Last week's exchange between Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice turned into the chew toy of cable news shows over the weekend -- with Democrats arguing that Boxer was right to point out that Rice, a single woman, has no children fighting in Iraq, and White House spokesman Tony Snow indignant that Boxer had made "a great leap backward for feminism."
Debbie Argel Bastian, a Lompoc, Calif., mother who lost her son Derek Argel in Iraq in 2005, told me over the phone that Boxer's remarks were "rude," "shameful" and "cruel."
In case you missed the exchange, this is what Boxer said to Rice at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing: "Now, the issue is who pays the price, who pays the price? 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, within immediate family. So who pays the price? The American military and their families, and I just want to bring us back to that fact."
Actually, Rice is paying a personal price. She has not lost a son, but Rice has had to live with whatever mistakes she helped make, and she has put her own life at risk when visiting Iraq.
Bastian, who visited Iraq in December with the pro-war group Move America Forward, came back saying: "Each and every one of those troops, I feel, are my children. I believe that Condoleezza Rice feels that, too." It's hard not to see a link between Boxer's comments and war critics who protest that the daughters of President Bush are not in the military. (The same is true of Chelsea Clinton and John Kerry's daughters, even though the parents voted for the war resolution.)
Of course, Bush would speak with more authority if his children were serving in Iraq. But you can't look at adult children, in Iraq or not, as extensions of their parents. That's what Bastian and two other Iraq-veteran parents told me. "Forbes on Fox" host David Asman said of U.S. troops in Iraq, "They are not anyone's kids," They are adults, they are "not dragooned."
Asman's stepson, Felipe, 26, served a tour in Iraq in the Marines and just re-upped. Asman resents the stereotype many war opponents hold of those who serve: That is, as if they are (not very bright) children, not "thoughtful men and women who have agreed to do this on their own."
Mary Riley of Napa, Calif., whose son Gregory Smedley served in Iraq, doesn't want Boxer speaking for her or her son. She told me: "Sen. Boxer's presumption to speak for the troops and their families is fundamentally dishonest. She's undermining the war effort -- which hurts, and doesn't help, the troops. That's how my son and I feel."
Like Rice, I do not have children. So the Boxer-Rice exchange hit a nerve. I've received my share of e-mail from readers who believe that no one without children in Iraq can support the war. I'm 52, and I don't know what I'm supposed to do. Have a test-tube baby to raise for combat service?
In citing Rice's childlessness, Boxer was doing what many lefties do -- coming up with conditions that others must meet in order to be entitled to dissenting opinions. It makes about as much sense as arguing, before the war, that only people whose children had to live in Iraq under Saddam Hussein had a right to oppose U.S. troops in Iraq.
Besides, it's not as if Senate Democrats heed the opinion of those who have paid a "personal price." When they talk of families of U.S. troops, it's as if they think only of Cindy Sheehan. "I have begged to go on the media and tell my story," Bastian told me. And, excusing her language, "Any time Cindy Sheehan burps or farts, she's on the news." If anyone is interested, Bastian supports the Bush troop surge. After the brouhaha, Boxer announced she would not apologize because, in confronting Rice, she was "speaking truth to power."
No, Boxer was pitching the propaganda to fellow liberals who don't really respect those who pay a personal price, but say they do. Anyway, if not paying a personal price on Iraq means that your opinion is not particularly legitimate, then by her own logic, Boxer should cork it.