A Fighting Chance

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has a good story to tell and she tells it well.

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    A Fighting Chance,
    by Elizabeth Warren,
    Holt, Henry & Company,
    384 pp.
    View Caption

United States Senator Elizabeth Warren, remarkably enough, composed her autobiography by her lonesome. A Fighting Chance – a remarkably short title, too – was not ghostwritten nor was it generated “with” anyone. The freshman Massachusetts Democrat may be a novice politician, but she is an accomplished author, having written eight books, including two bestsellers, in her previous career as a legal scholar at Harvard, among other places.

Warren’s prose is as short and direct as her book’s title. She has a good story to tell and she tells it well. She grew up in Oklahoma in the 1950s and '60s and if her family wasn’t dirt poor, exactly, it flirted with poverty after her father got ill, lost his job and health insurance, and never fully bounced back. Born Elizabeth Ann Herring, she has three older brothers and did her best growing up to walk the expected line. She sewed; she won the Betty Crocker Homemakers of Tomorrow award; she married young, at 19, and started having babies instead of finishing college.

But Warren – her first husband’s name that she retained after divorce and remarriage – chafed against gender stereotypes. She anchored her high school debate team, a sign that she had greater expectations for herself. She went back to college, on to law school, and become a leading expert on bankruptcy law and policy. Her research documented a growing incidence of bankruptcy nationwide that was fueled by easy credit and rising costs for things like medical care and education, all compounded by stagnating wages and job prospects for middle and lower class Americans.  

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By 2008, the combination of her scholarly credentials and passionate advocacy for tighter regulation of financial institutions brought her to Washington. She was chosen to chair the new Congressional Oversight Panel established to monitor the Troubled Asset Relief Program, aka the $700 billion federal bank bailout. She subsequently served as special assistant to President Barack Obama and to the Secretary of the Treasury for the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for which she has advocated.  

Warren’s accomplishments defied expectations virtually every step of the way. She writes, “Telling my mother about my plan to go to law school was worse than telling her about college. She was sure there was something wrong with me. I should stay home. I should have more children. I should count on [my husband] to support me.... I loved my mother. I wanted her to smile, to believe that I was doing the right thing. But that wasn’t going to happen. So I ducked my head and kept going.”

In 2012, Warren would win the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat from Republican interloper Scott Brown. Given little chance at the outset against the photogenic incumbent, she beat him handily, taking 54 percent of the vote. Her autobiography was finished early in her Senate tenure, so it is a small wonder that portions of it read like stump speeches, including the one she delivered at the 2012 Democratic National Convention; she told a national television audience that “The system is rigged” by the rich and powerful against Americans who are middle class or below. She made Ted Kennedy seem like a moderate.

And while Warren’s talking points can get wearisome, her book is more than the political manifesto of an unabashed northeastern liberal. She was in the eye of the financial storm from 2008 to 2010 and provides an intimate account of what was at stake and how the government reacted to the crisis. Her observations are often quite telling. She writes, “Over and over Congress had declared that there was no money for bridges or preschool or more medical research, but now the American taxpayer was on the hook for a $700 billion bailout of the big banks.”

And while the money eventually was repaid, Warren opines that Congress as a whole was more concerned about the health of big banks – with millions to spend on lobbyists and campaign contributions – than it was about smaller banks or ordinary Americans in financial distress. She writes that the bailout was sold on the basis that it “would make it possible for banks to start lending to small businesses again and to help relieve the foreclosure crisis. But once those no-strings-attached checks were distributed to the big banks, that promise went up in smoke.”

The book, however, is not all politics all the time. Warren also offers occasional glimpses of the woman behind the senator. For example, she movingly recounts the ordeal of Otis, the family dog, who succumbs to cancer in the final week of her Senate campaign. At another point, she writes, “For months now, whenever I met a little girl on the campaign trail, I would bend down, take her hand, and tell her quietly, ‘I’m Elizabeth Warren and I’m running for Senate, because that’s what girls do.'"

David Holahan is a Monitor contributor.

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