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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW / Barbara Boxer : A 'Cockeyed Optimist' in the Ultimate Cynical Men's Club

August 08, 1993|Robert Scheer | Robert Scheer, a contributing editor to The Times, is writing a book about power in America

The junior senator from California, a half-year into the job, reports getting 10,000 letters a day, which Barbara Boxer says, with considerable pride, is "the most of any senator in history." It's not all favorable, but she takes the volume alone to be "a great sign."

You can take the former representative out of Marin County, but Boxer, 52, still believes in consciousness raising: "People can say, 'Barbara, everyone hates you,' and I can always see something great. What I see great is that they're talkative. They're writing to me, they're calling me. Sometimes, it's praise, sometimes, it's criticism. Sometimes, it's anger, sometimes, it's love. Across-the-board. We're making this connection."

Whatever one thinks of Boxer, there is a delicious irony in her now being a member of what remains, despite tokenism, the nation's stuffiest white male club. It was Boxer who was featured in the national media leading a charge of her female colleagues from the House to the door of the Senate, demanding to be heard on the Anita F. Hill matter. Now, less than two years later, she has settled in happily as a member of the gentlemen's club, elected Western Region Deputy Whip by Democratic senators, and appointed to key committees on banking, the budget and the environment. Don't get mad, get even.

Curled up in a chair in her San Francisco office with lace anklets and a no-nonsense pantsuit, she is ever a study in contrasts. At times shrill, she can even turn off the faithful, but a self-deprecating smile often seems only a long breath away. She can be emotional and a bit too quick with her opinions, as when she discussed immigration, but she was open to an alternative approach. She is a Clinton loyalist but seems on the brink of sternly denouncing his waffling on gays in the military.

Her enthusiasm for solving a long list of seemingly intractable problems, from stagnation in the California economy to the abortion issue, seems irrepressible. Maybe at times wrong, but never jaded, Boxer, who is married with two adult children, evidences an optimism not often found in one who has spent 10 years in the House and six years on the Marin County Board of Supervisors. She's worried about the future of the republic, feels the debt is close to unmanageable and suggests that the Eddie Murphy movie, "The Distinguished Gentlemen," is a fairly accurate picture of Capitol Hill politics. Still, she insists the Clinton program will lead to significant economic progress in the next few years and predicts that Dianne Feinstein, her Democratic colleague who is up for reelection next year, will face no serious obstacle.

"I'm always an optimist," she confesses, and why wouldn't she be when she delights in getting all that mail--any mail--but particularly the "really sincere sit-down-at-the-computer-and-tell-Barbara-what-you-think" kind. So keep those cards and letters coming.

*

Question: You expressed much enthusiasm about the prospects for change after your and the President's victory last fall--are you disappointed?

Answer: I knew it was going to be hard. I've been there for 10 years in Congress. I've seen the politics. I've heard the happy talk, telling people what they want to hear. So I can't say I was disappointed. You have to have a lot of patience when you're turning the ship of state.

Q: Some people detect a fatal flaw in Clinton's trying to be all things to all people, as opposed to you. I don't think anyone has ever criticized you for not being clear on what you stand for.

A: I don't see any fatal flaw. I see a man who's trying to change the country. He's trying to bring along with him as many people as he can. Now, one of the things I think is happening is that Bill Clinton is a very intelligent person, and he does a lot of his thinking out loud. We all listen to it.

Q: As co-chair of the Joint Congressional Committee on Military Conversion, you've emphasized saving the California economy by converting the defense industry: retraining, creating new jobs, stealth buses and so forth. Is it possible that this approach is doomed, the California economy is bloated and there is nothing wrong with its shrinking?

A: It will shrink. And it is shrinking.

Q: Might it not be good if people who came to the state for jobs left the state?

A: Some will. I think what we're trying to do is soften the blow. But when you transition from a military-based economy to a civilian-based economy and you don't pay any attention, as George Bush didn't, and the blow of base closures on top of it, there's just so much that can be absorbed.

If you could build a bomber, you could build a bus. We used to want to buy a lot of bombers. We had a big market for bombers. Now we have big markets for buses. And we really have very few companies in this country that build a bus from start to finish.

Q: But the history of efforts to get these companies converted is that while they are terribly good at making bombers, they are not good at making buses.

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