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Politics

Analysis: As an era closes, Barbara Boxer defends politics as a ‘noble’ profession

The winds of change that have stormed across Washington in recent weeks swept through the Capitol anew on Wednesday.

In the ritual farewells offered to departing senators, Barbara Boxer was praised for her service by friends and by longtime foes delivering gracious words. The moment felt like the end of an era much larger than just the career of Boxer or her colleagues who were similarly honored.

Boxer moved to the Senate a generation ago as female candidates rode a burst of popularity, she noted in her official farewell address Wednesday. She departs just after the defeat of the first female presidential nominee.

She entered public life when it was considered a “noble” profession, she reminded listeners, and will leave just before the inauguration of a man who succeeded in large part by denouncing politicians.

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In 40 years of elective office, Boxer had a role in almost every part of the arc of political activity in California and the nation: the Vietnam War, the environment, AIDS, abortion rights and meat-and-potatoes concerns like roads and freeways.

She will leave in the midst of huge tumult for both political parties, a time when the question in the era of Donald Trump — What happens now? — has no firm answer.

There was no mistaking Boxer’s advice to her colleagues: Stand your ground.

“There are so many noble ways to make a difference in America,” she said. “But the one thing you cannot do, even when it is tempting: You cannot turn away. Never.”

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That, certainly, is how Boxer has worked over a political lifetime — either annoyingly or persistently, depending on perspective. Her departure next month will close out 34 years in Washington, 10 years in the House and 24 in the Senate.

She has been electorally successful for so long in California that it can be hard to remember that her first statewide election amounted to something of a well-earned fluke, as she defeated two men expected to vie for the Democratic Senate nomination. Boxer made herself ubiquitous that year, outworking her foes. And she was pushed along by a gust of support from women that she had helped to create.

In 1991, Boxer championed the cause of law professor Anita Hill, who had accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. In a made-for-television bit of drama, she led a clutch of congresswomen up the steps of the Senate to demand that Hill’s charges be investigated.

The hearings that followed filled the nation’s television screens with the sight of a panel of white men questioning Hill, an African American woman. Thomas won his seat on the court, but the emotions that flowed from the hearings were instrumental in the 1992 elections that pushed Boxer and three other Democratic women into the Senate — double the number of women then serving.

Now there are 20. But there will not be a woman taking the next step, the presidential oath in January, a fact about which Boxer, now 76, declared herself brokenhearted.

Yet there has been undeniable progress for female candidates to which Boxer can personally attest: In her first, unsuccessful campaign for a county supervisor’s seat, she was castigated for neglecting her children.

“My message to everyone who supported Hillary: The work goes on,” she said, referring to Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign.

Historically speaking, there have been two broad categories of elected officials — those who play by genteel rules and those who flout how things are supposed to be done. Boxer has always seemed one of the latter, a politician defined as much as anything by her last name.

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(“You gave me so much, including the best political name ever,” she jokingly told Stewart Boxer, her husband of 55 years, on Wednesday.)

That approach has not always made for a placid existence, particularly when compared with the different tactics employed by California’s other senator, Dianne Feinstein, elected in the same “Year of the Woman” sweep.

By most measures, Feinstein’s approach has brought her more clout in the Senate. Boxer — for both good and bad — has become known for the stands she took. She fought the Pentagon over the exorbitant cost of its $7,600 coffee pots, opposed President Clinton over the North American Free Trade Agreement and denounced George W. Bush’s Iraq war, calling the failed effort to prevent it her “biggest regret.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer Of California speaks at the Democratic National Convention. More coverage at latimes.com/trailguide.

Her approach made some lasting enemies. Both Boxer and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who introduced the departing class of senators, alluded to two decades during which they barely spoke, the residue of Boxer’s fight in the early 1990s against Republican Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon after he was accused of making repeated sexual advances on staff members.

McConnell was so enraged by one of Boxer’s criticisms that he uttered a lasting line: “Being called unethical by Barbara is like being called ugly by a frog.”

All seemed forgiven Wednesday, although Boxer joked that McConnell had shown up “just to make sure I’m leaving.”

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Both senators made mention of burying the ill will lately, enough so that the conservative from Kentucky and the liberal from California had worked together on a highway and infrastructure bill, alongside Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma. Boxer and Inhofe have built a friendship that defies their opposite views on the environment, proof enough that the clubby nature of the Senate can work miracles.

Boxer’s decision last year to retire broke some of the logjam that has defined California politics in the decades during which she and Feinstein held onto Senate seats. Her replacement will be Kamala Harris, the state attorney general. At 52, Harris was 12 when Boxer first won an election.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s departure in 2018 because of term limits will open more room to impatient state politicians, many of whom are also counting on Feinstein to leave office that year. (The senator has not made her intentions publicly known.)

The change coming to California, however, has nothing on the change — and the uncertainty — coming to Washington. 

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President Trump may get along swimmingly with the Republican majorities in both houses, or, given their differing political and policy imperatives, he may find himself at war with them. Democrats are wondering how to attract the blue-collar whites who deserted them this year, and many Republicans don’t know what their party stands for in the shadow of Trump. None of that will be solved any time soon.

Given those questions, it could have been Democrats to whom Boxer’s words were addressed on Wednesday. Or it could have been Republicans as well, wondering what the future holds.

“This has been a dream to be in a profession that I think is noble, no matter how beaten up it gets,” Boxer said, the bruises from November’s election still raw. 

“You hold your head high.”

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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