WASHINGTON — There's a burning question in California's 2010 Senate race: Is it OK for a military general to call a senator "ma'am"?
It didn't take long for the state's junior senator, Democrat Barbara Boxer, to object when Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh followed proper military protocol last week by calling her "ma'am" at a hearing of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, which Boxer heads.
"Do me a favor. Could you say 'Senator' instead of 'ma'am'? It's just a thing; I worked so hard to get that title, so I'd appreciate it," Boxer said.
Chuck DeVore, a Republican who's trying to deny Boxer a fourth term, said it was remarkable that Boxer "dressed down" a general, calling it "the latest liberal-military confrontation." He said it wasn't Boxer's first confrontation with the military, noting that she'd cut her political teeth during protests of the Vietnam War in the San Francisco Bay area.
"Why do some liberals apparently despise our military?" DeVore asks in a statement on his campaign's Web site. He says the use of "ma'am" is "a perfectly acceptable sign of military respect to both a U.S. senator or a senior female officer."
Republican critics in the blogosphere and elsewhere are excoriating Boxer. Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina called Boxer "a loose cannon" and an embarrassment to her party.
"I just can't put up with that kind of thing when people think too much of themselves, and we see a lot of that in Washington," DeMint told Fox News Channel.
During a line of questioning on protecting and restoring the Louisiana coast, Walsh repeatedly referred to Boxer as "ma'am" until she cut him off with her request to be called "Senator."
"Yes, Senator," replied Walsh, who's with the Army Corps of Engineers.
Zachary Coile, Boxer's communications director, said Monday that the senator had spoken with Walsh after the hearing and that the general wasn't offended by Boxer's request.
"They had a very friendly conversation," Coile said. "They reiterated their respect for each other and how much they look forward to working together in the future. Senator Boxer has tremendous respect for our men and women who serve in the military, including General Walsh."
Pundits and the national media have been having a field day over the dust-up.
National Public Radio ended a segment by playing a sound bite of Aretha Franklin's "Respect" ("All I'm asking for is a little respect"), while The Washington Times ran a story headlined "No 'ma'am' for Boxer."
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