Barbara Boxer: Standing up for beliefs, standing up to prejudice
By Lou Fancher
Boxers need to be tough.
Barbara Boxer, retiring in 2016 from elected office after 40 years that include 10 years as a California Congresswoman, and a seat since 1993 in the United States Senate, says being tough has meant survival.
The best way for citizens to express their toughness during the Presidential campaign, she advocates, is to vote on Nov. 8.
Appearing Oct. 26, at a Commonwealth Club event at the Lafayette Library, Boxer introduced subjects explored in a new memoir, “The Art of Tough: Fearlessly Facing Politics and Life” (Hachette Books). The 288-page book describes her signature work, focused especially on fighting for equal rights for women, children and middle-class families, environmental protection and a peaceful world without war.
Asked by moderator KQED executive editor Holly Kernan at the event if the instability of this year’s political climate is unprecedented, Boxer said she’s not a historian, but people should remember that political foes who disagreed once had a duel.
“Have any of you seen (the Broadway musical) ‘Hamilton?’ It was pretty tough, so I don’t like to say this is the worst thing in history. I can tell you it’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”
Her advice was not to exaggerate how bad the tone is, but instead, “deal with it,” and get out and vote.
“Dealing with it” during her years in Congress was an art, and not a matter of being a bully or acting out of anger.
“It just means standing up for what you believe in,” Boxer said, “doing it in a smart way.”
Smart often meant using humor during her many battles, expressed most cleverly in lyrics she wrote and set to music to persuade opposing parties of her argument. Boxer earned laughter and applause from the sold-out audience in Lafayette with a cappella renditions of songs she’d written to protest female members of the House of Representative’s exclusion from the House Gym, the Iraq War, and other causes.
A darker mood was cast when Boxer shared words that detractors had aimed in her direction. She said radio host Michael Savage (quoted in her book) compared her to Joseph Mengele, a Nazi war criminal who directed merciless human experiments. Political commentator and writer Ann Coulter said she was a great candidate for the Democratic Party: “female and learning disabled.”
Critical to resisting the urge to strike back — something Boxer strove for, but didn’t claim she’d always achieved — she said nine rules she has developed that include practicing forgiveness and finding love in your life are the best means of resistance.
“People will try to shut you down. You need someone in your life who gives you that love.”
In Congress, she could choose to get “in a terrible spat” with a colleague, or she could remember that “one person can stop your bill,” and instead practice persuasion and compromise.
Although discrimination in the form of sexism she said is still a problem in society and in the federal government, Boxer has seen “real progress.” She compared 1992, the year she and , Dianne Feinstein were elected and were the only two women in the Senate, to the 20 women in Congress in 2016. Standing up to prejudice she said, is “so critical.”
Protesting against California’s top-two primary system that allows for same-party candidates competing against each other in the general election, Boxer said it doesn’t allow for spirited debate about interests and is “mushy.”
But America’s problems aren’t elevated by angry discourse either. Solutions, she said, are found by remembering the first 15 words of the Preamble to the Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” Instead of attempting to find the “perfect candidate” in an election, Boxer said “people who say it’s not right are right, but it’s their job to fix it.”
How? One word: “Vote.”
Reflecting on her years in Congress, Boxer said she most regrets not voting for Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve chairman in 2006, but has no second thoughts about other “lonely moments” when she stood up for what she believed was right and best for the country.
She most laments that one-third to one-half of a senator’s time is spent fundraising for the next campaign.
Boxer was most proud of the “Top Fifty Legislative Accomplishments” listed in her memoir’s appendix, especially legislation that provided after-school care to children, wounded warrior care to military veterans, and protection for “more than a million acres of wilderness.”
Projecting beyond the election, Boxer said, “I’m still perky.”
She plans to complete her book tour, donate her archives to the UC Berkeley library, launch an annual lecture featuring upcoming women leaders, devote her newly formed PAC for a Change to helping young women win elections and continue working “to form a more perfect union.”