Last week, Senator Barbara Boxer announced she wouldn’t be running for reelection. Politics can be heartbreaking (the inertia, the hypocrisy, the futility, the shattered hopes!), but Sen. Boxer gave many on the left courage during some very dark days in the course of her long career, providing a genuinely progressive voice on women’s rights and climate change and most of all, on national security. In sharp contrast to her fellow California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who voted with the Republicans in favor of war with Iraq in 2002, Boxer was, from the first thump of the war drums after 9/11, a staunch and absolute opponent to that three-trillion-dollar folly. She called out the hawks, including, gratifyingly, Condoleeza Rice in 2005: “I personally believe,” she told a visibly furious Rice, “that your loyalty to the mission you were given, to sell this war, overwhelmed your respect for the truth.” (We were informed last week that Condoleeza Rice will not seek Boxer’s Senate seat.)
In 2007, General David Petraeus was still a hero, on the right at least: The “warrior scholar” was described in the Guardian as “the last best hope for success in Iraq.” (Petraeus’s fall from grace would not come until 2012.) Given the chance to question him, Boxer quoted the general’s own remarks back to him, made to the Boston Globe in 2003, at the outset of the war: “We want to be seen as an army of liberation and not an army of occupation,” Petraeus had announced grandly. “You wear out your welcome at some point. It doesn’t matter how helpful you are. We aren’t here to stay.”
Then Senator Boxer really socked it to him.
“We are sending our troops where they’re not wanted, with no end in sight, into the middle of a civil war, into the middle of the mother of all mistakes,” she continued. “Please, General, don’t do what you did in 2004 when you painted a rosy scenario. Consider that others could be right. Listen to the Iraqi people, the American people, the majority of the Congress.”
By 2007 it was obvious to an increasing number of Americans that the war was an abject failure, a tsunami of wasted money and blasted lives and the ruin of a whole nation (or rather, two), but just as Senator Boxer was giving General Petraeus what for, many others, including David Brooks, were cheering him on: Bush was “unshakably committed to stabilizing Iraq,” Brooks wrote. “If Gen. David Petraeus comes back and says he needs more troops and more time, Bush will scrounge up the troops. If General Petraeus says he can get by with fewer, Bush will support that, too. […] [F]ar from being worn down by the past few years, Bush seems empowered. His self-confidence is the most remarkable feature of his presidency.” Ha! No kidding! He went on:
All this will be taken as evidence by many that Bush is delusional. He’s living in a cocoon. He doesn’t see or can’t face how badly the war is going and how awfully he has performed.
Yes! All that was exactly true! It was evidence of facts. Do you remember—or can you imagine—what a relief it was to hear Senator Boxer say so?
Since George W. Bush came to power, and indeed way before that, right-wing Republicans have done their level best to make the word “liberal” a slur. In the years immediately following 9/11, “liberal” was more or less synonymous with “traitor” in the rightwing press. Barbara Boxer endured this abuse and never abandoned her convictions in order to look “less extreme” in the eyes of the media or party bosses. She stayed a liberal, and that has been thrilling to me.
Anita Hill’s examination in the Senate Caucus Room that fateful October weekend in 1991 went on for many hours. But if you will watch just these few minutes of Arlen Spector’s vulgar, vicious browbeating of Hill, you will understand the tide of rage that swept the so-called “Anita Hill senators”—Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Patti Murray and Carol Moseley-Braun—to victory, bringing the total number of women in the Senate to a whopping seven in January of 1993.
So Sen. Boxer will always be joined in my mind with Anita Hill, and with that earlier season of Hope and Change that animated the election year of 1992—The Year of the Woman, as it became known. Not one, but two women representing California in the Senate! I was a very young woman myself, back then, and all things seemed possible. A new president, one who’d been brought up by a single mom, and whose wife was a brilliant lawyer, obviously his equal…surely, he would be a real feminist, and a real champion of women as well. (And a loyal husband! And a friend to the gay community, surely: someone to really look up to, at last.) We would pass single-payer healthcare, and sane gun control laws, and protect the environment, and…well. Not so fast. The progressive idealism of 1992 fell as hard and as painfully as did the idealism of 2008, though in altogether different ways. First Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones. The failure of the healthcare bill, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Lewinsky scandal.
Senator Boxer endured all that, too; she defended her president, which can’t have been easy. Asked about Monica Lewinsky, she replied, “What do I think of her? I don’t know her. I never give opinions of people I don’t know.” Writing in Vanity Fair in 1998, Marjorie Williams mocked the women in Congress who, like Senator Boxer, owed the success of their campaigns to outrage over the treatment of Anita Hill, and who now found themselves unable to condemn President Clinton’s apparent sexual misconduct: “Their excuses range from the procedural stonewall (‘What is important for the American people to know is that there is a process in place to deal with these allegations,’ in the words of Senator Barbara Boxer) to the creative inversion (What about Ken Starr’s ‘humiliation’ of the women he dragged before the grand jury?, fumed Representative Nancy Pelosi) to the truly fanciful twist on gender politics (‘Not so many years ago, a woman couldn’t be a White House intern,’ said a straight-faced Senator Carol Moseley-Braun on Meet the Press).”
Bush v. Gore was not yet so much as a gleam on the horizon.
Though the goal of passing a comprehensive climate change bill eluded her, Senator Boxer’s bill protecting hundreds of thousands of acres of California wilderness was signed into law in 2006. She led the fight to stop oil drilling in ANWR and opposed Star Wars. But most of all she was a bulwark against the excesses of the right, a powerful counterweight against the ever-veering Overton Window.
I hope her successor as the ranking member of the Environmental and Public Works Committee will heed her advice regarding the Keystone XL pipeline. “It is a puzzle to me that after a deep recession, Republicans turn to legislation that according to the State Department will only create 35 permanent jobs,” she observed dryly. “Instead, Republican leadership should immediately take up the highway bill which supports millions of jobs and will run out of funding in four short months.” That would certainly be a bipartisan move, Senator Inhofe.
Though we have the disgraceful Justice Clarence Thomas’s hyperactive porn habit to thank for her long service to California, I am nonetheless grateful. Thank you, Senator.
Maria Bustillos is a journalist and critic living in Los Angeles.