to the announcement that you weren’t running for reelection with, “There’s been a vacancy for two decades.”
Interestingly, my critics have been the wind at my back, because I learned very early on that if you do the right thing, and you’re not afraid of bullies, they’ll attack you. So I view it as a badge of honor. But I wanted to really be able to show people that I have in fact been in tough and I have elicited these incredible comments, some of which I didn’t even print — they’re too brutal to print.
It gives me credibility that I’ve done something. Why would these people be coming after me like that?
When you entered politics, you ran for county supervisor. You were accused of neglecting your children because you were running for public office. How much has changed?
It’s just been a sea change. I tell the story in the book, this was a job that was county supervisor, it was part-time, it was held by a gentleman who had a family and another job, and I was going to be a full-time supervisor.
And the letters to the editor were so harsh: How could she do this? What’s wrong with her? Probably has a terrible marriage. And I didn’t win that race but I didn’t give up. And I think things began to change.
There are more women in politics now, but has the public attitude toward women changed when it comes to a major political party nominating the first woman candidate for president?
I think attitudes have changed enormously, as we see women leaders all over the world — women leaders in governorships, in the United States Senate, and more in the House. I do think we’ve seen the glass ceiling shattered. It’s still going to be hard to make the case, but it’s hard for men to make the case.
We look at Congress, the United States Senate and the House of Representatives, to make policy, to make things happen in this country.
But in the last seven years or so, things have seemed particularly bitter.
When one party embraces deporting 11 million people, and the other says, Let’s give them a path to citizenship if they work hard and play by the rules; one party says, Punish women’s doctors if they exercise the right to choose, and the other says, It’s a private, personal decision early in the pregnancy; one party is suppressing the vote, the other one wants to make the vote really universal.
So when you get to the point where the parties are so far apart of course it’s going to be difficult. We’re fighting over the soul of the country right now.
You make a point in the book to sticking to your guns, that you never compromise on the right thing to do; “it’s better to be strong on an issue even if you turn out to be wrong.” Do you think the other side feels the same way?
Well, clearly, what I say is, don’t give up on your basic principles. But you can still compromise on a piece of legislation. For example, we had to pass a major piece of legislation, and I did it with [GOP senator and majority leader] Mitch McConnell, the man that I hadn’t talked to in 20 years because of the Bob Packwood case.
And I did it on the highway bill, I did it on the water bill, I’ve done it on after-school bills — everything I’ve done I‘ve had to compromise. If there’s a basic issue of conscience, you still have to stick to your position.
When you began your political campaigns, you were getting $2 grassroots donations. Now we have Citizens United and billion-dollar presidential campaigns. How has that presence of money, that massive presence, affected public attitudes, engagement, and just getting the job done?
It is a terrible decision because it means that there are no limits to these contributions. It means that officeholders have to work hours every day just to get ready for the next election. And there’s so much money against you that your negatives are sky-high, so in some cases, you avoid saying what you believe in because you don’t want to get a primary opponent.
So it’s a terrible decision and I would hope that the Supreme Court will revisit that some day.
One of the suggestions you hear, I’m sure, is that things would be better in Congress if only we ended the filibuster, if only we ended cloture and Senate holds and other rules like that.
We kept it for the issues, because you could wind up in a situation where literally anything could be repealed without much fight. Now, this Republican majority has tried over and over again to take away a woman’s right to choose, to repeal health and safety measures that we’ve required, and the only way we’ve stopped it — the only way — is with the filibuster.
What people need to know, and that’s something I bring out in the book “The Art of Tough,” is that this is the greatest country in the world despite all its flaws and the fact is, we have the power in our hands to vote. So let’s use that power and let’s focus on the issues, not on personalities. Because in this election, whoever you are for, there’s going to be the clearest difference perhaps we’ve ever had.
There are a few topics from which you differ, and maybe break ranks from what a lot of people would think of as liberal positions. One of them you wrote about is about your changing ideas of privacy as a consequence of 9/11.
Look, I don’t have an answer that everyone is going to agree with, because we do have to find a balance between privacy and security. I followed what happened in the Boston marathon, what happened in San Bernardino, and I recognize that one of my primary responsibilities is to protect the people I represent. So it’s a struggle to find out, to find that perfect balance.
Again, some of my constituents don’t agree with me, and a lot do. It’s something, almost a gauge inside you, for what you’re willing to give up in terms of privacy to have security.
Clearly my view is that if there’s a crime that was committed and we know, for example, that we can find out more information about it, we should try to get that information respecting everybody’s rights
And what about someone like Ed Snowden?
I just feel he endangered lives of Americans and I am not a fan. I think he should come back and face the music for what he did, and that’s how I feel about it.
Your family were Jewish immigrants; they had a strong social conscience.
Really when I was a child, the Holocaust was one of the first things I learned about because we had lost a [branch] of family, and my parents were haunted by it.
So the whole notion of man’s inhumanity to man and what could happen if we don’t respect each other, if we don’t care about each other, if we’re brutal to each other, is the worst of it.
That’s why this election coming up is so important. The kinds of things that Donald Trump has said about our Mexican American friends, the immigrants in general — it’s hateful. It’s hateful rhetoric. And I hope we can make a statement on that in November, that this isn’t who we are.
You’ve been married for more than 50 years to your husband, Stewart, who you say probably did not see all this coming when you got married.
I said to Stu one day, You must feel like you married Debbie Reynolds and woke up with Golda Meir. He’s never responded to that!
Who are you endorsing to succeed in your seat?
I’m going to endorse a Democrat! Or the Democrat. I’m not getting involved because the two women who are slated to be [finishing the primary as] one and two, I think, are both my very good friends. Obviously, if something breaks where they differ greatly on issues and I feel I need to put my voice in, I will.
What does it feel like, not to be raising money for the first time in about 40 years?
That is a great relief, because I detest raising money for myself. However, I do have a PAC, and I am raising money for other people, which I don’t mind at all. But raising it for myself — ugh, it’s terrible. Every time I’d make a call and it would go to an answering machine, I’d be so relieved, and say, Hi, it’s Barbara, we’re having an event, call me back!
One of your most effective tactics in Congress was to write song lyrics to make a political point — including one you did when you first got to Congress, to get women access to the House gym, which was then off-limits; it was for men only. The song was “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” — can you sing your actual lyrics?
Oh come on, you don’t want me to.
I do; you have quite a good voice.
No, I’m not going to do it. But I will say it:
It was, “Exercise, glamorize, where to go, will you advise? Can’t everybody use your gym?
“Equal rights, we’ll wear tights, let’s avoid those macho fights. Can’t everybody use your gym?
“Now if you run into a colleague who looks sad and blue
“She’ll fight and fuss she’ll even cuss — you bet your life it could be us.
“’Coz we’re not slim, we’re not trim, can’t we make it hers and him? Can’t everybody use your gym? We’re only asking — can’t everybody use your gym?”
And we got into the gym!