THE BLOG
05/31/2016 06:32 am ET Updated Jun 01, 2017

Barbara Boxer in Nevada: A Chapter In 'The Art Of Tough'

The scene was startling -- Senator Barbara Boxer, who has staked -- and sometimes risked -- her entire career on being a unapologetic progressive, shouted down at the Nevada Democratic convention by supporters of Bernie Sanders.

It is far from the first time that Barbara Boxer has faced open hostility -- including angry protesters in Florida during the visceral days of the 2000 recount. But this episode, as she described it to me, was "uncontrollable and vicious."

On this occasion, she was speaking out for Hillary Clinton. In truth, the stakes at the convention were small -- a handful of delegates chosen under complex rules, decried by Sander supporters, in a state where Clinton had already won the caucuses. But it suggests an increasingly bitter rift which, unless composed, enhances the electoral prospects not of Bernie Sanders, but of Donald Trump.

The images on television were memorable -- angry Sanders partisans charging the stage and cursing at speakers, including California's very liberal senator. Next came a torrent of obscene and threatening text messages directed at another woman, the Nevada State Democratic chairperson, as well as at her family. All this is evidence of an outrage which, at its worst, transcends disagreements over process and issues, trampling reason in the process.

Seasoned though she is, Senator Boxer found the chaos deeply troubling. While at times she worried for her safety, she stood her ground, as always. The worst part for her, she says, was that for the first time in her career she could not break through the anger to be heard.

Nonetheless, she remains optimistic that the party will ultimately unify. The protesters, she notes, were a minority of Sanders supporters. After several attempts to reach him, she had a "warm conversation" with her friend and fellow progressive Bernie Sanders who, she says, seemed "genuinely disturbed " by what had happened. In the fall, she believes, Senator Sanders will do precisely what he has promised -- work hard to ensure that Donald Trump never becomes president.

But I am not writing this piece because of the tumult in Nevada, or even because today happens to be the publication date of Barbara Boxer's zesty and candid political memoir, The Art Of Tough. I had planned to write about her anyway -- after 34 years as one of the most gutsy and consistent liberals in Congress, Barbara Boxer is retiring from the Senate. In this year, of all years, her life in politics holds important lessons for Democrats and progressives.

An admission of bias: Barbara Boxer is my spiritual leader -- by which I mean that she officiated when I married Nancy. More important, she's the Jewish big sister I never had: loyal, honest, caring, very funny and completely partial to my best interests. Family really matters to her -- her family, and mine. Friends don't come any better.

She's also candid, passionate and pretty much an open book -- not many people in public life are as bad at concealing their feelings. Caution is not Barbara's first language, or even her second. So after two decades of friendship I know very well what a warm and large-spirited person she is.

None of which keeps her from being as determined as she needs to be in pursuing what she thinks is right -- even when her chosen course is unpopular or risky. Her career defines political toughness in the service of principle and progressive politics.

Politics is a hard business. Too often we stereotype our politicians as spoiled, timid, and mendacious sellouts mortgaged to special interests and concerned with their own survival. But the good ones -- like Barbara Boxer -- are something else entirely: attuned to their constituents, rooted in real beliefs, and focused on the common good in the face of more unpleasantness than most of us could take.

Because, in truth, the life is a grind. Members of Congress are trapped in an endless round trip to Washington, Groundhog Day in midair. They are caught in a demeaning marathon of fundraising -- our fault, not theirs. They are forced to listen to idiots -- not just donors or constituents, but colleagues.

In public, they are never off the job -- not at a restaurant, or grocery shopping, or even a kid's dance recital. They are fair game for insult -- often in person, incessantly in the media. The intoxication of office is way overrated; far more important is a level of toughness which is close to supernatural.

But from the outset Barbara Boxer had to be tougher than most -- in ways which are good to remember at a time when the participation of women in politics is, all too often, taken for granted.

In 1972, when she ran for Supervisor in the supposedly liberal bastion of Marin County, her most formidable opponent was her own gender. Though her male opponent had kids and a full-time job, voters berated her for neglecting her family. In one memorable highlight her opponent showed up at her home, unannounced, to inform her that running against him would set women back because "men have to free you." She kicked him out.

She lost that race, but won the next. Indispensable to her resolve was her husband's determination to support her whatever it took. This wasn't the original plan: when they met as teenagers at Brooklyn College, Barbara was a cheerleader, Stewart the one with definitive ambitions. As Barbara wryly remarks: "Stew married Debbie Reynolds and woke up with Golda Meir."

But Stewart rolled with it through two kids, his own busy law career, 40 years in public life, and 50+ years of marriage. Their son and daughter can't imagine them any other way.

But things could have been very different had not both of them decided to break the mold. Together, they epitomize how feminism has changed us for the better. But 34 years in Congress have confirmed for Senator Barbara Boxer that sexism is like weeds, preternaturally hardy and tough to kill.

The battle for women's rights -- including the right to claim a place in our politics -- has been a long slog up a very steep hill. Barbara Boxer took it on, whether the issue was reproductive rights, women's health, equal pay, child care, family leave, violence against women, or rape and abuse in the military. This accounts for her most painful moment in Congress -- the isolation of Anita Hill.

When then-Representative Boxer learned of Hill's charges against Clarence Thomas, she and six female colleagues marched to the Senate with cameras in tow, demanding of Majority Leader George Mitchell that Hill be given a fair and thorough hearing. When Hill was called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, she thought they had succeeded. Only later did Barbara learn that other women were prepared to testify about sexual harassment by Thomas, but never called as witnesses.

To this day she blames herself for having turned too soon to other matters. But she achieved many more successes on behalf of other women, and her own career is one of them.

When she decided to run for the Senate in 1992, she was an asterisk in the polls, unknown outside her district and given no shot in a state as large and diverse as California. She ran as an uncompromising advocate for reproductive choice, equal rights, environmental protection, healthcare, gun control, and cutting military spending -- issues which have defined her public life. When she was elected, the number of woman Senators quintupled -- from 1 to 5.

Now there are 20. During Barbara's career in the Senate her successor in Congress, Nancy Pelosi, became Speaker of the House. The two leading candidates to succeed her as a senator are women. And a former colleague, Hillary Clinton, is the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.

Here, an ironic coda. After Barbara clobbered two male opponents in races for reelection, in 2010 the GOP cleverly decided to oppose her with a woman -- Carly Fiorina. Regrettably, Fiorina prefigured Donald Trump's sexist crack about her own appearance by getting caught on tape mocking Barbara's hairstyle. That November, Senator Boxer performed a national service by trouncing Fiorina, a decisive setback for same-sex sexism. That's progress.

But then progress is the point of Barbara Boxer's career.

Her accomplishments have a common theme -- improving people's lives. 1 million kids getting after-school care. 1 million acres of California land which are now protected wilderness. The first ever comprehensive casually care center in California, so that physically and mentally wounded veterans can receive the care they need. Setting clean water standards to assure the health and safety of pregnant women and kids. Protecting women in the military from sex offenders. Looking out for society's most embattled members -- minorities, the poor, immigrants, and those our economy leaves behind.

At times that was a pretty solitary job. In 1996, she was one of only 14 votes against the Defense Of Marriage Act. In 1993, she tried to stop "don't ask, don't tell." She and seven colleagues voted against repealing Glass-Steagall. In 2004 she was the only senator who protested the blatant irregularities which skewed Ohio's electoral votes. She was one of 23 votes against the Iraq war resolution. And in 2015 she stood with a minority in the Senate to support the Iran nuclear deal.

In every instance she chose principle over expedience -- and was prescient in the bargain. One should contemplate how rare this combination of smarts and conscience really is.

Her vote against the Iraq war captures this. She was mocked, vilified and inundated with calls for her resignation. Instead, she doubled down. "What would it be like," she asked, "if every person in the cabinet lost a child? ...[W]ho's paying the price now? Our military families."

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared before a Senate committee to seek more troops for Iraq, Senator Boxer again bluntly noted the cost of war: "I'm not going to pay a personal price. My children are too old and my grandchild is too young. You're not going to pay a personal price... So who pays the price? The American military and their families -- not me, not you."

She was pilloried -- and right. The war has produced a tsunami of veterans wounded in body and spirit -- maimed, traumatized, brain-damaged, and ridden by alcoholism, addiction and suicide. Not to mention the dead. One wishes that Barbara Boxer could have asked this question of Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, unable as they were to ask it of themselves.

Now she lists the lessons of that experience. War must be the last resort, not the first. Don't enter a war of choice with faulty information. Don't go it alone unless there is no other option. Don't stick American troops in the middle of a civil or religious war. Don't want something more for another country than it wants for itself. Don't get our soldiers killed for oil. And the last -- "Don't tell lies."

Public life is filled with lessons. And so writing her memoir has occasioned much reflection.

She will miss her colleagues -- at least the good ones. Asked to name the best, she answers briskly: "Ted Kennedy, by far and away." For her, Senator Kennedy embodied what a senator should be -- an attentive mentor and generous colleague, for whom the work mattered much more than taking credit for it. If you're the wrong person to lead the fight, he taught her, find someone else and back them every way you can. And never be afraid to battle for what you believe -- staying strong is the only way to become the senator you should be.

Another valued colleague was Barack Obama. Here she tells a story at her own expense: the moment of political genius wherein she explained to then-Senator Obama why Hillary Clinton would wipe him out should he challenge her in 2008. With remarkable stubbornness, Obama did not listen to his wiser and more experienced colleague. And Barbara counts watching him become our first black president as one of the most moving experiences she's ever had.

But she rues the degree to which Obama's presidency has confirmed the persistence of racism. She cites as another instance of this voter suppression laws directed at seniors, students and low income voters -- and, especially, minorities. As she puts it: "Passports are fine, but you don't need a degree in voter suppression to know who has those." Still more reason, she emphasizes, to support Democrats in the fall.

Still another is the Senate, her political home for nearly a quarter century. Bluntly, she says that it is a markedly worse place than when she entered -- too polarized to address our most pressing problems. Take climate change -- it is now close to impossible to find a Republican who will concede that this is a genuine concern. Her GOP colleagues live in fear of being primaried by right-wing extremists, or overrun by special interest money unleashed by Citizens United. Which, in turn, explains the stonewalling of Merrick Garland.

But she is adamant that voters own a piece of this. Our political paralysis will only change, she warns, if people decide that they care enough about a clean environment -- as one example -- to make it a voting issue. But when only 40 percent of eligible voters participate in a non-presidential election year, the special interests win. "Until the American people wake up to their own power," she says, "and overcome cynicism, people with money will always dominate the process."

Which brings her to the stakes in 2016 -- "nothing less than saving our country and the world." She names three issues, each requiring presidential leadership. Climate change -- "if we lose our environment we're not getting it back." Defeating terrorism -- "we don't win by isolating the very people we need to help us win." And rebuilding our sense of common citizenship -- "we can't have a great country unless we care about each other."

That last, of course, alludes to Donald Trump. But she also has a word for his chief opponent: "Ted Cruz is a truly bipartisan figure -- both sides can't stand him." Asked for her reaction to Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee, she answers, "When he first started running, I said I couldn't imagine him as the nominee or president," adding wryly, "I stand by that." And the election of 2000 taught her all she ever needed to know about how much a president matters.

So she has little patience with those who would throw away their votes or sulk on the sidelines. In her book, she minces few words in excoriating Ralph Nader for saying that there was no difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush in terms of their corporate, military or supposedly "anti- environmental policies"

"Either he was smoking something," she writes, "or he wins the prize for 'Best Rationalizer' in the world." And she quotes the late Barbara Jordan: "Some people say that it makes no difference who is elected president of the United States. You must say to those cynics: You are perpetuating a fraud."

It is hard to argue with this. Al Gore lost Florida by a certified 537 votes out of 6 million cast. If a few hundred Nader voters had supported Gore, we would have been been spared the Iraq war, the rise of climate change denial and, quite possibly, the great recession of 2008 -- not to mention a list of other setbacks deplored by any supporter of both Clinton and Sanders old enough to remember.

Only a man as self- absorbed as Ralph Nader would claim that this outcome made no difference. But in 2016 a generation of first-time voters are too young to recall the disaster of 2000.

So Barbara Boxer will campaign hard for Hillary Clinton and other Democrats in the fall, then leave the Senate content. She always hated raising money for herself; now she won't have to. "If I want to get into a good argument," she says with a laugh, "I'll just call John McCain." And she will continue to be engaged with the issues she cares about "as long as I'm vertical."

That's one reason she wrote The Art Of Tough -- to capture what it's like to deal up close with the issues which define what kind of country we are. Another, of course, is to emphasize that individual voters must elect the leaders most likely to tackle those issues -- in November, Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump. And, beyond that, to participate in our public life as fully as they are able.

Knowing all she knows, would she advise young people to run for office? "Absolutely", she replies. But first they need to find issues they care about, and get involved -- "running for office is not about wanting to be something, but wanting to do something."

And so, she concludes, you have to carry the issues in your heart, not just your head. If you don't have that passion, don't run -- the job requires too much. But if you truly care that we have a government that serves people, not just special interests, elective office is an obvious place to be.

Her own life in public office holds a final lesson. 34 years ago, she won election to Congress on the slogan "Barbara Boxer gives a damn." She still does. So should we.

Addendum - As originally published, the above piece contained the phrase "angry Sanders partisans throwing chairs, charging the stage and cursing at speakers, including California's very liberal senator." The reference to "throwing chairs" was based upon the characterization of a video as reported in the New York Times and NPR and repeated on MSNBC. That reporting has since been questioned, and cannot be independently verified.

For this reason, I have deleted the reference to "throwing chairs", and regret any error involved.