Friday, October 27, 2006

Senator Barbara Boxer Speaks at Claire de Lune

Promotes Book, Urges Votes for Democrats Nov. 7


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calfornia) spoke at the Claire de Lune coffeehouse in North Park October 19, ostensibly to promote and sign copies of the newly released paperback edition of her 2005 novel A Time to Run. But most of the people who attended and asked her questions weren’t interested in Boxer the novelist; they wanted to hear her talk about the Bush administration, whether Democrats will regain a majority in either house of Congress in the November 7 election, and what they might do differently if they did.

A Time to Run wasn’t Boxer’s first book. Shortly after her election to the U.S. Senate in 1992 — after an unusual race in which California’s other Senate seat was also open and she and Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic nominee for the other seat, coordinated their campaigns and cross-endorsed each other, which their Republican opponents couldn’t do because they had dramatically different positions on abortion — she wrote a nonfiction book called Strangers in the Senate. The book was a response to the hype surrounding 1992 as “The Year of the Woman” in the U.S. Senate. “We tripled our number of women Senators — from two to six,” Boxer ruefully noted.

The cover of A Time to Run contains Boxer’s name in large type and below it, much smaller, the name of her collaborator, Mary-Rose Hayes. Often that’s a giveaway that the celebrity author contributed little more than her name and maybe a basic idea, and the collaborator did most of the actual writing. Not this time, Boxer insisted. She said she spent five years working on A Time to Run solo “and still didn’t get it right, so I asked my publisher for a collaborator.” After Hayes came on board, it still took two more years to finish the book to Boxer’s satisfaction before it was published. Boxer cited Richard North Patterson as a favorite writer of hers in the thriller genre and a role model for the style of A Time to Run.

The book follows three friends — two women, one man — who meet in college and follow different paths, politically and personally, as their lives separate and then reunite on a collision course. “I wanted to explore why people become conservative or liberal,” Boxer explained. She noted that conservative critics had complained that the liberal character is the most likable one in the book and that she triumphs in the end. “Even in fiction they don’t want us to win!” she said.

Boxer read a short passage from the book that takes place on August 8, 1974, the night Richard Nixon announced his resignation from the presidency rather than face near-certain impeachment and removal from office over his role in the Watergate cover-up. “I wanted to set the book during Watergate because it’s when I got into politics,” Boxer explained, “but if any time since has reminded me of Watergate, it’s now. We have a President who lied us into a war and refuses to reconsider his policy.”

The questions Boxer faced from the audience ranged from the war in Iraq and the Democrats’ chances in this year’s election to concerns about computer voting systems and the erosion of civil liberties and due-process rights under the Bush administration and a Republican-dominated Congress. On the war, Boxer said, “Our military in Iraq cannot win this situation. We know from Bush’s own intelligence agencies that our presence in Iraq is a recruiting tool for the jihadists. The American people see this isn’t working.”

Boxer said the best possible outcome for Iraq is a constitution that divides the country into three “semi-autonomous regions” — Shi’ite Arab, Sunni Arab and Sunni Kurd — comparable to U.S. states, with the regional governments responsible for maintaining order and revenue from “oil and other resources distributed by the federal government.” She cited Sandra Mackey’s book The Reckoning, a history of Iraq that notes that the country was first founded in 1920 by the British, who were anxious to install a cooperative government that would allow British companies to run Iraq’s oil industry, and to forestall any unified resistance “they put together all the regions that hated each other” and called that “Iraq.”

Asked why only she and one other senator, Tom Harkin, supported the effort of senator Russ Feingold to censure President Bush for wiretapping U.S. citizens without legally required court warrants, Boxer said, “I’ve got news for you. Democrats are not perfect, but we have awakened. If you listen to us today, you’ll see a very different group of people.” She talked about how, under Republican control, Congress has become so toothless that during her tenure as national security adviser in Bush’s first term, Condoleeza Rice appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee exactly once to talk about the war in Iraq. Boxer recalled her confrontation with Rice, which made headlines nationwide: “I told her, ‘Your devotion to the President is overwhelming your commitment to truth.’ She said I was impugning her integrity. I wasn’t; I was just stating a demonstrable fact.”

When a long-term voter said that she was frightened at the extent of the loss of civil liberties and rights under the Bush administration, Boxer said, “You have every reason to be frightened, but you’re here, you’re with and you’re fighting back. People who sleep through this election deserve what they get. Under this new military tribunal bill, people can be held forever, even if they’re American citizens. They’ll just say, ‘Our information is that you’re not.’” Boxer expressed confidence that, even though the bill states that the federal courts no longer have jurisdiction over anyone the President declares to be an “enemy combatant,” the courts will find that unconstitutional and “give this guy his comeuppance,” but she stressed the importance of electing Democratic majorities in the House and Senate as the only effective way to start putting the brakes on the Bush administration.

“You don’t know the half of Abu Ghraib,” Boxer said. “I went into a secret room to look at the pictures that haven’t been released to the public. I didn’t want to. It was like going on a treadmill test. After 10 minutes I was completely beside myself and I had to leave. What’s happening to my country, to my people, that they could do this? They lost their way because the people at the top — President Bush, defense secretary Rumsfeld, attorney general Gonzalez — said the Geneva Conventions were ‘old’ and ‘quaint,’ that it’s a war and we can do what we want.”

The question on electronic voting came from a woman who had talked to other members of the audience before Boxer arrived and said she’d been an activist on the issue for some time. Boxer said that in California, at least, a rule made by former secretary of state Kevin Shelley and continued by his successor, Bruce McPherson, provided “that anyone who wants a paper ballot can have one. I think that’s very important. Plus we can vote by absentee,” in which case you get a paper ballot automatically. Earlier, however, the woman had expressed concern that San Diego County’s registrar of voters wasn’t ordering enough paper ballots for voters who wanted that option, and said in some precincts voters who don’t apply for absentee ballots might show up at the polls and have either to wait hours for paper ballots to arrive or to take their chances with the touch-screens.

“I think we should do away with all this electronic voting,” Boxer said. “It doesn’t make your life any easier. I love high-tech, but in this case we can’t make it work any better.” She said that she, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Congressmember Stephanie Tubbs-Jones had written a bill demanding that all voting machines used in federal elections leave a so-called “paper trail” — a written record of a vote the voter can examine to make sure the machine registered his or her intentions properly, and which could also be used for recounts — but the Republicans currently in control of both houses of Congress “won’t even hold a hearing on it.”

An audience member who’d seen the film Iraq for Sale asked Boxer how she would deal with the corruption and collusion between government officials and private companies documented in the film. “Money in politics is horrible,” Boxer said. “Ever since I’ve been politically aware I’ve been for public financing. There is no question that the government is for sale.” She cited the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which in order to satisfy the large pharmaceutical companies was written to prevent Medicare from using its purchasing power to bargain with drug companies for lower prices. “I win because I’m not afraid to stand up to them,” Boxer said. “I blame the special interests, but I also blame the people for not waking up to what’s going on. It’s why we don’t have affordable health care. … Complaining about corruption is O.K., but you also have to support the candidates who stand up to the special interests.”

Again and again, Boxer stressed the necessity of electing Democratic majorities in Congress as the only way to slow down the Bush administration and its agenda. “I’m focused on one thing: November 7,” she said. “The only way to check the President is to have a Congress that won’t be compliant, won’t be servile, and will do its job. … This is our challenge to take our country back. Whatever we have to do, we will do. Don’t think about 2008. Don’t think about the future. Think about November 7.”