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The Last Liberal

Everywhere she goes, so goes The Box. About 4 inches high and sturdily constructed of varnished wood, The Box has strips of black sandpaper running across the top. If she wanted to, she could hit The Box with a running jump and still keep her footing.

What few people know is that she has not just one kind of Box, but two. Identical in appearance, there are the ones paid for with official government funds and there are the ones purchased by Friends of Barbara Boxer. Recently, when she was making an appearance at a Democratic-headquarters opening in West Hollywood, a couple of young volunteers in faded T-shirts and baggy shorts caused a commotion, shoving their way through a crowd of supporters, hoping to get The Box (the privately funded one) onto the platform before she started to speak. Meanwhile, the publicly owned Box was resting somewhere else, ready to elevate her at the next government function.

The thing is, she doesn't seem to much like The Box, is always hopping off it, as if she's convinced that it cramps her style, that without it she could be even more effective at reaching out to people. But even in serious heels, the 4-foot-11-inch Barbara Boxer has no choice but to use The Box.

"Can you see me?" the 57-year-old U.S. senator asks hopefully, standing alongside The Box on the carpeted dais of the L.A. Ballroom at the Century City Hotel.

"No!" shouts back the audience, made up of longtime constituents, a handful of left-wing-credentialed celebrities (Laura Dern, Tracey Ullman, a couple of Zappa family members) and some local politicians (Jackie Goldberg, Laura Chick, Sheila Kuehl), who now have a perfect view of a podium, a tuft of black hair and a bit of Boxer forehead. Just for a moment, the shoulders of her shell-pink linen suit rise up in a shrug. Then she climbs back up on The Box.

She's at an event that she likes, a fund-raiser luncheon she's been throwing for the past seven years called "Women Making History." Similar in spirit to the Lilith Fair (only without the beating sun and the belly rings), high-priced tickets are sold to a group of women (and a few men) who get to dress up, be together in one place and celebrate other females who are making a difference in a dude-dominated world.

Each year, "Women Making History" recognizes forerunners from a different profession. On this bright April afternoon - not surprisingly in an election year when she needs to raise real money - she's honoring stalwarts of show biz like director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) and producer Janet Yang (The People vs. Larry Flynt). Then comes writer Josefina Lopez. Josefina Who? "I can't believe that you know who I am," says the young woman in the gauzy lavender gown, who in a trembling voice talks movingly about how invisible she felt to the rest of the world when she was growing up poor and undocumented in Boyle Heights. The fact is that few here have any idea who she is or what she does in Hollywood (she wrote an award-winning play called Simply Maria, or The American Dream and has created three TV series, only they're all still in development), but her outpouring of gratitude is genuinely poignant. Now even these compulsive Hollywood meeting-takers have stopped picking at their damp Chinese-chicken salads and are weeping openly into their cloth napkins. Before Lopez makes it offstage, a wet-eyed Boxer leaps from The Box and embraces her. Then, hopping back on The Box, she leans into the microphone and, swallowing sobs, promises, "We're going to get through this today."

This day, an onlooker might be forgiven for assuming he had stumbled into a noontime estrogen bender. But the luncheon is the kind of rare, inclusive political event that Boxer is gifted at staging, one where the emotional distance between the candidate and her supporters becomes effectively nil. Even onstage, trapped atop The Box, she still seems fluent, comfortable, because Boxer the government servant is very like Boxer the woman, edged with steel, voluble on almost any topic, emotions flickering transparently on her face. Even those who dislike her - those who see her as a screechy hi-fi, set to a very liberal frequency - agree that she never pretends to be anyone other than who she is. In the past, the quality has been her greatest strength. This year it may well be her greatest liability.

"She's not a remote presence," says Sam Chapman, Boxer's chief of staff and a longtime colleague who has spent 20 years observing the effects of her style. "One of the things you notice is that a lot of people call her 'Barbara.' For many traditional kinds of senators, that would be unheard of. But she really has a relationship with people, and people feel that and believe that they have a personal relationship with her. You really pick that up at events, I think. It's like she's everyone's friend or neighbor."  

Six years ago, always being "Barbara" (as opposed to the kind who is willing to be all things to all people) was just one of the things Boxer had going for her. She'd just spent a decade in the House of Representatives, making a name for herself as a can't-shush-me liberal who wasn't about to let the Pentagon spend $7,622 on a coffee pot (which was the first and perhaps splashiest way that she let the boys in Congress know that she meant business). Also, it was 1992, a year with a popular Democrat at the top of the ticket, the famous "Year of the Woman," where being female was finally an asset.

At the "Women Making History" luncheon, as Boxer closes the proceedings by speaking about her upcoming bid for a second term in the Senate, everything she has to say about the tough fight ahead of her seems inconceivable, like shtick meant to pry loose generous contributions. Her re-election seems, if not guaranteed, at least reasonably certain. But by July a Field Poll will show cause for serious concern. For much of the time since then, she and her rival have been locked in a dead heat - even though no one seems to know much about 44-year-old Matt Fong, except that he's much more conservative than he feigns, has ties to Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and is the son of the popular Democratic former state Secretary Treasurer March Fong Eu, and that his most valuable attribute is his opaquely pleasant demeanor. As a stack of AP wire stories will tell you, this just doesn't seem to be the year for being liberal, female and not too good at being all things to all people. How else does one explain Fong's popularity?

"Women pay the price for taking strong positions - that's just how society is," says Bob Mulholland, the campaign adviser for the California Democratic Party, who says Fong is "wet toast" and "missing a spine" (and that's before Mulholland gets warmed up). "She's fought hard. You know a lot of men don't like a woman who stands up and demands things that are right for the rest of society."

But Mulholland won't even pretend to have patience for the growing numbers who are pessimistic about Boxer's chances of triumphing: "People just wet their pants over this stuff - they think the worst if there's even one cloud in the sky. A lot of these same people thought that Clinton wouldn't get elected in '92, thought that he wouldn't get re-elected in '96 because Jack Kemp was going to be Dole's running mate. Where the hell is Jack Kemp today? She's won every election since '76 - and she'll win this one."

To be sure, Mulholland's got Boxer's track record straight. Still, she's never been up against the opponent she's facing on Tuesday, who is, of course, not Matt Fong, but herself. "She's a woman, a liberal and she's from San Francisco," says a prominent Democratic consultant. "All these are problems to a degree a and they reinforce each other."

Her voice booms scratchily from the speaker box of her attorney son Doug Boxer's Santa Monica security condo. "I'll be out in five minutes," she says, not realizing that the volume is cranked up enough that her news is now common knowledge. On most weekends during the campaign, around this same early-morning hour, a baseball-capped Boxer can be found getting her daily exercise, a portrait of determined brow and pumping elbows as she power-walks to the ocean and back. Saturdays and Sundays are also when Boxer gets to see her labor-lawyer husband, Stewart Boxer, who flies down to Los Angeles from their home in Marin County.

"We never spend the weekends apart, because we like each other," says Boxer, who prefers her son's upstairs guest room to staying in a hotel. "It wasn't like, 'How can we make this marriage work?' It was like, 'How can we make sure that we see each other as much as we can?' So the system we have is that we're together on the weekend, and then non-election years he comes out one week a month to D.C., just to stay there so I don't have to go back. And then every break, I spend in California."

In interviews, one on one, Boxer has a tendency to fidget and squirm, avoiding eye contact as she strings together carefully worded answers that often sound as if she's bracing for an argument even when she doesn't have to. The subject of "Stew," however, is a different matter. Ask a question about her husband of more than 30 years and her demeanor alters significantly. "I thought he was really cute, and I thought, 'Ach, this is a guy that I want to go out with,'" she says, leaning in and getting right down to the girl talk as she details their chance meeting near the tennis courts at Brooklyn College, where he was enrolled as a prelaw student and she was studying economics. "Then one day I was playing tennis, which I could never do that well, and the ball went off the court" - Boxer makes a high, arcing gesture with her right hand - "and then he picked up the ball and made a wisecrack, like, 'Keep it on the court,' and then next thing you know we were dating, and a year after that we were engaged, and two years after that we were married. I was only 21. And believe me, it wasn't as easy as it sounds. I was young, you know?"  

She tells this story in mid-July, post-primary, sitting in the back seat of a rented blue Lumina driven by Vera deVera, one of Boxer's field representatives. Dressed in a black tweed pantsuit, with diamond studs glinting from her earlobes and a rope of Marge Simpson pearls around her neck, she looks every bit the U.S. senator right down to her ankles: Below that, Boxer remains steadfastly teenage. Having kicked off her shoes, she drapes her gray pantyhosed feet over any available piece of car furniture. Sometimes she presses them against the seat back in front of her, sometimes she rests them on a baby Igloo cooler on the floor. Often, when the Lumina pulls up to the curb for a campaign stop, she'll be holding up a pocket mirror and applying a fresh layer of brownish lipstick from the nub of a MAC tube while her tiny feet conduct a frantic search for her misplaced footwear.

On her first stop today, Boxer is given a tour of the newly built Long Beach Aquarium by the city's mayor, Beverly O'Neill. Because this is a key part of the Queensway Bay Project, and because Boxer helped O'Neill secure an EDA grant, plus the $40 million loan to finance the revitalization program, O'Neill and a handful of invited guests seem eager that the senator appreciate the end result. To follow Boxer as she is heading through the cool darkness of the building is to wonder where her energy comes from. Maybe it's just good campaigning at a time when the race is beginning to look less certain, maybe her heart has gone out to her amped-up guides, but she works hard at trying to match their level of enthusiasm as she is shown not just one glassed-in fish tank, but every single exhibit in the multilevel tourist attraction.

"Whoa!" she exclaims about the floating Australian sea horses and the Japanese spider crabs. "Whoa!" she says about the deep-sea diver's boots they have on display. "Senator, come stick your finger in the starfish," says Mayor O'Neill, and Boxer dutifully allows the spiny creature to fold up around her digit. Then, tour over, she gets back into the rental Lumina and - flip, flip - there go the shoes and off she is driven to Santa Ana, where uniformed cops will giddily demonstrate crime-fighting computer software, then it's on to a Friends of Barbara Boxer luncheon.

She was born and raised Jewish and lower-middle-class in a neighborhood near New York's Ebbets Field to Ira Levy, an accountant, and her Austria-born mother, Sophie. Barbara Boxer the Activist, however, sprang into being in Greenbrae, California, a year after she and Stew moved into the three-bedroom tract house where they still live. It was 1968, and Boxer dropped her 3-year-old son off at the home of another political mom, took her newborn daughter with her to then-presidential nominee Eugene McCarthy's campaign headquarters and volunteered her services. "I walked into this office with this little baby sleeping in this bag," she remembers, "and I said, 'I'd love to help, because I really care about this race.' And the woman, she was this really crusty lady, looks at me, looks at the baby and says, 'Can ya type?' And I said, 'Oh, yeah. I'm a great typist. I can take shorthand, too.' Pretty soon I was working a couple of days a week, writing press releases. And before you knew it, I became the press secretary of the whole operation. And that's how I got started, that's when I realized that I could communicate. Before that, I didn't know that I could."  

After that, she mastered every task, hauling candidates to campaign appearances, doing advance work. Still, despite her grassroots experience, when a spot on the county Board of Supervisors opened up in 1972, Boxer says, she ran "by default," after her husband was approached and declined. "He was the perfect profile. You know, a lawyer, a man and blah blah blah," she says. She still recalls her first public speaking engagement: "It was a county debate, and I was so frightened. I mean, I couldn't even find my voice. I managed to squeak by, but it was horrible." In the end, she lost, but by such a close margin that she was inspired to try again four years later and win.

While her stage fright vanished with experience, it has been more difficult for Boxer to get used to the mudslinging. Recently, Newt Gingrich and Fong mocked Boxer and her colleague U.S. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun at a $1,000-a-plate fund-raiser luncheon, targeting them as the "evil twin sisters" that they plan to beat on November 3. And while she claims, "I don't take any of it personally. Not even one iota," Fong's barb seems nevertheless to have left a sting. And why not? When you're a politician who never pretends to be anyone other than who you are, it is you who is being maligned, it's not just the political persona. "It's outrageous," she says, then pauses and stares out the car window at a brick wall. Having realized that she's running about 20 minutes early, Boxer has asked to be driven to a shady place, and there she sits in the rental Lumina, parked on a side street somewhere in Santa Ana, quietly stripping the label off a bottle of Crystal Geyser water. "After all these years in office, no one has ever called me evil," she says, finally. "So to me, it's not hurtful. But you do have to wonder, 'What is this guy trying to do?'

"These boys don't have much to say," she says. "I don't know what [Fong's] platform is. I don't know what he wants. Usually when people have nothing to say, they'll attack something else.

"I'm ready for it," says Boxer, who adds that when things get personal she might discuss them with one of her campaign staff, but never with her husband, who takes them very personally. "When I'm criticized, it bothers him. So the last thing I'd do was to say to him that I felt badly. Because he'd look at me and say, 'Then don't do this anymore. You could do 12 other things with your life.' He thinks this is a difficult and thankless thing to do. I don't agree with him. He just doesn't see the good things . . ." Her voice trails off.

Even if Boxer wins the upcoming election, she says, "This is my last time running for the Senate." After that, she doesn't know what she'll do. "There might be other elected offices - or maybe I'll become a teacher or a writer or have a radio talk show," says Boxer, who filed stories for Marin County's Pacific Sun newspaper in the '70s and worked the graveyard shift as a fill-in talk-show host on KGO. "You don't know in politics when your days will be up. It's up to someone else, not you. But I definitely see myself doing other things, because I've done other things and enjoyed them."

However willing she is to contemplate the civilian life, she still has the internal wiring of a career politician. Suddenly, something inside of Boxer tells her to glance at her wristwatch, the sight of which makes her snap upright. It's time for her next stop. "Let me put my shoes on," she says. Then out comes the MAC lipstick nub, and her feet start dancing around on the floor.

If any single person can be held accountable for Barbara Boxer's remarkable mid-campaign reversal in the polls, it is Bill Clinton, whose support the candidate once counted among her chief assets. Of all the Democratic candidates for the Senate running in all of this year's races, none has had to take quite as big a hit as Boxer for the president's conduct with Monica Lewinsky.

In part, that is because since Boxer was first elected to Congress in 1982 she has been a visible and outspoken advocate of women's issues, creating a series of vivid images many voters can click through in their minds like a living-room slide show: There she is, standing behind a flapping banner at the forefront of countless pro-choice rallies; there she is, angrily decrying Tailhook. There she is, alongside her old friend Pat Schroeder as they and five other congresswomen head grimly toward the Senate to demand a delay in the vote on the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas. There she is, on the Senate floor, the first to call for the resignation of dirty diarist Bob Packwood, the Republican former senator from Oregon.  

Another Boxer moment, though never illuminated by the flashing strobes of news photographers, is equally relevant. In 1994, at a ceremony held at the White House, Boxer's cherished second child, Nicole, married first lady Hillary Clinton's cherished younger brother, Tony. And so it was that Boxer didn't lose a daughter, but gained a son-in-law and decreased her degrees of separation from the Leader of the Free World by two. But maybe it would have been easier if Nicole had hooked up with a soap-opera star or a strawberry picker.

In the spring, just as Boxer's race began in earnest, the first strains of the Clinton-Lewinsky opera began to resound. There weren't many threads that connected Boxer's outrage over the previous sexual-harassment cases with the president's well-publicized adultery (where were the victims charging misconduct?). Nevertheless, she was expected to have an opinion on the case. And that's when things got tricky. Would you want forever to put a pall on the family get-togethers because you pointed a finger at your daughter's sister-in-law's husband before you were 100 percent sure you had good reason? Still, she had to know that those vivid images were popping up in the minds of the people - or at least in the minds of Republicans, who could twist her silence on the subject, taking it to mean that she held men of the opposing party to one standard and Democratic men to another. And, of course, there were the media.

In late May, at the DC3 restaurant, adjacent to Santa Monica Airport's Museum of Flying, for example, Boxer was hosting a cocktail reception for the first lady. She was grinning as she strode into the upstairs anteroom, where a handful of journalists and a TV crew gathered for a quick press conference.

"Any questions?" she asked, after which an uncomfortable silence filled the room.

"I guess I'll start," a television reporter finally piped up, then asked Boxer what she thought about the president and his erstwhile intern. Boxer's mouth tightened a little bit, but by the time she'd finished aiming her brown eyes into the camera and deflecting, saying, "I'm a United States senator of California, and my whole function is to fight for the people I represent . . .," her smile was back.

She was getting on a roll, fielding queries about the then-undecided primary, even holding forth about the upcoming millennium, of all things. So when a cub reporter in rumpled khakis stood up from his folding chair, she beamed at him, giving him one of her direct looks so that he knew he had her full attention.

"You're pretty much an unabashed supporter of President Clinton," he said, pen poised over his note pad. "But what about Kenneth Starr?"

On that day, she seemed frustrated by the follow-up query, not knowing that in the months to come facing down only a couple of Clinton questions would begin to seem like a pleasure. Even now, she hasn't learned to fully mask her vexation as she fights to get her message out to newspeople who show up at her public appearances only to piggyback on the national scandal, to use her as a local hook. No one asks about her five-point education plan or her Health Insurance Patient's Bill of Rights or her opposition to new offshore drilling or her support of the ban on junk guns and copycat assault weapons. She doesn't even get to talk about her 1996 amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act that requires the EPA to set drinking-water standards to protect children - or how Matt Fong wants to roll back the national environment laws.

In September, with media interest showing no sign of abating and polls indicating that Californians wanted a more definitive response from their senator, Boxer got up on the Senate floor and pronounced the president's infidelity "wrong," "indefensible" and "immoral." But the criticism continued. To her detractors, the adjectives had not been harsh enough; for Clinton fans they were too harsh - this despite her having gift-wrapped her statement in praise for all that our president has done that is good. Even The New York Times' Maureen Dowd chimed in on this one: "Concerned with saving her political skin" was how Dowd put it.

The Lewinsky scandal presented Boxer with a classic political Catch-22. Had she stepped up her criticism of Clinton, she would have seemed uncharacteristically opportunistic. Had she attempted to explain why l'affaire Lewinsky wasn't parallel to the nonconsensual meanderings of Packwood and Thomas, she would only have ensured that the media would bombard her with even more questions. Once the story broke, she had nowhere to go; thwarted from discussing the issues she wanted to discuss, compelled to confront a herd of reporters whose only real question was whether Barbara Boxer had a double standard, condemned by circumstance to wage a no-win contest with herself.  

Another month, another poll. In mid-October, after months of alarming numbers - including a September poll that showed Boxer down five points with likely voters - the news is encouraging. She is now up by five among those same voters. The constant barrage of Clinton questions has dwindled. But the endgame remains, and for a politician whose approval rating has seldom risen above 50 percent, it will be crucial.

In the final analysis, Boxer's prospects may rise or fall on her ability to redirect the attention of the voters, to shift the focus from herself to things like gun control and abortion, those "year of the woman" issues that served her so well in 1992. Not only that, she must also remind Californians that the election is not a Boxer referendum but rather a race between herself and a conservative Republican opponent. Because Fong has been reluctant to state strong positions, she's having to state them for him, airing endless television commercials that specify his voting record and opinions. And if voters get more exposure to Fong himself, well, that would be Boxer's dream come true. "He's not ready for prime time, there's no question about it," says veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, who had the opportunity to assess Fong's abilities as a campaigner at the August Fong-Boxer debate. (During the hour, Fong's eyes anxiously scanned the notes he'd brought with him, often he stammered. And then there was the pose he kept striking: cocking his head to one side and crossing his arms over his chest, eyeglasses clutched in one hand. No doubt he meant to project a dignified air of skepticism, instead he looked as if he were vogueing, only without the irony.) "I think they'd be better off continuing to run him around with Danny Quayle and Steve Forbes," says Carrick, "hiding him behind big Republican personalities."

On an early Saturday morning in September, Boxer heads to a barren space next to the Collar and Leash in a strip mall on Santa Monica Boulevard. Prior to her arrival, a huge throng of senior citizens and men in shorts, Doc Martens and tight T-shirts have gathered to officially inaugurate the new West Hollywood Democratic Headquarters. Red, white and blue crepe-paper streamers hang from the ceiling, which is really just a lattice of metal frames that once held white acoustic tile. Toward the back of the room is a freshly erected wooden stage, perpendicular to which is a long table covered with bagels and coffee urns. The noise is deafening.

Even so, it gets louder when Boxer finally arrives. Here, it's a little easier than usual to find her, too, since for once she's not the shortest person among the large elderly turnout. First, West Hollywood Mayor Steve Martin warms up the proceedings, then Democratic Party chairman Art Torres and Sharon Davis, Gray Davis' wife.

But all this is just political foreplay; what these people are waiting for is the U.S. senator in the dark-green pantsuit, pearl earrings and the veil of fruity perfume to get up on The Box. She has just come from the beach, where she and young children collected trash off the sand, and where reporters quizzed her endlessly about Clinton. But now she is on friendlier turf, and as she heads toward the podium, the expression on her face says that she knows this is where she gets to use her 10 minutes as she wants. She rags on the media. She ticks off her accomplishments while in the Senate. She rails against Matt Fong's stance, just as she is supposed to, explaining how he is endorsed by the California chapter of the National Rifle Association, how he is anti-minimum wage and pro- Star Wars, how he believes that Roe vs. Wade was wrongly decided and the courts should dismantle it.

By the time she gets to Fong on the environment, it's obvious that she owns the house. "Matt Fong says there's too much enforcement of the Clean Water Act," she bellows to be heard over the jeers and the laughter. "Now in my 22 years of elected life, NO ONE has ever come up to me and said, 'Barbara, we have to talk,' and taken me off to the corner and said, 'There's too much enforcement of that Clean Water Act. The water is TOO CLEAN . . . it's TOO SAFE TO DRINK . . . DO SOMETHING, BARBARA. PLEASE!!'" She delivers this last line pleadingly, milking it for every drop of comic absurdity. She keeps going until the clock runs out on her, then leaves the room as 150 fans chant, "Bar-BRAH, Bar-BRAH, Bar-BRAH."  

But within minutes, the glow has left her cheeks, and the stark realities of the campaign again become apparent. Near a back entrance, she is surrounded by a clutch of journalists who've assembled for a press conference, however makeshift it might be. Because the program is still continuing loudly, everyone is inches away, hovering over Boxer with microphones and tape recorders.

"Your favorite question," starts a petite, blue-jeaned CNN reporter, who as the camera behind her begins to whir wants to know if Boxer plans to tune in to Clinton's Supreme Court testimony. "Regarding the release of the tapes on Monday morning. Do you plan to watch it?"

In a split second, Boxer has stiffened, grimly parsing out a response, which is, basically, "No, I don't."

From a newsperson's perspective, it's not much of a quote, and the CNN reporter, knowing this, dips her microphone back toward Boxer's pursed lips and soldiers ahead.

"Be that as it may," she says, and structures a query that manages to neatly mention the Starr Report and the subsequent release of the additional 2,800 pages, and give Boxer a second chance at a quality soundbite.

But Boxer isn't biting. "Well, dear," she says, reaching out and grabbing the reporter's microphone-toting forearm with both of her hands in a manner that is somehow both motherly and don't-mess-with-me. Like it or not; like her or not, it is a Barbara Boxer moment. "You can watch the tapes when they're released. I'm a legislator, not a commentator. And I'm going to do my work."

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