Sen. Barbara Boxer On Staying Tough In Washington

Thursday, June 23, 2016
By Maureen Cavanaugh, Michael Lipkin

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat who's become a California political institution, is retiring after 24 years in the U.S. Senate and 10 years in the House. And among the things she's leaving to posterity is her own advice on how to get important things done.

Boxer's memoir, "The Art of Tough: Fearlessly Facing Politics and Life," chronicles her childhood in Brooklyn, New York, activism in Marin County and how she became one of the most powerful senators in Washington, D.C.

She also details the names she's been called ("learning disabled," "dried-up prune" and "Frau Doctor Mengele") and the fights she's had in elected office.

Boxer joined KPBS Midday Edition on Thursday.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On her first run for political office in the 1970s

“(People) wrote letters to the editor and said I'd be abandoning my children and what was wrong with me. … I remember in that campaign, I actually cried when the next-door neighbor said something bad. Then I said (to myself), 'Hey, you know, if you're going to do this, you better toughen up.'"

On people who complain that all politicians are the same

“On its face, that's ridiculous. … You're always going to have to know that the person you support isn't perfect. So I feel that saying everyone's the same, I point to the Ralph Nader race, Gore vs. Bush, when Nader said there's no difference between Gore and Bush. And of course, President Bush led us into a horrific war, which will go down in history as a huge disaster that opened up a can of worms and worse in the Middle East that we'll deal with forever. (He) also took a balanced budget that was handed to him by Bill Clinton and destroyed it, and we went deep into debt and the housing crisis. So anyone who voted for Ralph Nader, and that led to George W. Bush's presidency instead of Al Gore, all they have to do is ask someone who has lost a loved one in the Iraq war or someone who lost their home.”

On “voting your conscience”

“You should vote your conscience, but I'm saying when it comes to the future of this country, don't waste your vote. … I'm saying you have to understand the reality. So yes, your conscience comes into play. But the result of what you do has to be paramount.”

On pushing for public hearings on sexual misconduct allegations against U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon

“I felt the wrath of Bob Dole and Mitch McConnell, and all I wanted was to have a fair hearing so that the women — more than 20 of them — could come forward and get on the record and explain what Bob Packwood had done to them. I wouldn't give up. And I'll tell you something, again the art of tough kicked in. People will try to shut you down. So Mitch McConnell sent a message through my colleague, Barbara Mikulski, and said if I continued he was going to go after my colleagues on the Democratic side. Well, I went up to him and I said, 'Are you threatening me?' And he said: 'No, I'm promising you.' It was pretty tough. And Bob Dole took to the floor and excoriated me and said I was a partisan. Well, I wasn't being a partisan. I was trying to find justice for these women. And I had, luckily for me, some wind at my back because a lot of my colleagues agreed with me and so did The New York Times. They wrote a terrific editorial and eventually Bob Packwood stepped down.”

On her strained relationship with Sen. Mitch McConnell

“We didn't talk to each other except for hi, how are you, goodbye. We did not work together for 20 years. I couldn't work with him because of what he had done in terms of threatening me, and he was so mad at me. So we really had no relationship until 2015, just a year ago, when we were in a very strange circumstance. We were the only two people essentially who could rescue the Highway Trust Fund and keep the transportation programs going. And with 60,000 bridges, you know, structurally deficient, and 50 percent of our roads not in good order, I think both of us decided to, if you will, forgive and come together. And we did. And it was the most miraculous thing. We got a great, five-year deal done and we made up and went out to dinner, and I bought him a tie that had bridges all over it and he bought me a Kentucky slugger baseball bat. And it was a fascinating end of a relationship.”

On her relationship with Bill Clinton during the 2008 election

“It was just not really having a relationship for a couple years because what happened was, when Hillary (Clinton) and Barack (Obama) ran against each other, she was like a sister to me and he was like a son. And I couldn't choose, so I stayed neutral. But Barack had promised to come to an event for my campaign, and I'm sure that Bill Clinton thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, I was helping Barack.’ But really he was helping me in that case. Look, I know he got really mad and he thought I was hurting Hillary, and I understand that because my husband still remembers the people that didn't support me in 1972. I’m not kidding. Because spouses take it really hard. And then after a while, we made up.”

On leaving the U.S. Senate

“Well, I want to come home to California. I want to work out of California. I will be working. I'm not leaving the scene. I won't be running for office, but I will be helping a lot of other people get elected. I will be giving advice when asked. I will be giving speeches and hope to work very much to empower young women and men who want a career in politics teach them what I’ve learned over all these years.”

On not endorsing Kamala Harris or Loretta Sanchez to replace her

“I'm leaving with a full heart in the knowledge that a strong Democratic woman will replace me in the United States Senate. I'm excited about that.

They are both my good friends. They've helped me throughout my career. But I have stated, if anyone gets out there and starts to come out with views that run counter to a progressive vision for our great state and our people, I'll get involved. But at this point, I am standing back.”

RELATED: Democrats Harris, Sanchez Advance To US Senate Runoff

On leaning toward supporting the legalization of recreational marijuana in California

“What I've come to realize is, if there's no regulation, people are using it, especially young people and there's no regulation. You don't know what additives are in there. You don't know what the strength is. It could make people sick. ... The issue that I'm working on (is) there has been an increase in traffic deaths in the states that have legalized (recreational marijuana). So I want to make sure that our initiative addresses this. I think it does, and I'll be talking to (California Highway Patrol) to see what they think about it.”

On singing limericks

“In the world in which most of us live — which is full of tension and difficulty and aggravation, as well as occasional joy — you have to have a sense of humor. And mine plays out through my interest in writing lyrics to songs or writing little limericks. … I actually had one great outcome where when I got to the House of Representatives in the ‘80s, (when) the women couldn't use the gym.

And so I wrote a song “Can't Everybody Use Your Gym” to the tune of “Five Foot, Two Eyes Of Blue.” And I got two female colleagues, Mary Rose Oakar and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, to sing it with me. And to make a long story short, we sang it for the caucus and they let us use the gym. So that was one great story. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to end wars or address climate change no matter how many words I wrote. But that one was successful.”