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Senator Barbara Boxer and Robin Morgan: A Conversation (from WMC Live with Robin Morgan 7.2.16)

| July 6, 2016

RM: Barbara Boxer is of course the four-term senator from California, and before that she spent ten years representing a California district in the House of Representatives. She has been a national leader on environmental protection, and is the ranking member on the Committee on Environment and Public Works in the Senate; she's also the ranking member on the Senate Select Committee on Ethics; and she's the senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where she chairs the first ever subcommittee to focus on Global Women's Issues.  She's also a member of the Democratic leadership in the Senate, serving as the Chief Deputy Whip since 2005.  She founded the Senate Military Family Caucus to help address challenges faced by families of service members who sacrifice so much.  You name the issue, and she's had a positive effect on it.  She worked to remove arsenic from drinking water, she's led California's efforts in Congress to protect the coast from offshore oil drilling, and she fought to end the unethical use of human subjects in pesticide-testing by federal agencies. She's a champion of airline passengers' rights, and her legislation, together with now retired Senator Olympia Snow of Maine, was to protect passengers from being stuck on planes for hours without food, water, or access to restrooms.  She's been a strong supporter of the 1994 Crime Bill, she's worked to fund anti-gang programs, she's been a leader on violence against women laws, she's been a champion of a women's reproductive rights consistently through all those almost forty years now in Congress, both houses.  She helped lead the floor over a fight for passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Acts, she's fought against repeated attacks on women's health and a women's right to privacy.  She's been a leader of life-saving medical-research laws, she wrote bipartisan legislation to accelerate the contribution and funding to combat global HIV AIDS and tuberculosis, and in 2010 she wrote a measure to end taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street by ensuring that financial firms, not tax payers, will pay all the costs of liquidating failing Wall Street firms; it just goes on and on. She's a feminist, she's a great senator, she's retiring later this year and we will miss her deeply, but she's not retiring from activism, and you'll learn why. Here is Senator Barbara Boxer.

BB: It's so good to be with you, really, thank you.

RM: Well, as you know I'm a fan of yours, for many reasons, for so long, not the least of which is this new book, "The Art of Tough: Fearlessly Facing Politics and Life." You mean there's any difference between politics and life? Now you tell me? 

BB: (Laughing)  Well, you know, as I've learned, the older I've gotten, is politics is part of every single thing, every day.

RM: Exactly. Okay, first of all, recently we've seen not only a principled filibuster on the issue of gun restraint in the Senate, but we've also seen this moving sit-in in the House--and then possibly it's back in the Senate with yet another compromise bill.  How does that look, Barbara, and how can we move this along further?

BB: We need about eight more Republicans to join us and we will have passed for the first time a sensible gun law; we haven't done that since the '90's when my friend Senator Feinstein got the assault weapons ban through, and that expired in the early 2000's.  The bill that's currently alive, and I want to say that it's a huge accomplishment, is a bill by Susan Collins, and a bipartisan group, every Democrat supported her in the vote, we only got a few Republicans, we need some more, and if we can go from you know about 52-53 votes up to 60, we will have actually passed the bill that deals with making sure that terrorists who are on the no-fly list can't buy a gun. If you ever thought of anything more sensible than that I don't know what it could be.

RM: We were Tweeting in support, both during the Senate filibuster and the House sit-in, and we'll continue to do that--but is there anything else that you think people should be doing to be of support to you and the Senate?

BB: Right, well I think the best thing is to look at how your senator voted on the Collins Bill.  And if your senator voted, 'Yes,' on the Collins Bill — it's complicated because the actual vote was not to 'table' or 'shut down' the Collins Bill, so the right vote if you were for Collins was, 'No, do not table.'  So assuming your senator voted that way, with Collins, fine.  But if they did not, you need to write them, "Why on earth do you feel that a terrorist should have the right to be able to buy a gun?"  I mean, it's just crazy!  You know, what happened in the House was unreal; I went over, I served there for ten years, and to see John Lewis, who was really one of the all-time American heroes, leading this sit-in, as a cry for attention to this issue! And you know a lot of the victims' families have been saying, "We appreciate the moments of silence, but you've got to do something," and this was in response to that frustration.

RM: I stayed up all night, watching and crying and singing along, and Tweeting, and…

BB:  Good for you!

RM: . . . and it was just incredibly moving.  Now also, I want to ask about the election. In "The Art of Tough," you helpfully list [Laughs] … the reasons why you 'not leaving' the Senate, you are retiring from the Senate, but you're not leaving because of all the partisan in-fighting, and you're not leaving because of your age, and you're not retiring from working on issues that you love; and you intend to grow your Political Action Committee for a Change to help others win elections, and, you intend to work to elect a Democratic president. Now, particularly since we have on the one side a chance to make 'Herstory,' and on the other side a chance to stop fascism, it seems to me this is a really important election!

BB: [Laughing]  Well that's a very strong way of putting it. [Laughs] Somebody said to me the other day, "What's the main issue that's on the line, could you sum it up, in this presidential race?"   I said, "Yeah, I could sum it up with one word: Everything. 

RM:  Yes.

BB: Everything is on the line.  You know, I would say to your listeners, "Think about the most important thing to you, it's on the line."  Because the difference between these two candidates-- and just take for example the gun issue, it's quite clear, I mean the vision  of the National Rifle Association is an armed America.  And it is not about sensible gun laws, we all know Second Amendment is there; if people pass a background check, and they have trained in using the gun, and they need it for their defense of their family, or to hunt, or to collect, it's all fine.  What we don't want is to have a situation where terrorists can buy guns, mentally imbalanced people can buy guns, children can get their hands on the gun, and tragedy; we have lost every year an average of thirty thousand Americans, so over ten years that's three-hundred thousand Americans.  Now, I got into politics because I wanted to end the Vietnam War, because we lost fifty-five to sixty-thousand beautiful soldiers in that war, and our hearts were bleeding, sixty thousand over ten years. We lose three hundred thousand Americans from gun violence, don't you think we should pay attention to that?  I mean it's just shocking, and this is on the table.  Immigration: you know Donald Trump wants to deport eleven million of our community members who are working, who are taking care of our kids, who are cleaning up in the hotels, who are picking our fruit; I mean this is a vision of America that is very very frightening. 

RM: Yes,  on every front you're absolutely right, from reproductive rights straight through to Trump thinking, maybe he'll drop a nuclear bomb on Europe, I mean it's an amazing… amazing election cycle.

BB: Right, I mean to think of this man with his hands on, as Hillary says, 'The Nuclear Button,' and the economy, is enough to just get you sick, and the more you see of the people that he's stepped on and hurt, you know he's gotten their money, whether it's Trump University or anything else, people he didn't pay for some of his building projects! And I think what's going to happen is that — right now we know this, but we haven't really met the particular people who have been so hurt, a few of them have come forward, but that will happen.  I ran against someone once, Carly Fiorina, who had laid off thirty thousand workers, shipped their jobs overseas and forced a lot of them to train their replacements, and you know, all I had to do was bring some of these people forward, and they looked at the camera and they said, 'Please don't have someone like that in the U.S. Senate,' and you know people voted for me, and I was very fortunate, that was a hard race, it was in the middle of the recession.

RM: I remember. But you won. 

BB: I won.

RM: Now, since we're touching on international and economics, Brexit recently happened, and it makes me and many progressives nervous because it seems a mirror of the native-ism and the general right wing push, that has been occurring here; give us your thoughts on that, and what influence that will have, if any, on U.S. elections or in general.

BB: Sure.  Well, you know, first things first. You have to respect the vote.  Having said that, what we can see is, it's pretty chaotic, there's going to be a lot of fallout from this.  I don't know what Scotland does now, I don't know what Northern Ireland does now, but it could wind up really hurting Great Britain. And all I could tell you is this: our voters need to look at what happened; you know, when you bring about this sudden type of revolt because you're mad about something — and everybody's mad about something, and there's a lot to be mad about, believe me—but, I think our country must prove now that we can be steady as you go, and do the right thing, and make sure we have economic growth, and can actually be the country everybody looks towards.  And I think this election becomes even more important because of the size of our economy, and the United States of America being the place that is this shining example of how we can in fact live together. But it's a vision that Hillary puts forward and Trump takes the opposite view of pulling back, and attacking people who are diverse from him.  And, you know I have said, 'If everybody in America he's insulted votes for Hillary she'll win in a landslide.'

RM: And let's hope she brings the Senate and Congress with her. 

BB: I hope so, because we have so much to do.

RM: Yeah, and she needs the wind at her back, that would be wonderful.  Alright, closer back home again. I had forgotten this, and the book, "The Art of Tough" reminded me: you are a Brooklyn girl, originally, I should have known that, being a New Yorker myself, of course!  But nonetheless your beloved California seems to be still the promised land for this country.  It's had its hard times, but it still seems the most progressie--whether it's environment or immigration, I mean I wish that it were a model for the rest of the country; how do we make it more contagious to the rest of us?

BB: [Laughs] Well, I am very proud of the state, you know I came here as a very young woman to visit family, I looked around and just fell in love.  And my husband who, God bless him, he was in law school in New York, and I said, just very naively, "Can we move?" And he said, "Well, if I can get a job…" I write that in the book, he says, "If I can get a job two years in advance of my graduation, but we don't have a penny and we don't know anybody."  So, we wound up in California. But here's the thing I want to say about it. Every book you read about California, the history, starts with the beauty of our state, and people here get it.  And it isn't just the coast which is magnificent, and we've protected the vast majority of it from oil drilling because we know it's a beautiful attraction, a tourist attraction kept the way it is.  So then we also have the inland areas, the agricultural belt, the forest, the wetlands, it goes on; the desert, I mean the desert is incredible. And then we've got the amazing diversity, nobody's in a majority, it's all plurality here, we have every color in the rainbow, and it's so dynamic.  But here's what I want to say: after Schwarzenegger left the governorship we were in a big hole, and the budget was in trouble, and I have to say Jerry Brown stepped up, with a Democratic legislature, and solved the economic problem, got us back on our feet. We were struggling badly in that recession, and we've come back better than any other state; it's because we look at the future with confidence, we're not afraid, we don't want to pull back, we embrace change.  And, you know it is such a thrill to be in this state, and a lot of people come here, they change forever, because of the way we respect each other, and it's dynamic, it's interesting, and it's a real engine.  We are the leader on clean energy, we don't fear that. Actually, our last nuclear plant is going to close because of safety issues, but we don't fear it, even the company that just agreed to close down isn't in an argument, they said, 'Well, we can use renewables.'  We're strong economically, we care about each other socially, and I'm glad you said that you thought we could be a model.  And we should be a model, because we've shown that progressives know how to govern.

RM: It's like a laboratory, 'proof.'

BB: Yes, it's a lack of fear about the future, it's embracing the problems; instead of saying, 'climate change isn't real.' Get over it, climate change is real, it's threatening us.  But how do we turn it into an opportunity? With clean energy, and jobs you cannot ship overseas; you put a solar roof on here, you can't have that done in China, the person has to be on your roof. So we've embraced it.

RM: And to embrace that at a time when so much of the country is buying into the 'fear politics' that they're being fed . . .

BB: Yeah, and it's the Koch Brothers, it's the big dirty oil money. And I'll tell you right now, America, what's made us great is that we do take that chance and we're innovative, and California, you're right, is that laboratory, and guess what?  It's working! 

RM: Well, I want to get back now to the book, because, it's just so damn good.

BB: Oh, I'm so happy you like it, Robin!

BB: It's filled with juicy 'behind the scenes' stuff, from the ten years in the House, from the four terms in the Senate, from before then and how you got involved in this, from basically being an activist, …to, you know, things like the Bob Packwood sex scandal where he molested women all over the place, and you raised it, and Mitch McConnell denounced you for doing that, and you didn't speak to him pretty much for twenty years! So I have to ask you (laughing) is he catatonic?  [BB: Bursts out laughing] I mean, many of us look at his face and think, 'gee, there's sort of a loss of affect there,' I mean it's tempting to want to ask him, 'Are you alive in there, Senator?'

BB:  [laughing] Well, Mitch and I have this insane relationship, because you're right, during the Packwood scandal, I had just gotten elected to the Senate, and because of Anita Hill having come  forward, I felt I had the responsibility, even though it made me extremely unpopular,
[laughs] to push and push to make sure that the women who came forward in the Packwood case, --more than twenty of them--got their day to tell their story, and Packwood would pay the price. RM:  Right! 

BB: And Mitch didn't want to lose that seat.  So he and Bob Dole teamed up against me, \…it's all documented in the book, and he actually threatened me and my colleagues and so…and I just said, "Look, you don't threaten me, I'm gonna keep going."  And because Packwood knew he couldn't survive a public hearing he quit, and those of us who said that justice had to happen, we won the day.  And that's what the art of tough is, you don't get intimidated.  But because of this deep divide between Mitch and me, we didn't talk for twenty years except, 'Hi,' and 'Bye'--and as you say he doesn't show emotions. Mitch looks like the most unhappy person, he barely smiles.
I don't know, you almost feel like he's worried something terrible is gonna happen any minute, and he doesn't have a joy.  But, he obviously loves what he does, and last year what happened is that he and I found ourselves in this strange situation, for reasons too complicate too mention, we were the only people who could've saved the Highway Trust Fund, and the whole transportation program for the country. So we set aside our differences, and we sat down, and we worked it out. We got a great five-year bill which will fix our bridges and our roads and our highways, it'll increase in spending by 20 percent, we found how to pay for it, and it was a total miracle. We went out to dinner, I gave him a tie that had bridges all over it, he gave me a Kentucky Slugger bat, and we realized that we were able to get over it.  But it took a long time to work with him, because as I write in "The Art of Tough," if somebody hurts you really deep, you can't deal with them … forgiving is very important, but sometimes it cuts too deep.

RM: That'sabsolutely right.  Well, I'm glad to know that you got him to move his face, at dinner, that's encouraging.  [Both laugh] One of the most moving aspects of "The Art of Tough" is the history of your friendships and support from, and support to other women, first in the House, and then in the Senate. There's a real human endeavor going on that affects legislation, affects all our lives.  And it's not only on bills that specifically affect female citizens, although you've been there for us every minute of the way, from Hill/Thomas hearings, to issues like online harassment, to women vets getting fair medical coverage; you have been amazingly consistent.  But talk a little bit about the very real sisterhood that you've created, fostered, and encountered among your peers who are women.

BB: You know, it has been just one of the joys of my life to be in a circumstance now looking back where we were really making history for the future; we were laying the groundwork for today,  to have a women nominated for president.Women weren't looked at that way, when I ran in the '70's, people thought that something was wrong with me, because I was running.  You know in those years if you ran for even local office people thought there was something really sick about you, 'Why would you want to do something that men do?  Why would you want to if you were married, you know, work?'  If you had kids, 'Why would you want to leave your kid…' And I tell this hysterical story about knocking on a door in 1972, and a woman opens it, and I thought, 'Oh, good…" and I said, "Hi, I'm Barbara Boxer, running for County Supervisor."  The first thing she says is "I didn't know you'd be so short."  What was I supposed to say? [Both laugh]  And then she says, "I could never vote for you."  "Why?"  "Because you have four children you're leaving to do this work."  I said, "First of all this is a part-time job.  Second of all I only have two children."  She says, "No, you don't, you have four."I said, "Lady, I have two."  She said, "No, you have four, I read it in the paper."  I said, "Listen, I don't know if you've ever given birth, but I did it twice, and you never forget it."   [Both laugh] "Believe me, it's two."  But this is the kind of political world that I faced when I first ran.  So when you get to the House of Representatives there's like twenty-four women, I don't remember exactly, in 1983, and only a few of us had gotten there in our own right, most of them their husbands died so they filled his seat is how they got there. But there's this instant camaraderie, because you know…it's like, when police officers have dinner together, they kind of know what they face everyday, or when doctors go out together, or … there's a certain instant understanding of the issues that you face every single day.  So these camaraderies started, and Barbara Mikulski [D. Maryland, Dean of Senate women] takes a very special place in my book, I even wrote a limerick about her, she's just a pretty extraordinary person, and one of the things she said in 1992, , "Some women look out the window waiting for Prince Charming, I'm waiting for more women senators," that was one of her favorite quotes.  And of course that was the Year of the Woman, but we only went from two to six. Still, it was tripling--and now we have twenty women in the Senate.

RM: But there could be women who didn't, well, seem to know they were women, whereas your relationships with most of these women--a few Republicans, but mostly Democratic women--is seen all the way through to the issues, but is also seen in terms of day to day support, laughter, what keeps you going, the personal details--

BB: Sure.

RM:--and that is so touching to read, all those individual stories alone would make the book just a little precious jewel to read.

BB:  Oh, thank you, thank you.

RM: Well it's true, you could say "The Art of Tough" is particularly for women,  although the book is for everybody.  One last question and then I'll let you go because I know that you have a very busy schedule--though I already am getting separation anxiety from your leaving the Senate, so I don't want to let you go, but still--

BB: And I'm not leaving the issues, you'll see, I will be there.

RM: I believe it, But one last question; as you look back on your years in the House and the Senate, and in electoral politics, what would you say is your greatest joy, and what would you say is your greatest regret or sadness, if you have one? I've asked this question of many women and the answers are always so interesting.

BB: Right, well I'll start with my greatest regret, and until I sat down to write the book I didn't confront this, but I believe that I took my eye off the ball during the Clarence Thomas hearings.

RM: I am so glad you're saying this. Oh, I love you all over again.

BB: Well, because what happened was we made this great march from the House, we the women of the House, over to the Senate to demand that the hearings on Thomas be reopened so that Anita Hill could testify.   And when we did that march--and it was historic, and the hearings reopened--I decided in my head, "Wow, this is it, now Thomas will never get the vote, he won't win because Anita Hill is such an extraordinary person." So I took my eye off it, instead of focusing in on what was going on behind the scenes at that moment, so I didn't know until much later that there were four other women who could've testified that they had the same experience with Thomas as Anita Hill. 

RM And they were kept waiting in their hotel rooms in DC.

BB: Yes.  They were not called, they were not called.  And I go into it in the book, and you know there's been movies made about this and all the rest, but I blame myself, because I should've kept my eye on it, and then I would've known that. And that's one of my greatest regrets because it led to Clarence Thomas being on the court, and we know the decisions that man has made have hurt so many people.  And another big regret, the fact that no matter what I did I couldn't get the Iraq War ended. And that I didn't object to the Gore/Bush electoral count on the floor of the House; I didn't do that because Al Gore said, "Please don't," but I should've done it anyway.  That's several regrets, believe me.  But in terms of my best joys, if you look at the legislation I've been able to get done, the fact that more than a million kids a year are in after-school because of my legislation, more than a million acres of land preserved as wilderness, a comprehensive casualty care center for vets in my state for the worst wounds that you can imagine, the fact that I set drinking water standards to protect kids, so many things I listed the top fifty in the book, but there's a thousand.  And to have that ability, to have the chance, let's put it that way, that my people gave me, they trusted me, and entrusted me, it's so … it's so… it warms my heart.  And I know that a lot of them didn't agree with everything I stood for, but they trusted me, and that's pretty amazing.

RM: Well, Barbara, you are a beautiful person, outside, inside, and from every angle.  And I want to thank you not only for being with us today, and thank you for this book, "The Art of Tough: Fearlessly Facing Politics and Life," but also to thank you personally for being there for all of us, for women specifically because if we're not for us who is--and for doing that so consistently, and with such toughness and grace. And if you're guilty about anything just shows that you're Jewish--

BB: [ laughing] Jewish or Catholic, yeah.

RM   But the truth is that you have nothing to be guilty about and everything to be proud of, and we are so proud of you. Thank you for all those years, and we're looking forward to what you'll do next.  The book's called, "The Art of Tough," and I've been talking with Senator Barbara Boxer, to my honor and delight.

BB: And it's been my joy.

Copyright  © 2016 by Robin Morgan All Rights Reserved

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.