Updated: Jan 4
June 4, 2016
WASHINGTON — Sen. Barbara Boxer and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have something big in common. Boxer’s grandson is Clinton’s nephew, a connection that gives the retiring California Democrat a singular perspective on her party’s front-runner for the presidential nomination as Clinton heads into Tuesday’s California primary against rival Bernie Sanders.
There were family weekends at Camp David during Bill Clinton’s presidency, birthdays on the White House lawn, a tough divorce between Boxer’s daughter Nicole and Clinton’s brother Tony Rodham, and continuing visits from both families, including the secretary of state, at soccer and football games.
In between all that was an awkward three-year chill between the former president and Boxer that started in 2007, when then-candidate Barack Obama appeared at a Boxer fundraiser in San Francisco.
“From that moment on and for a long time afterward, President Clinton didn’t speak to me,” Boxer said in her third book, “The Art of Tough,” which Boxer describes as a “no-punches-pulled personal memoir” of her four decades in political office, from Marin County supervisor to House member to California senator. The two have long since put that behind them, and Boxer is now a vocal Hillary Clinton supporter.
Focusing on issues
One of Boxer’s key rules, she said, is to always be herself, to be authentic, even when subjected to ridicule, of which Boxer has seen plenty. Authenticity is a trait Boxer seems to exhibit naturally. It’s one her friend Hillary Clinton does not.
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 26: U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) (L) appears with host Julie Mason on SiriusXM's Leading Ladies at SiriusXM Studio on May 26, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images for SiriusXM)
Clinton in her public appearances often comes off as scripted, especially compared with Sanders, a Vermont senator who appears refreshingly blunt, or presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, who follows no apparent script whatsoever.
“Hillary Clinton is authentic,” Boxer said in a recent telephone interview. “Her authenticity is the fact that she’s not a natural politician.
“She’s wonderful one on one. This is how she is. When she’s in a larger group, she’s serious. She gets right to the issues.”
Boxer writes that her complicated relationship with the Clintons began in earnest right before Boxer’s first election to the Senate in 1992. Her daughter Nicole had met Tony Rodham, Hillary Clinton’s youngest brother, at a post-convention bash in East Hampton, N.Y.
As she was setting up her Senate office in Washington, Boxer said later, Rodham called her to ask for her daughter’s phone number.
“Next thing I knew, my daughter was dating the first lady’s brother,” Boxer wrote. The pair married in the Rose Garden on May 28, 1994, “after a whirlwind romance, the first wedding in the White House since Tricia Nixon married Edward Cox in 1971.”
“Nicole and Tony’s marriage brought the Clintons and the Boxers together in unusual ways,” Boxer wrote. “We were part of the family now, so Stewart (Boxer’s husband) and I joined Bill, Hillary, Nicole and Tony at Camp David on several weekends.”
Child binds families
Boxer wrote that she “came to know Hillary Rodham Clinton as a powerful intellectual force with street smarts and a sense of humor that came at unexpected moments.”
Tony and Nicole Rodham’s son Zachary was born in 1995, Boxer’s first grandchild. In January 2015, when Boxer announced her retirement in an unusual YouTube video filmed at her Rancho Mirage home, it was Zachary, then 19, who interviewed “Grandma” to explain why she was stepping down.
In her book, Boxer cited the “awful” chore of fundraising as a big reason for her decision to retire.
Nicole and Tony Rodham divorced after seven years, a split that Boxer wrote was “really, really, really hard,” for the couple and the two families, “united together and then blown apart, without a history of divorce on either side.”
Boxer wrote she “just tried to completely seal it off from my job. And I believe Bill and Hillary did the same thing ... our relationship became all work after the divorce, though Hillary and I would talk about what was best for Zach, as any aunt and grandmother would. Even so, it was awkward for my relationship with a president and first lady whose work I so admired, and whose friendship I cherish.”
In 2005, Obama arrived in Washington as a newly elected senator, landing on two committees — Foreign Relations and Environment and Public Works — on which Boxer also held seats.
Obama “made you see the issues just a little bit differently and he challenged your assumptions,” Boxer wrote. “I remember working with him, but more than that, I remember watching him. ... I remember he tried to bridge both sides, find common ground, all the time. ... I also found Barack to be kind of an old soul. ...We had an easy relationship.”
She describes in her book how Obama took her aside on the Senate floor and shocked her by saying he was thinking about running for president.
“‘You know Hillary is running and she’s going to win,’” Boxer said she told Obama. “‘She’s a wonderful candidate. She’s organized. Have you thought that maybe this isn’t the best time for you to do this? It’s early. You’re young.’ My voice trailed off.”
Presented with “an impossible choice,” Boxer wrote, she decided to handle it by refusing to campaign for either Obama or Clinton. But nine days after Obama announced his candidacy, he appeared at a major fundraiser for Boxer in San Francisco. Boxer explains in her book that he insisted, because he’d given his word to her to appear, even though her Senate re-election race was still three years away. She said she was glad he came.
“My friends and supporters in San Francisco loved him,” she wrote.
The Clintons did not. “I tried to explain (to them) that this was just a follow-through commitment he’d made to me before the primary campaign began,” Boxer wrote, “but I’m pretty sure they didn’t believe me.”
After that, President Clinton had “maybe a ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ when it was unavoidable, but that was it,” Boxer wrote. “The big chill.”
The 2010 election turned out to be tough for incumbent Democrats, including Boxer, who faced Carly Fiorina. President Clinton “went all over the country for everyone else — but not for me,” she wrote. She said she understood, because she “failed to support his wife in 2007, when she was in what turned out to be a tough and ultimately losing campaign for the nomination.”
Boxer said the “ice broke” after 2010. “I was so relieved,” she wrote. “I was never angry at Bill. Loyalty is loyalty to him. He’s tough and I respect it, and never took it personally. But that’s being tough too.”
“In contrast,” she said, Obama left a message on her cell phone thanking her for staying out of his race with Hillary Clinton. “He told me that he understood how tough that was for me, and that he appreciated it. I never deleted that message and have it still.”
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead