April 25, 2014

Elizabeth Warren writes of family, politics and growing up poor in new memoir

Sen. Elizabeth Warren writes of family, politics and growing up poor in her new autobiography.

One of the enlightenments of memoirs by the famous and well-placed is the degree to which we witness the unfolding of a once-obscure person — full of the struggles and uncertainties typical of humans — into the public personality we think we know.

From most perspectives, especially those who focus on politics as profession or pastime, Elizabeth Warren is the former Harvard Law School professor who won elective office on her first attempt, when she beat a slick, well-financed Republican incumbent, Scott Brown, for one of Massachusetts’ two seats in the United States Senate. What we see of her on television and read about her in newspapers is mere reinforcement of the common perception of Warren as assured, accomplished and competent, as someone ideally suited and even predestined to her role in Congress and even beyond.

But what we learn from her irrepressibly sincere autobiography is that little in Warren’s early life would seem to have pointed to a future as a national figure, one whose name is being bandied about by political prognosticators as a potential candidate for the highest office in the land — or at least the vice presidency.

Warren’s tale is a no-frills memoir. She writes in forthright prose, with not a writerly flourish in sight, a factor that mimics the earnest way in which she speaks. She does not spare us her errors and failures, and lays bare her character and her evolving public persona, something that might serve her well as she becomes an increasingly visible figure on the political stage. The fact that there is a parallel here with Barack Obama, whose memoir Dreams from My Father was republished during his first and only term in the Senate, has not gone unnoticed. ​

Warren’s early years in Oklahoma City were anything but glamorous, and her father’s precarious health and financial standing was the stuff of every family in America that has seen hardship and disappointment. At the time a carpet salesman at Montgomery Ward, Elizabeth’s father used to drop her off a block from school so that other students wouldn’t catch a glimpse of the family’s rusty old Studebaker.

When she was 12, her father suffered a heart attack, and Elizabeth was soon waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant while her mother answered telephones at a Sears, Roebuck store. Her three brothers, all older, joined the military. A disciplined student and the anchor of her high-school debate team by the time she was at 16, she stunned her family by insisting on applying to colleges — something virtually unheard of in her milieu — and being accepted into George Washington University on a full scholarship.

“College was a whole new world for me,” Warren writes. “I had never been north or east of Pryor, Oklahoma. I had never seen a ballet, never been to a museum, and never ridden in a taxi. I’d never had a debate partner who was black, never known anyone from Asia, and never had a roommate of any kind. But the most remarkable part was that in college I wasn’t poor.”

The privations to which she and her parents had been subjected are rendered in the book not as tales of woe but as the inspiration for her decade-long crusade, years later, to change the country’s bankruptcy laws to make them more sympathetic to people who, often through no fault of their own, are driven to penury by circumstance and error. Most of them are not bad people, Warren concludes, citing with evident distress the response of a man who, when asked how he had come to be standing before a bankruptcy judge, replied, “Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.”

While still a law professor and as part of her efforts to counter the oppressive powers of the big banks, Warren set up a meeting with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, whose seat — somewhat to her own surprise — she was later to occupy. She describes her awe at being received by him in his office and the thrill she felt when, after some considerable cajoling, he promised to back the bill she sought.

President Obama, whom she had been advising on the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, suggested that she run for the Senate. Warren tells us how, at first awkwardly and then with growing confidence, she managed to connect with potential supporters by telling her story as the daughter of a maintenance man who “ended up as a professor at Harvard.” But the 2012 race for the Massachusetts seat took on a whole new cast when Warren became a target of the campaign machine of Karl Rove, the mastermind behind George W. Bush’s two terms in the White House. “These guys were playing for keeps,” Warren writes in increasingly acerbic language, “and they seemed to be perfectly willing to lie and cheat if that’s what it took to win.”

The campaign, which sometimes felt to Warren as though she were “running through a forest at full speed while a band of hooligans threw poisoned darts at me,” gained an extra measure of notoriety when Warren’s opponents accused her of fabricating a Native American ancestry and of getting her job at Harvard by pretending to be a member of a minority. Never mind that Harvard officials said they had not looked into her family’s history and had offered her the job simply “because they thought I was a good law professor,” she writes in the book. No one in her family, more than 100 years ago, had ever registered a tribal affiliation, a “pretty common” omission in those days in Oklahoma.

Finally, desperate to keep the controversy alive, Brown suggested that Warren’s parents had lied to her and her brothers about their ancestry. “He attacked my dead parents,” she writes. But Warren does not dwell on the treatment she suffered at the hands of her political opponents and even credits Brown with sticking to an unusual deal, forged by the two campaigns a few weeks after the initial Rove ads, to keep Super PAC money out of the race.

But she has no qualms about admitting to tears during the race, as when she heard that her beloved dog, Otis, had contracted lymphoma. Riding in the back of a car on her way to a campaign event, she writes, “I leaned my head against the cold window and cried as inconspicuously as I could. I didn’t want to scare the young staffers in the car. I was pretty sure that Senate candidates weren’t supposed to cry.”

Nick Madigan is a writer in Miami.

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