Former Senator Barbara Boxer

The former Senator discusses current events and her book, The Art of Tough: Fearlessly Facing Politics and Life.

Barbara Boxer has served in Congress for more than thirty years as both a congresswoman and a senator, Senator Boxer has proven herself to be a passionate advocate for significant issues of our time, including the military, civil rights, universal health care, and the environment. Now, retiring from the Senate, she continues the work to which she's dedicated 30 years in Congress. Her memoir, The Art of Tough, shares her provocative and touching recollections of service, and cements her commitment to the fight for women, families, quality, environmental protection, all in a peaceful world.

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Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

We saw the fireworks of James Comey’s testimony before the Senate, and shining light on what happened in his meeting with President Trump. Did he deliver enough evidence to amount to obstruction of justice in the Trump White House? Is there mounting evidence of abuse of power? Are his business interests being in risk of violation of the Emoluments Clause?

Tonight we look into this and more in a conversation with Barbara Boxer, who spent three decades as a lawmaker on Capitol Hill before retiring from the U.S. Senate earlier this year.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Barbara Boxer in just a moment.

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Tavis: Pleased to welcome back Barbara Boxer to this program. The lifelong Democrat and former Senator from this state of California retired in January after more than 30 years in Congress. Yet she remains committed to fighting for the causes she believes in. Her memoir “The Art of Tough: Fearlessly Facing Politics and Life” is out now in paperback.

Senator Boxer, good to have you back on this program.

Barbara Boxer: I’m so happy to be with you.

Tavis: Before I jump into what you’re doing, and your thoughts about what’s happening in the world, let me start with the person who took your seat in the Senate from California, now the only African — well, Cory Booker is there of course.

Barbara Boxer: Yes.

Tavis: From New Jersey.

Barbara Boxer: Yes.

Tavis: And Tim Scott is there from South Carolina.

Barbara Boxer: Correct.

Tavis: But she’s the only black woman in the United States Senate, Kamala Harris. And she made some news last week with some pretty tough questioning of Dan Coats and Rod Rosenstein.

What did you make of that questioning that she put on them last week?

Barbara Boxer: I was so proud of her.

Tavis: Yeah.

Barbara Boxer: You know, she’s trying to get to the bottom of a really big problem. What are they hiding in this administration? Where’s this whole connection with the election and Russia and Trump’s business? And, you know, trying to intimidate Comey and others. So she was tough, and they tried to cut her off.

And I just want to say, as a woman in politics for so long, unfortunately, that happens to women more than you can imagine. And she just refused to be intimidated. She stood her ground both times that she was questioning. And I thought — I was proud.

Tavis: Yeah.

Barbara Boxer: I was proud of her.

Tavis: I’m not naïve in asking this, but why does that happen to women more than we think it does?

Barbara Boxer: You know, the men that do this, they don’t even realize it. In the back of their mind I just think people who have power resent others who are trying to get some power. And it’s — I don’t get it, but it happens. It just does.

And we saw it with Anita Hill. We saw it with Elizabeth Warren when they said, you know, McConnell said — she was quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, and he — they stopped her. And he said, “She persisted in talking.” Well, that’s what you do as a senator. And they do it across the board to women.

I had it happen when I was told to sit down, when we were trying to get the very first person who was a lesbian into the government in the Bill Clinton days. They took down my words, because I quoted from a “San Francisco Chronicle” editorial in favor of Roberta Achtenberg, who was trying to become the Housing Secretary. We got her through, but in the course of that they actually tried to stop me.

So it goes on and on, and I think people are seeing it.

Tavis: Yeah. One more question about the hearing last week before we move on to some other issue here. And this happens of course to men and to women, because we saw this last week. What’s it like being a member of Congress when you are responsible for oversight, and you’re asking questions like Senator Harris did, and others for that matter? There was a litany of — a long list of members last week who asked questions, and they were essentially stonewalled.

Barbara Boxer: Yeah.

Tavis: Dan Coats just wouldn’t answer. Rod Rosenstein just wouldn’t answer. As a member of Congress, how do you engage your responsibility for oversight when these persons sit there in front of you and just won’t answer your questions?

Barbara Boxer: Well, in my book “The Art of Tough” I talk about how you have to be tough. You have to hold to your questions. You have to make sure the people watching understand you’re being stonewalled, and you never give up.

The most frustrating thing is you usually only have 5 to 7 minutes, Tavis. You know, we have a little longer here, so we can go into depth. So a member of Congress that is charged with oversight, who’s getting stonewalled, is really set back. But they have to utilize that time to make their point, and to expound on why they think there’s a stonewall, and then you can turn it around. But it does take a certain toughness not to just say, “Okay. I’ll take my marbles and go home.” You have to be just as tough as the person answering your questions, or I should say dodging your questions.

Tavis: Speaking of hearings, let me jump now to the hearings of James Comey. All the fireworks people were looking forward to last Thursday. I think he delivered on what people were expecting in terms of his shining a light on what happened in those meetings with President Trump. There is increasingly a number of high profile Americans, Americans of note and authority, those who know the system, who are saying that clearly now there is enough evidence of obstruction of justice. Do you agree with those persons?

Barbara Boxer: I would say there certainly are. We certainly have a roadmap toward that, you know? Because I’m not an attorney. It takes a certain kind of a look at this where you have to go to motivation. But the more we see it, it’s a very disturbing pattern. So I definitely think that there is some there there.

For example, you’re not just talking about firing Comey. You’re talking about firing Bharara, Preet Bharara.

Tavis: Who came out today.

Barbara Boxer: Yes, who said he felt…

Tavis: And said he believes there is enough evidence of obstruction.

Barbara Boxer: And he — but he felt very uncomfortable.

Tavis: Yeah.

Barbara Boxer: Because he said it was uncomfortable for him for the president to keep cozying up to him when he has the investigatory power. Then you had Sally Yates, who came to the president with open arms and said, “I’m really worried about Flynn’s contact with Russia.” She gets fired. Now Comey gets fired.

So to me, this pattern of intimidation adds up to, at the minimum, abuse of power.

Tavis: There are two Attorneys General in Washington and Maryland who have already filed suit, have said they’re going to file suit against the president and against the White House. So it seems like even outside of the halls of Congress the story is gaining some traction, getting legs.

Barbara Boxer: Tavis, I think they are looking at him enriching himself. I think those were the issues, the D.C. and the Maryland.

Tavis: Right.

Barbara Boxer: They’re saying he’s using his power to enrich himself.

Tavis: That’s correct.

Barbara Boxer: He didn’t give up this Trump Hotel. He’s taking money from all over the place. They’ve got all kinds of gifts, if you will, from China in terms of allowing their patents to go forward.

I am so glad that these Attorneys General are looking at this, because this is the — I’ve served with five presidents, three Republicans, two Democrats. You know that I’m a very strong Democrat since the Ronald Reagan days. I served with him. I never saw a president that I thought was in it for himself, to enrich himself, to enrich his family. I am stunned that there’s not more talk about looking at the Emoluments Clause. So I’m really happy to see there are attorneys outside who are going to sue on this point.

Tavis: Given his background it’s hard to imagine that there weren’t millions of fellow citizens who didn’t see the same thing that you have just acknowledged now. I mean, we saw this is who this guy has been his entire life.

Barbara Boxer: Yeah.

Tavis: And so you said you’re happy to see this now. Why didn’t the American people see this on Election Day? Why did your girl lose?

Barbara Boxer: Well…

Tavis: I don’t mean girl in the pejorative sense.

Barbara Boxer: No, I know.

Tavis: Yeah, I don’t want to be called on that.

Barbara Boxer: No, no.

Tavis: Why did Secretary Clinton lose?

Barbara Boxer: No, I’ll tell you. The reason Secretary Clinton lost is going to be volumes of books written about it.

Tavis: Starting with hers.

Barbara Boxer: I would say, yes. And I would say there were a number of factors that went into it, not the least of which is the electoral college, where she got 3 million more votes. And I think that’s never stated. And so she won, but she lost. And I think the reason is we Democrats took for granted a lot.

You know, when I — I worked every day of my life for one reason. Make life better for people. Make sure they had good jobs. Make sure they had good minimum wage. Make sure they could breathe clean air. Make sure that their rights were protected in the workplace. 99% of Democrats do this. But we took it for granted. And he was so outrageous. He insulted more than half the people.

And so I think, and I blame myself too. I was out there. I think that we focused too much on him, and thought that that was enough. And it was enough for her to win by 3 million, but in the Midwest, where they’re struggling, she had the plans, but we took it for granted. That’s my opinion.

Also, the dampening of the turnout in those swing states. I’ll tell you right now every time I ran my posts would come and say, “Barbara, I’ve got good news and bad news. What do you want first?” Bad news. The bad news is if there’s a low voter turnout, you’re toast, you know? The better news is if it’s medium, you’ve got a chance. And the great news is in a large turnout you win in a landslide. That’s the way it is for Democrats.

When our people stay home, Tavis, we lose. And in the Midwest they had a terrible turnout in those swing states, because people were depressed. They thought — they were confused on the email thing. They were confused on the WikiLeaks and a lot of the stuff that came out. It was, again, we have to write the book about it. But at the core of it, I think, we just didn’t get the message out to the Midwest.

Tavis: There are three or four things you’ve said I want to pick up on.

Barbara Boxer: Sure.

Tavis: Let me try to remember them. In no particular order, one, when you said that we focused too much on him, part of that we is clearly the media. And my audience knows I’ve talked about this, you know, ad infinitum in my disappointment in the way the media covered this campaign as we always do, like it’s a horse race. But it was so abundantly clear that he was getting so much free media it was unbelievable.

Barbara Boxer: Yeah.

Tavis: What did you make of the way he was regarded, treated by the press then, with the way they now turned on him a few months later?

Barbara Boxer: You know, I find it very hard to blame the media ever since Richard Nixon did it, and now Trump is doing it. So I don’t go there. It’s up to us, those of us who are running, to capture the imagination of everyone, including the media.

But you’re right. Look, he was so outrageous, and he had so many skeletons, that the media definitely played it.

But if I could talk about freedom of the press for a minute.

Tavis: Sure.

Barbara Boxer: Because when people say, “What worries you about this president?” I talk about this pattern of intimidation, the bullying, instead of the governing. But I also think the attack on the media that he has put out there, “The press is our enemy,” this is so dangerous. And when I speak, and now I speak all over the country, especially to young people, to corporate America, what I talk about is this. We’re in a very divisive time. We’re in an angry time. We can’t talk to each other. If you had been a big Trump supporter, you and I would be going at it now. It would not be so pleasant.

Tavis: You don’t have that problem with me.

Barbara Boxer: I understand.

Tavis: But I take your point though, yeah.

Barbara Boxer: And you don’t have that problem with me.

Tavis: Clearly.

Barbara Boxer: So look, we can argue about some small stuff, but on the big stuff…

Tavis: Yeah.

Barbara Boxer: So I started to think to myself, “How can we break through using ‘The Art of Tough’?” And one of the rules of “The Art of Tough” is don’t act out of anger. Try to persuade. Be tough like Kamala. Be tough, but don’t lose it.

So I did some research, and the great hero of America, one of the greats, George Washington, what did he think about freedom of the press? So I have — I brought one sentence. Would you let me read it?

Tavis: I certainly will.

Barbara Boxer: I’ll tell you why. This is a man who always wrote in the most longwinded fashion, who always was circumspect. Listen to what he said, “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led like sheep to the slaughter.” This is George Washington. And we have a president who is demeaning the press, who is in a war with the press, who calls it all fake news.

We are in a very serious time right now. And I am trying very much in my post-elected life to get out there, and not with anger, but with, I hope, some kind of reasonable approach. Win people over to understand that 2018 is the first time we can check and balance this man. And, you know, regardless of what happens, if somebody tries to impeach him, we have to just focus, I think, on 2018.

Tavis: You said earlier that we agree on most of the big things, and we do. And we could argue about some small things, but in the interest of time I won’t, because there’s other things I want to talk to you about.

Barbara Boxer: Sure.

Tavis: But one could ask, I think, a legitimate question whether or not the media set themselves up for this, whether or not they had it coming. The point is, with the issue I raised earlier, if they hadn’t given this guy so much free press, then maybe he wouldn’t have won, and maybe he would not be demeaning us, them now, the way that he is.

Barbara Boxer: Right.

Tavis: But I digress on that point. And I hear the point you’re making, and that’s a powerful quote from George Washington, so I’ll move on.

The other issue you raised I want to come back to is this question of how the Democrats play the hand that they’ve been dealt. And you’ve just raised now what opportunity the Democrats have come 2018. So last weekend Bernie Sanders, Senator Sanders, gave a big speech for the mini progressives meeting in Chicago. A lot of news media around that. And what he essentially said was we have to, you know, beat back Donald Trump, take back the White House, take back Congress in 2018. He gave the speech you expected him to give to a progressive.

The question is whether or not those progressives who are concerned that the party is starting to tilt — I saw a big piece in the “New York Time” about this today.

Barbara Boxer: Yeah.

Tavis: That the party is starting to tilt a little bit to the left, too much to the left for some people. And Democrats are worried that come 2018 they won’t be able to take back Congress if the party tilts too far to the left. And you’re a good progressive. When you hear that kind of conversation you think what?

Barbara Boxer: What I think…

Tavis: That you’re leaning too far left.

Barbara Boxer: Well, you know, we’re a big party.

Tavis: Yeah.

Barbara Boxer: So some will lean left, some will lean center, and some will lean right. And if we lose that, we’re going to lose. So we can’t turn on one another. So we go from left, to center, to a little bit right of center, just a little bit right of center. And to my view, we have to focus on the big questions. Why are we here? To make life better for people. That’s all it’s about.

Now, one part of the party might go one direction. One might go a little different direction. But we’re in it for the right reasons. So if we break up because of it, it would be a tragedy for the country. So we have to be willing, it seems to me, to work together on the things we can agree on, because we agree on 90%. It’s just around the edges. And that’s going to mean — if we’re going to turn to our people on the far left and say, “Bye-bye,” that’s ridiculous.

Tavis: Yeah.

Barbara Boxer: And if the far left turns to the people who are a little right of center and say, “We don’t want you,” I think it’s a big mistake.

Tavis: But I think you’re right, it’s a big mistake, but strategically therein lies the problem. You’re the expert here. They realize the problem, as you well know, that the folks on the left, many of those persons supported Bernie Sanders, think that whenever there is a sort of “Come to Jesus meeting,” the meeting is always held in the center, and increasingly held to the right of center. The meeting is never held to the left of center, so they continue to feel left out, disenfranchised, disavowed by the party. Isn’t that part of the problem? We saw that in the last election. We saw it in the convention, that the progressives, the left, always feel left out of the conversation and left out of any authority.

Barbara Boxer: Well, I just don’t view it that way.

Tavis: Okay.

Barbara Boxer: I really honestly don’t. I mean, we have Bernie Sanders, who’s a Democrat. We have Elizabeth Warren, who’s a Democrat. We have a number of Democrats who are a little left of center, and we have Democrats in the center, and a little bit to the right of center. If we hope to win, and make life better for people, best we get on with it. You’re never going to agree with someone 100% of the time. It just doesn’t happen. My family doesn’t agree with me. We’ve had a number of arguments over the years. “Ma, I can’t believe you’re not for legalizing marijuana,” you know?

Tavis: [laughs] Yeah, yeah.

Barbara Boxer: And we’ve had all these things go on. And, you know, I just think we can’t be stuck in our space. We have to work together. And I’m speaking as someone who is on the liberal wing of a party.

Tavis: Yeah.

Barbara Boxer: But we need to understand that on 99% of everything we’re together.

Tavis: But would you acknowledge to me though, would you agree Senator that it is a problem though? And I could, again, I could point to the speech that Bernie gave this weekend. I could point to the fight they had over who was going to lead the party ultimately. Mr. Perez obviously won that fight against congressman Keith Ellison. But you do admit that the Democrats do have — they’ve got some work to do…

Barbara Boxer: Yes.

Tavis: Between now and November 2018.

Barbara Boxer: Yes.

Tavis: Okay. Just asking.

Barbara Boxer: I agree 100%.

Tavis: Yeah.

Barbara Boxer: And all I’m trying to see is a way out of it.

Tavis: Right.

Barbara Boxer: Which is that we agree on 98% of the issues from the far left, probably, to the far right of our party, which is a tad right of center, if. And we just have to understand we can’t allow that to divide us. We just can’t.

And I could understand if in a primary you support one candidate over another. But after it’s over, we have to come together. I think it’s absolutely critical. We need to unite, because if we don’t, we’re going to lose everything.

Tavis: Yeah.

Barbara Boxer: There’s nothing guaranteed, nothing guaranteed. And you’ve got to fight for it.

Tavis: Yeah. A couple other issues while I have you here. So we’re hearing stories that President Trump now wants to sort of tighten the noose, if you will, on Cuba, where President Obama had a different take on that. Since you were on the Intelligence Committee, would that be a good strategy on his part or a bad strategy?

Barbara Boxer: Bad.

Tavis: Yeah.

Barbara Boxer: I mean, it just doesn’t make any sense. We can really have an influence there, and the best of ways are peoples. So it doesn’t make sense to me.

Tavis: Yeah. What is your sense at this point of his foreign policy agenda, to the extent you think he has a foreign policy agenda?

Barbara Boxer: He likes tyrants.

Tavis: Yeah. [laughs]

Barbara Boxer: I mean, I don’t know. I never met anyone that likes — he feels so comfortable with them.

Tavis: Yeah.

Barbara Boxer: And obviously I don’t think it’s good for this country. It’s just not. We have to lead people toward, you know, self-governance.

Tavis: On the intelligence front what most concerns you? Again, since you served for so long on that committee, what most concerns you about what his administration is doing or not doing, as it were?

Barbara Boxer: On the intelligence front?

Tavis: Uh huh.

Barbara Boxer: What is he doing on the intelligence front? You tell me.

Tavis: I don’t know that we are yet clear on what his agenda is vis-à-vis foreign policy. We know the havoc that he’s causing, but I — is it becoming clear to you what his foreign policy agenda is?

Barbara Boxer: Well, he certainly likes Putin.

Tavis: Yeah.

Barbara Boxer: I just don’t think he has a foreign policy. I don’t think he knows where he’s going.

Tavis: That’s what I was asking. That’s what I’m getting at, whether you think he even has it, yeah.

Barbara Boxer: He doesn’t know where he’s going, and it’s just — it’s worsened, to me. It’s like where can he sell, you know, America’s products? It seems to be leading him in that direction.

Tavis: You chose not to run for reelection. You could have. What is it you think you can do as a private citizen…

Barbara Boxer: Well, good question.

Tavis: That you couldn’t do in Congress?

Barbara Boxer: Well, I’m working to help other people get elected. It’s very rewarding. We are raising funds to take back the House, do our best to take back the Senate. And we’re having events all over the state, and some outside the state. And I’m volunteering for my political action committee, and I’m hopeful that we have this opportunity. Even in California we have a lot of seats we could take back, so we’re excited about that.

Tavis: Do you think it’s likely that Democrats can take back Congress in 2018 given where he is now?

Barbara Boxer: I think we have a real shot at the House.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Barbara Boxer: The Senate is a tough map.

Tavis: Yeah.

Barbara Boxer: But we have a good shot at the House, so we’re working very hard. And there’s so many women who want to run now.

Tavis: Yeah.

Barbara Boxer: It’s exciting. Thousands.

Tavis: Yeah.

Barbara Boxer: And they’re getting trained. So we have a shot.

Tavis: Yeah. I appreciate the work that you’re doing, and there are others who are doing similar work. But I’m concerned at times when I talk to people on the left who seem to have as their strategy that Donald Trump is ultimately going to implode, that he’s going to be impeached. I mean, if he doesn’t implode, and we saw him on the campaign trail. We thought he was going to implode every day.

Barbara Boxer: Right.

Tavis: And the guy won when it was all said and done.

Barbara Boxer: Right, right.

Tavis: So to those who think he’s going to implode, they think he’s going to be impeached, and they think that that is the best strategy, sort of like sit and wait, he’s going to do himself in, what do you say to those person?

Barbara Boxer: Bad strategy.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Barbara Boxer: We have to work to make life better for people. We have to bring the issues forward. He’s done nothing. He’s done nothing. And his budget isn’t going to go anywhere. So we need to focus on the House races, on the Senate races. We have to make 2018 a do or die year, and get ready for 2020. And if he gets impeached, he gets impeached. I wouldn’t focus on that.

Tavis: Yeah.

Barbara Boxer: You know, we have a lot of work to do. His budget is horrible. It hurts people. His environmental policy is awful. It hurts people. He doesn’t seem to really care. So we need to really focus where we can now on this election coming up, and we have a chance, I think, best at taking back the House. And that’s what I’m working on with my political action committee. I’m volunteering my time.

Tavis: Got a minute to go here. Let me close where we began this conversation. We were talking about your service, and that of now Kamala Harris, who has your seat, and you referenced a moment ago that there are women who want to run. What are the best reasons for women now more than ever to put themselves in the ring to run for office in 2018 and beyond?

Barbara Boxer: Well, for obvious reasons. We, you know, women are equal to men, equally good, equally bad. We should be equally part of every institution, you know, whatever it is. Whether it’s your business, or the business I gave my life to, the business of politics. I think women do bring a certain way of dealing with issues, a certain way of solving problems. S it’s an exciting moment. I think if they step forward in this next election we could make a difference.

Tavis: Yep. Her name, of course, is Barbara Boxer, and she served honorably for more than 30 years in Congress. Her book is now out in paperback. It’s called “The Art of Tough: Fearlessly Facing Politics and Life.” Senator Boxer, thank you for your service, and good to have you back on this program.

Barbara Boxer: Thanks so much. Great to be with you.

Tavis: My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

Tavis: Hi, I’m Tavis Smiley. Join me next time for a conversation with novelist and poet Sherman Alexie about his memoir “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” That’s next time. We’ll see you there.

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Last modified: June 15, 2017 at 6:51 pm