Barbara Boxer lived up to her surname and pulled no punches once she got the soon-to-be secretary of state up against the rhetorical ropes.
The fiery senator from California pressured Condoleezza Rice relentlessly Tuesday. The men of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sat back like ringsiders watching a cat fight more captivating than the female boxing film hit of the moment, "Million Dollar Baby."
Not even Sen. John Kerry's measured emergence from his postelection cocoon approached the tension level of the confrontation between the combative Democratic senator who'd voted against authorizing the Iraq war, and the national security adviser. Boxer lacerated Rice for telling the nation everything was going as planned, that no more troops were needed, that we had a plan for every contingency, and oh yes, Saddam had the nukes, the WMD, the ties to al-Qaida, and anything else you needed to hear to be persuaded this folly was a good idea.
Kerry replayed his bill of particulars against the conduct of the war, after an election he lost largely because he could not explain why he voted for it at first and then soured on its outcome. Like too many of Kerry's speeches about Iraq, it was long, detailed, thoughtful, serious, well-informed after a recent trip through the Middle East, but a bit windy, and ultimately too nuanced to carry the day and dominate the news cycle.
Not so Battlin' Barbara. While her fellow Democrats more or less meekly held her coat, she let fly with scorching challenges to Bush's policies and Rice's rationalizations. Male politicians are severely handicapped when it comes to challenging women in public, whether in a political debate or during a highly charged congressional hearing. They all remember how some of the senators who grilled Anita Hill during the bloody and unedifying Clarence Thomas hearings damaged male members of both parties. Boxer was not handicapped in taking on Madame Secretary-to-be.
The highly respected chairman, Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), allowed Democrats leeway in what amounted to a rare chance to grill an Iraq policy maker. Ms. Boxer, she of the eponymous surname, did not leave her skepticism in the locker room ... err, the cloakroom, like the bulk of the senators. Pointing to claims Rice made repeatedly before and during the war that have been proven wrong or inaccurate, Boxer thrust home her challenge:
"I personally believe that your loyalty to the mission you were given -- to sell this war -- overwhelmed your respect for the truth."
Rice, her voice quavering at times and her eyes flashing with anger, said: "I have never, ever lost respect for the truth in the service of anything, and I would hope that we could have this conversation and discuss what happened before, and what I said, without impugning my credibility or my integrity."
But this was all theater. "You are going to be confirmed, and everyone knows that," said Kerry, who resuscitated campaign themes sowing doubts about Bush's "questionable" Iraq policy, and claimed U.S. troops are dying on missions for which there are not enough soldiers.
Rice fenced politely with Kerry, swatted aside Sen. Chris Dodd's bid to pin her down on just what kinds of interrogation or torture the Bush White House has authorized, and rejected out of hand suggestions that any more than 150,000 U.S. troops were ever needed to sustain the occupation.
And she demolished any notion that anyone in the administration will acknowledge having any kind of timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces. She said dismissively to Kerry, "This was never going to be easy." Easy, no; but disastrous? When Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) asked the most basic question -- "What is our success strategy for Iraq," she began with her bottom line: "I can't give you a timeline" but you'll know it when "they're actually beginning to solve their own problems." Right.
Rice's pre-game sound bite of the day was to have been singling out a half-dozen "outposts of tyranny" in such backwaters as Cuba, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and North Korea, an echo of Bush's famous "axis of evil" speech that predated the Iraq invasion. Boxer alone pushed the issue of Iraq with enough oomph to make the news.
"I just feel you quote President Bush when it suits you but you contradict him when he said, 'Yes, Saddam could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year.' You go on television nine months later and said, 'Nobody ever said it was ... '"
Here Rice interrupted, disputing Boxer's characterizations that Rice had misled everyone under orders from Bush, and concluded: "Senator, we can have this discussion in any way that you would like. But I really hope that you will refrain from impugning my integrity, thank you very much."
Why is it these Democrats can never get a White House biggie to admit ever making a mistake about anything?
There is something about these Texas guys that is bigger than all outdoors -- like, their egos maybe? President Bush staggers from fiasco to blunder by way of debacle, constantly changing his story, plucking excuses from his bottomless basket of rationalizations, sputtering that "it's hard work!" like a sweaty teenager just coming in from washing the family car.
Never admitted a mistake, never flogged any of his appointees for screwing up, always telling us how resolute he is, as if stubbornness in the face of reality changes facts on the ground. The situation in Iraq has been worsening every single day since the statue of Saddam was tugged over by U.S. Marines.
And no amount of flag-draped inaugural party photo-ops with returned soldiers conceals the bankruptcy at the heart of the policy. Bush's claim that his re-election by 2.5 percent justifies his war policy is merely the latest example of the hubris that sprouts in Texas-land. "We had an accountability moment and that's called the 2004 elections," the victor claims breezily.
It is a colossal ego trip to declare a war in Iraq for reasons that have been systematically discredited, then instruct your subordinates to say, hey, we never made any mistakes, every big decision we made was exactly the right one, what's the big deal about no nukes and no WMD and no ties to al-Qaida, we unhorsed Saddam, and we won the election, so shut up.
Bush is never going to be on a ballot again, but the Republicans, who will bear responsibility for the war's outcome, betray a look of unease. Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam vet who may be the John McCain of 2008 and roar through New Hampshire's GOP primary, is but one of the pro-war faction that will have to cast around for a lifeboat as this Titanic of a war policy gets deeper into iceberg territory.
David Nyhan is a longtime Boston political commentator.