Senator Barbara Boxer is known to speak her mind. Countless times in her career, she has spoken up where others have demurred, most famously in her hard-nosed grilling of Condoleezza Rice during her otherwise polite confirmation hearings. But the senator from California has been holding at least one card close to her chest: an ambition to write fiction. Fortunately, Boxer is as revealing on paper as she is in person. Her debut novel, A Time to Run, is a searching exploration of the private dramas that lie behind public political battles. "At last," wrote former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, "someone who really knows has written a terrific novel about what politics is really like."
If that is true, then politics is a decidedly personal business. In the first chapter of A Time to Run, a journalist gives Ellen Fischer, the newly-elected Senator from California, a folder of documents that provide potentially explosive information about the president's ultra-conservative Supreme Court nominee. As Ellen considers how to proceed, though, she recalls the history of her relationship with this particular journalist, which is as complex as it is long, reaching all the way back to her idealistic student days at Berkeley in the seventies. Greg Hunter was not only one of her and her future husband's closest friends, he was also her lover, if briefly, and later her husband's political enemy. Though the main characters are all players on the public stage, A Time to Run is as much about friendship and betrayal as it is about politics, demonstrating that it really is true: all politics is personal.
Senator Boxer is also, we're happy to report, quite personal in person. On her recent book tour, she took a few minutes out of her rigorous schedule to discuss her primary career as a US Senator as well as her new life as a debut novelist.
Farley: I know you spent several years working on this novel.
Boxer: Seven, to be exact. Start to finish.
Farley: I'm curious how long you have wanted to write fiction?
Boxer: Well, I love to write. Let's start there. I was a journalist in the early seventies. When I became active in politics, I was always in charge of press publicity. I worked for a congressman as his press secretary. I wrote some of his speeches. I wrote my own speeches. So I love to write nonfiction. I wrote a little nonfiction book just so I would have everything down and could remember what it was like to get to the senate. It's called Strangers in the Senate, and it's about women in the senate.
Then, in 1998 I had a really rough reelection. All kinds of crazy things were going on there with the press and my opponent, and it was so rough and tough. Clinton had been impeached by the House, and we were going to start the impeachment trial right after I was sworn in, which was a really unpleasant experience. Not the swearing in, that was pleasant, but the impeachment part. And I thought, you know, politics has gotten so harsh and difficult compared to when I had started.
So, I decided I wanted to write a novel, because I wanted to tell about it through dynamic characters, how they interacted, what makes them liberal or conservative, the role of the press, how politics is so personal, how it impacts personal relationships, and how personal relationships impact politics. I set about coming up with this premise about three friends who meet in college, how they are impacted by Watergate and Vietnam and how their lives get set on a collision course, and what happens.
I took that idea to a friend of mine who is a writer, Richard North Patterson. I love his books, he writes very good stories, but they are always set in a world that you want to know more about. Whether it's a courtroom, or whether it's a lawyer's office, or whether it's the oval office, you come away with a good story, and you know more about the world he's writing about. That's what I wanted to do, and he encouraged me. He even introduced me to his agent. Anyway, it's a longer story, but that's basically it. So I started to write the book.
Farley: Did you learn anything in particular when you switched from nonfiction to fiction?
Boxer: They're so different. I mean, writing in different voices, different perspectives? I wasn't very good at that at all. Once I got started I had to ask, well whose voice is this going to be in anyway? It was very challenging. But I loved doing the dialogue. And I loved doing the research, because, of course, I lived through all those times. But it's been awhile since Watergate. So I had to go back and read all the newspapers and listen to the music and find out what movies were playing: just set the stage.
Really, my book is really a love letter to the Bay Area, which I chose to be my home after I grew up in New York. It also gives you a real feel for Washington DC: the hang outs, where people go, what it's like to be a staffer. You know, what's the relationship like between Republican senators and Democratic senators? How does a bill become law? And all those kind of things.
Farley: I was struck by the character of Derelle, the abused girl that Ellen takes under her wing. I was curious if she was based on anyone in particular, and what experience you have with the Derelles of the world?
Boxer: Well, the relationship between Ellen and Derelle goes back to Ellen, who was a children's advocate. I have always so admired teachers. I have always so respected people who have tried to change the world one child at a time. When I was a young mom I volunteered in a very tough neighborhood in San Francisco as a mentor for at risk kids. I got tremendous pleasure out of it. And along the way in my career I met up with a young woman who set up a writing program for her students. It became an amazing success. I think she wrote a book about it, or they may have done a TV drama about it. This beautiful young woman and the change she made in these children's lives through writing. So, this is what I had in mind for Ellen. Ellen was someone I could have become but didn't. I chose something very different in my life. But—and this was really interesting—as my collaborator, Mary-Rose Hayes, and I went through Ellen's experiences with the children, she said to me, "We ought to develop one of those relationships." So we developed Derelle. She's made up, but Derelle is bits and pieces of a lot of people out there.
Farley: Derelle was a troubled young woman who had had a horrific childhood and had begun to act out violently. Unfortunately, hers is not an uncommon situation. But liberals and conservatives differ in how they perceive someone like Derelle, and how they think she can best be helped, and I was wondering if you'd be willing to comment.
Boxer: Well, Derelle was abused brutally, but with the help of Ellen she comes out of it. When we see her as a senate assistant as an adult, she's become quite an extraordinary woman who deserves a lot of respect. I would think that a liberal senator would say, Look at what happens if we have good programs that help our young people. And a conservative would say, Look, it just took a relationship with Ellen, just one straightforward good relationship to bring Derelle out of her misery and to make her productive, so we really don't need government programs. But I think what we showed about Derelle is she was saved by Ellen. And she never forgot it. And even though she carries the scars both physically and mentally, she becomes a very productive and incredibly important advisor to this senator who's dealing with a make-or-break decision on a Supreme Court nomination.
Farley: She's very shrewd.
Boxer: Yes, Derelle has street smarts. You know, I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, so I'm not exactly someone who grew up with a silver spoon. I went to public school my entire life. And I've seen kids who are rough and tough, and who have to be rough and tough to survive. There have been many stories about people who go through these tough years. Their life might take a terrible turn—they might head a gang or something. You know, they're brilliant and organized and everything else, but they go in the wrong direction. But if they get just a little bit of guidance and caring they can get pointed in the right direction, which she did.
Farley: But, excuse me, but aren't you arguing the conservative position. I mean Derelle only got headed in the right direction through her personal relationship with Ellen, not a government program.
Boxer: No, it was through a government program, through the university. If the university hadn't started the program and eventually gotten recognition and then funding Derelle wouldn't have had the chance to be helped. Now, Maybe Ellen would have stumbled across her just as a volunteer, but it would have been through a program. You wouldn't be able to find a child like that without a program. You don't just walk up to people and say, "Hi, little girl. You look unhappy. Can I help you?" You'd be arrested.
Farley: Conservatives also like to see social problems tackled by organizations, but they prefer churches to government programs.
Boxer: Yes, churches are very effective. But, in this case it was through a children's advocacy that was set up by the university, which is publicly funded. But there's no question it could be through a faith-based organization. There no question that the churches do a terrific job. But there's so much more to be done. There are so many kids in need. There are millions of kids who have nothing to do after school. That's why I wrote the first ever after-school law. But, we still need to do much more for our children.
Farley: For me, Derelle also brings up questions about judgment and responsibility. For someone who grows up in a bad situation and loses their way, at what point does society hold them responsible for their actions and seek punishment—the throw away the key mentality—and at what point does society try to redeem the individual. Brings to mind Tookie Williams, who did some terrible things, but seemed to have worked hard to redeem his life.
Boxer: Yes, to me that matters. To me that matters a lot. As a governor, if I had the responsibility, what I would have done is to have everyone whose life he touched—both bad and good—in front of me. Did he in fact stop others from violence? Did he in fact make a difference? And was taking his life going to make things worse or better? That's the big question. And I would have gone there. What Arnold Schwarzenegger said was he never admitted his crimes. To him that was the end of it, that was his measure. You can only have redemption when you admit your guilt. But he never went into what Williams did with his life. I would have gone into that.
Farley: Earlier you said that politics had become "brutal," and I wondered if you could elaborate on what you meant by that.
Boxer: I'll give you an example. I was on a news show and said I thought after the Iraqi election it was time to start redeploying our troops back home because the election was a marker that it's time for the Iraqi people to start protecting themselves. We have to start reducing our presence because our presence is fueling the insurgency. So the Republican National Committee took part of that quote, put it on an ad, and put a white flag over my head, like I am giving up, or surrendering. That is exactly what I'm talking about.
Farley: Instead of addressing the substance of your actual argument.
Boxer: Yes, instead of saying, Let's discuss this. And I would have said to them, it's a marker of success that there's an election there. But it's not a marker of success if we keep all our troops there when the Iraqi people don't want us there. And we could have debated that. But, that's the kind of thing that demonstrates what politics has turned into.
Farley: Do you think we're in some sort of cycle? Have we had this kind of brutality in politics before?
Boxer: It's always been on and off. But I think what's made it worse in the Senate is that when I came to the Senate there were eleven or so moderate, or liberal, Republicans. Now there are three. So, it's much harder to be bipartisan. You don't know where to go. I can get things done. I have friends there on the other side that, you know, come with me on certain issues. But it's way harder.
Farley: I think people are just so alarmed by the tenor of politics today.
Boxer: Well, one of the reasons I wanted to write a political novel was because I think it's a good way for people to start conversations about what's going on. I always say at my book signings, Buy one for your favorite Democrat, and buy one for your favorite Republican—if you've got one (most of them do). You know, better to start arguing over fiction. I think that in the book Ellen has a lot of respect for the opposition party. She doesn't agree with them; and she's pretty shrewd for a freshman senator with how she deals with this issue she's facing. But it's always with respect for all the parties involved. I think it's an important message, and it has to get out there. You don't have to be so filled with hate.
Farley: Well, the senate has a long history of reaching across the aisle. But it doesn't seem to be that way today.
Boxer: No, and it shouldn't be that way. But the Senate is less...hateful (laughs) than the House is right now. One of the reasons I left the House was Newt Gingrich. I saw the meanness when he came in, and I didn't want to be part of it.
Farley: Do you feel it's better where you are now?
Boxer: It's better. It's not as good as it used to be. But it's better.
Farley: Your story is at heart about friendship and betrayal and how those play out in politics. But it's also about a Supreme Court nominee, which is pretty good timing, since we seem to be gearing up for a fight over a second Supreme Court nominee, who, by the way, is pretty similar to the one you've portrayed in your book.
Boxer: Right. What I tried to show is the difficulties of some of these issues that look very simple from the outside. Why can't you just filibuster? Well, it takes forty-one votes to win, so you'd better know what you're doing. Don't just do something that may have ramifications that are terrible. You've got to play to win. You've got to be smart about it. If there's another way to get the job done, do it. You know, bring respect to the table. Be careful with information.
Farley: What do you mean?
Boxer: Well, as you know at the very beginning of the book Senator Ellen Fischer gets explosive information on the Supreme Court nominee, but she doesn't just deal with it in a second. She gives a lot of thought about how she is going to proceed. She's very careful. When you are dealing with issues that are sensitive and involve people, that involve the truth, you have to be careful.
Farley: One of the criticisms that I've read about Alito is coming from the Right, which is a bit ironic. There is some complaint that he's being so careful about what he says that he's essentially denying his core beliefs. Some conservatives have become frustrated and said, Hey, everyone knows what you believe about abortion. You'd think you were ashamed of yourself. Well, I'm not ashamed to be against abortion. Why not just come out and say what you really think? People will respect you for it. By holding his cards so close to his chest, some conservatives feel that he is implying that their beliefs are shameful.
Boxer: Yes. I mean, the more you know Alito the more you see who he really is. And he is trying to run away from who he is. But in my view it's kind of cynical because his answer is, When I wrote those things, I was just trying to get a job. Well, so that means that you didn't tell the truth. You're a lawyer, and you didn't tell the truth when you were filling out a form?
Farley: Right, and now you're looking for a new job and you're asking us to trust what you say in your job interview?
Boxer: That's the thing! It's very disturbing. But they look at what happened to Bork. You know, Bork was very up front, and they don't want to repeat that mistake. But this is such an important seat, because it's the Sandra Day O'Connor seat, which is the swing seat
Farley: The Republicans are being cautious perhaps in the way the Democrats were cautious about the Iraq vote. They'd been burned several times by not appearing hawkish enough, so they weren't really willing to come out and say what they felt.
Boxer: I think it's a very different matter. A vote to go to war is a vote of conscience. It's a very different issue. And there was no Democratic position on the war. It was really an individual's vote to make. Now, you're right, maybe some said, I'm going to be perceived as soft if I vote against this war. I'm sure that's true. But there was no Democratic position. A vote to go to war is not a party vote. Ever. It's never been and it never will be. People just make up their own minds.
A Supreme Court justice vote is a bit different because there's a paper trail. If you're a believer in civil rights, in human rights, in environmental protection, there's a paper trail. So if you care about those issues, you're pretty much going to make it a party vote.
Farley: So you think Supreme Court votes tend to be more along party lines?
Boxer: Well, it depends. A lot of times they've been unanimous votes on Supreme Court nominees, if the nominee is moderate and mainstream. If they're moderate and mainstream, they get a huge bipartisan vote. But if they're not, it's way different. And Alito is not a moderate. And he's not mainstream.
Books mentioned in this post