Penalty Boxer

California Sen. Barbara Boxer gets ripped for pointing out that Condoleezza Rice does not have military-age family members.

Published January 13, 2007 1:00AM (EST)

We've received more than a few e-mails today asking us to address the flap over California Sen. Barbara Boxer's comments to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday, regarding the familial price that the secretary will not be paying when a troop surge is deployed to Iraq.

"The issue is, who pays the price?" Boxer asked Rice, who was appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to discuss President Bush's strategic shift in the war in the Middle East. Boxer continued, "I'm not going to pay a personal price. My kids are too old and my grandchild is too young. You're not going to pay a particular price, as I understand it, with an immediate family. So who pays the price? The American military and their families."

When Rice responded that she understands what family members go through when they lose their sons and daughters in combat because she visits and talks to them, Boxer interrupted to say, "Madam Secretary, please. I know you feel terrible about it. That's not the point. I was making the case as to who pays the price for your decisions."

Reaction from right-wing media sources was fast and vicious. The Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post slapped a "Dem childless Condi slur" headline on its cover this morning, and featured an article referring to Boxer as "an appalling scold" and calling the exchange "breathtaking" in its "vapidity [and] sheer mindlessness." Murdoch's Fox News is airing affronted segments about what they are calling Boxer's "personal attack" on Rice, which they deemed "offensive to someone who doesn't have children." And the National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez classed the whole thing up with her blog post, headlined "The word I'm thinking of rhymes with witch," in which she commented, "When 'The View' loses Rosie, Barbara Boxer ought to take her seat at the catty table."

Other media watchdogs have also raised eyebrows at Boxer's comments. ABC's Jake Tapper wrote a blog post about the exchange in which he safely quotes a "female friend" (got that? A girl said it!) as observing, "Whether or not it hurt Rice really isn't the question -- it's whether it was hurled with the intent to harm or embarrass. We'll never know what was in Sen. Boxer's heart when she said it ... But it's a standard female psychological tactic that many of us recognize." I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with Tapper's female friend that it's a "standard female psychological tactic" to harm or embarrass another woman or political adversary by pointing out that she doesn't have immediate family that will be fighting in a war she's escalating. But maybe that's just me.

Here at Broadsheet, we have varying opinions on how to read Boxer's statements to Rice. Some of us feel that they were indeed a low, and offensive, attempt to capitalize on years of gutter speculation about Rice's childless, unmarried life, and that the implication that only women who are mothers can understand loss was an uncharacteristically antifeminist move on Boxer's part. Boxer is a notoriously savvy, and not particularly subtle, speaker. And there is a filter through which her comments could be understood as conveying: "I, a fertile and feeling woman, will not be sacrificing my offspring because they are grown and have naturally produced offspring of their own. You, a weird spinster with a barren womb, will sacrifice nothing because you have nothing to love or lose."

But others of us, including me, feel that the line of questioning was appropriate, and that Boxer's attempt to point out that neither of these two women, who play a part in making world-altering decisions about the American military, will be in a position to face the personal costs of those decisions was actually quite thoughtful. It seems as reasonable as Michael Moore asking members of Congress whether their children will enlist, or asking President Bush about whether or not he would send his daughters into combat. If Boxer had shied away from the point that neither she nor Rice had family members whose lives would be put at risk as a result of the choices they were discussing that day, simply because Rice is childless and too fragile to withstand someone pointing that out, then that would have been hinky in its own right.

In response to a call from Broadsheet asking about this matter, Sen. Boxer responded with a statement, that "I spoke the truth at the Committee hearing, which is that neither Secretary Rice nor I have family members that will pay the price for this escalation. My point was to focus attention on our military families who continue to sacrifice because this Administration has not developed a political solution to the situation in Iraq."

Whatever the case, it's worth pointing out that the news sources making the most hay out of this are, for the most part, right-leaning outlets that ordinarily don't spend a lot of time wringing their hands over the ill treatment of women. And this particular diversion might be a useful one to take the focus off the fact that Rice got a thumpin' in the Senate yesterday at the hands of lawmakers from both parties.

Update: Bolstering the suspicion that this story is a distraction tactic benefiting the administration as it gets whaled on, White House press secretary Tony Snow today recapped the Boxer-Rice exchange, explaining, "Here you've got a professional woman, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Barbara Boxer is sort of throwing little jabs because Condi doesn't have children, as if that means that she doesn't understand the concerns of parents." Snow also said, "I don't know if she was intentionally that tacky, but I do think it's outrageous."

Snow added that Boxer's comments were a "great leap backward for feminism." Because if there is anyone who knows what's good for feminism, it's Tony Snow and the George W. Bush administration.

Meanwhile, conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan has piled on Boxer, labelling her remarks "homophobic." Thanks, Andrew. I'm sure Secretary Rice appreciates your gracious and not-at-all incendiary defense.

And Rice herself has spoken to Fox News, opining, "I guess that means I don't have kids. Was that the purpose?...At the time I just found it a bit confusing, frankly, in retrospect. I thought single women had come further than that."

Update #2: Broadsheet letter writers have pointed out an obvious connection that I failed to make above. All of the huffing and puffing from right-wing media about Boxer's observations that Rice doesn't have any immediate family in the military is pretty hilarious, considering that in December, First Lady Laura Bush told People magazine that Rice probably wouldn't run for president, in part because she is single and has no immediate family. "Dr. Rice, who I think would be a really good candidate [for president], is not interested. Probably because she is single, her parents are no longer living, she's an only child. You need a very supportive family and supportive friends to have this job." So if Tony Snow was so ruffled by Boxer's comments yesterday that he called them "a great leap backward for feminism," how devastated must his feminist heart have been by the First Lady's earlier assertions?

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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Barbara Boxer D-calif. Broadsheet Iraq War