Barbara Boxer Still Gives a Damn

California's recently retired senator has a new book that shows her fight is far from over.

The two most au courant depictions of Washington, D.C., House of Cards and Veep, characterize the cesspool-on-the-Potomac as a true den of iniquity. Although steely, sociopathic determination characterizes the Underwood administration and outrageous ineptitude marked the 11-month tenure of President Selina Meyer, the Washington of both series is a place of backstabbing and retribution for perceived slights.

The Art of Tough: Fearlessly Facing Politics and Life, former Sen. Barbara Boxer’s new memoir, falls somewhere in between. (And Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays President Meyer on Veep, supplied a blurb.) While it’s hardly a forum for petty score-settling — and Boxer is notably hands-off when it comes to detailing her famously frosty relationship with California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein — Washington’s egos reveal themselves in their full plumage. The irascible John McCain, for instance, comes off as an unpredictable bully who’s quick with the gavel.

“I would sum up John’s feelings toward me this way: He tolerates me,” Boxer writes, after relaying the story of a time when she got then-Sen. Joe Biden to force McCain to apologize for booting Boxer from a committee hearing. Then, she shares a nine-line ode she wrote about him.

Boxer’s poems aren’t the only unorthodox move in a book of this sort. In lieu of an index that power players could thumb through to find the pages where their names are mentioned, The Art of Tough’s appendix lists Boxer’s 50 biggest accomplishments during her years of public service, plus a history of the Senate seat she held from 1993 until this January, when she took on full-time fundraising for her political-action committee, PAC for a Change. Throughout, she strives to portray herself as a family-first citizen-legislator, but she’s also a career politician, having held office continuously since the 1970s. (As a Marin County supervisor, she won her first term in the U.S. House in 1982 with the slogan “Barbara Boxer Gives a Damn.”)

In an anti-Establishment period like the current epoch, there’s an advantage in being the outsider. Spending 34 consecutive years in Congress, the last two of them as the most senior junior senator in America, would hardly seem to qualify Boxer as a renegade — let alone a McCain-esque “maverick.” Yet the trajectory of her career shows how gaining access to power was anything but frictionless. Having first been elected to the Senate in 1992 — the so-called “Year of the Woman,” because female membership in that chamber tripled from two to six — Boxer contrasts that achievement with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ hearings of the year before, in which an all-male panel torpedoed testimony about Thomas’ sexual harassment from a qualified and courageous law professor named Anita Hill.

Hill, Boxer writes, is her hero. Such praise would have been fitting in the early ’90s. A lot has happened since then, yet no one has replaced her in Boxer’s esteem.

“First of all, she may be out of the limelight, but that’s to her credit,” Boxer tells SF Weekly. “She’s working continually. There was a movie about her recently [HBO’s Confirmation] that starred Kerry Washington, about the Clarence Thomas confirmation.

“She absolutely changed the course of women in politics,” Boxer adds. “It’s not even a close call for me, and I know I would never have gotten elected if she had never had the courage to come forward.”

About this incident, which included a psychologist testifying before the committee that Hill had “erotomania,” Boxer delivers perhaps the most damning line in the book: “Women in America couldn’t believe it. But then again, they could.”

Throughout her career, Boxer has confronted sexism of all stripes — “I was asked when I first ran ‘What do you know about the budget?’ and I was an economics major” — as well as anti-Semitism. When she and Feinstein, both Jewish women, were first elected in the same year owing to a quirk in the electoral calendar, there were grumblings in some quarters, and Boxer writes that “it made me mad that no one ever thought it was a problem to elect two Protestant men.”

But the bulk of the opposition Boxer faced stemmed from the fact that she’s always been a strong progressive: anti-war and pro-environment, the force behind the Violence Against Women act and the protection of Pinnacles National Park and the Presidio of San Francisco. Although she got along with Trent Lott and “never had a direct run-in” with Newt Gingrich, Boxer and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “barely spoke a word for 20 years.” And the right-wing fought her ferociously throughout her tenure, whether that was on policy issues like Gen. David Petraeus’ handling of the Iraq War or her 2010 Senate opponent, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who’d made fun of Boxer’s hairstyle.

In that campaign, Fiorina also downplayed Boxer’s worries about climate change as mere “worrying about the weather.” It’s always been an open question as to whether many Republicans and centrist Democrats — especially those from the corporate world — truly believe climate change is a hoax or a myth or whether they’re just trying to win the votes from right-wing voters who believe that’s the case. Boxer puts any doubt to rest.

“I don’t think they believe it for a minute,” she says of the conspiracy theories. “I think they’re a sellout to the big polluters, but they can’t say that, so they hide behind all this nonsense: ‘I’m not a scientist.’ ‘It’s never been proven.’ Really? I have no respect for those colleagues on either side who hide behind it. Be honest about it. If you don’t want to go against oil companies, then say it.”

She has kind words for more courageous politicians, namely Rep. Nancy Pelosi, whom she calls “the most energetic human being on earth” and praises for shepherding the Affordable Care Act through the sausage factory that is the House of Representatives. (She also reveals that, even though they look nothing alike, Pelosi and Boxer are often confused for one another.) Representing the most populous state in the nation came with some bragging rights, too, like the fact that Boxer has received more votes than any other Senate candidate in history. And her appearance, playing herself and taking Larry David to task on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, was another.

“Isn’t that a riot?” Boxer says. “There was no script. Larry just said, ‘This is the storyline so go out and do it,’ and it was literally one take.’ He is beyond funny.”

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