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Boxer's Match

On one morning, in one Capitol Hill hearing room, two senators from one state displayed starkly different approaches to handling the powerful of Washington. The occasion was the confirmation hearing of Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush's pick to replace Colin Powell as secretary of state. Senator Barbara Boxer confronted her; Senator Dianne Feinstein coddled her. The respective performances of California's two U.S. senators - both Democrats - illuminated a divide in Washington. There are those in town who participate in and preside over the clubby atmosphere of a Washington establishment that fosters a we're-all-honorable-men-and-women conceit. And there are those who realize that governments don't make bad policies, people do, and that such officials - especially when they engage in dishonest policymaking - do not deserve respect or hors d'oeuvres.

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To read Judith Lewis' article about Rice's confirmation hearings, click here.

To read Erin Aubrey Kaplan's article about Rice, click here. When Rice came before the Senate foreign-affairs committee, Boxer showed that on this day she cared more for policy and politics - perhaps even for truth - than for the faux politeness that animates many of Washington's official spectacles. Feinstein, however, demonstrated an allegiance to personal bonds, not to holding government leaders accountable for their missteps and misdeeds. In a way, the two reflected alternative modes of opposition available to the Democrats: Kick the GOPers whenever possible and afford them and their agenda not a scintilla of respect, or agree to disagree and confront the Republicans when practical without challenging their motives, intent or character. Boxer's grilling of Rice - that is, the reasonable and forceful sort of questioning that passes for a grilling in Washington - drew much notice. So let's start with Feinstein. The hearing began with Feinstein introducing Rice. It is often customary for a senator from the home state of an appointee to escort him or her to a confirmation hearing and say kind words, even if the two hail from opposing parties. (Rice grew up in Birmingham; after serving as a professor and provost at Stanford, she considers herself a Californian.) But DiFi did more than provide Rice, a friend, a senatorial courtesy. She gushed like Old Faithful. She informed the senators on the committee that Rice had been a brilliant 3-year-old, a piano-playing child prodigy, that her father had called her "Little Star," that the first President Bush, for whom Rice had worked, considered her "brilliant," that she has "the skill, the judgment, and the poise and leadership to lead in these difficult times," that she is a "remarkable woman," and that as a young girl she stood before the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and told her father, "Daddy, I'm barred out of there now because of the color of my skin, but one day I'll be in that house." Feinstein observed, "If Dr. Rice's past performance is any indication . . . we can rest easy." No mention of Iraq, not a whisper about WMD. It's not that Feinstein has been a Bush backer since the invasion. Last October - after Charles Duelfer, the administration's WMD hunter, released a report noting that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction and no active WMD programs before the war - Feinstein declared, "Considering the statements that were being made by the administration [prior to the war] and the intelligence that was presented to the Congress which said otherwise, this is quite disturbing and points once again to failures in the analysis, collection and use of intelligence." But who was a co-conspirator in this "disturbing" effort that misused intelligence and produced false administration statements? National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. She led the phony WMD charge. For instance, Rice claimed the administration had solid evidence that Saddam Hussein had revived his nuclear-weapons program when intelligence analysts were in disagreement over this information. She also made comments suggesting that Hussein was in cahoots with al Qaeda, even though the administration possessed no evidence of any alliance. If Feinstein was disturbed by the absence of WMD, why was she not disturbed by the role her pal played in this disturbing episode? Feinstein spoke more about what Rice did at Stanford - Feinstein's alma mater - than what she had done at the White House these past four years. She gave Rice a pass. She told the San Francisco Chronicle that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - not Rice - is responsible for the mess in Iraq. Boxer was not swayed by Rice's supposed charm. She walloped Rice for participating in the White House's cynical effort to use a trumped-up WMD case to sell the war. An angry Boxer confronted Rice with uttering contradictory statements about Iraq and nuclear weapons after the invasion. Rice replied with controlled indignation: "I would hope that we can have this conversation . . . without impugning my credibility or integrity." Boxer replied, "I'm not. I'm just quoting what you said." But in a way, she was challenging Rice's honor, and Boxer might have justifiably said, "Come to think of it, I am impugning your credibility." The next day, she pressed Rice further. Boxer challenged Rice's prewar exaggerations about the alleged connection between Hussein and al Qaeda and Hussein's (nonexistent) nuclear-weapons program. On the latter point in particular, Boxer clearly showed that Rice had doled out falsehoods. She accused Rice of providing the public only half-truths and of "gaming the American people . . . because the mission - the zeal of selling the war - was so important." Boxer could have gone further. She could have questioned Rice on her key role in the controversy stemming from the administration's use of the unproven charge that Hussein had tried to purchase uranium in Niger. She could have asked why Rice did not ensure that adequate plans for the post-invasion period were crafted before the invasion. But she had only so much time. Rice was bruised by Boxer - though not nearly enough to threaten her confirmation. Shortly after Boxer finished with Rice, all the Democrats on the committee - with the exception of her and John Kerry - voted in favor of Rice's appointment. Political commentators have pointed to Boxer's recent 20-point re-election win and her lone vote in the Senate against certifying the Electoral College vote (due to irregularities in Ohio) as signs that she is now free to position herself aggressively as one of the leading liberals of the Senate. That may be so. But Boxer demonstrated a willingness to ignore the collegial niceties of institutional Washington and to raise impolite and inconvenient questions. And, after all, what's wrong with impugning the credibility of someone who you believe misled the nation into war? If a legislator holds such a belief, isn't it his or her responsibility to pursue the matter? On Fox News, Feinstein was asked if Boxer went too far. "I'm not going to comment on that," she said. "Each one of us, you know, marches to the sound of our own drummer. And each one of us has strong feelings on various issues from time to time, and sometimes all the time." This is indeed a difference. Feinstein was listening to a drumbeat (perhaps the rhythm of the Stanford fight song). Boxer was creating a drumbeat. Democrats ought to be able to figure out who set the better example.

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