It is hard to remain dry-eyed reading Elizabeth Warren’s description of the pivotal moment that she considers the day she grew up. She was 12, watching her mother rubbing tissue over a tear-drenched face, then stuffing herself into the only good dress she had, struggling to get the dress “across her belly, and pulled down over her hips.” As she tugged and pulled to close the zipper, “tears dropped off her chin and onto the floor.”
She asked her daughter, “How do I look? Is the dress too tight?” Elizabeth looked at a dress ready to burst, the ripples and rolls gathering the material.
“You look great,” she said. “Really.”
Her mother was off to save the family’s small house. After a heart attack, Elizabeth’s father had lost his job selling carpets at Sears, Roebuck and the family car had already been repossessed. That day, Elizabeth’s mother applied for and got a minimum-wage job answering phones at Sears, Roebuck.
“That was the moment I crossed the threshold,” Warren wrote. “I wasn’t a little girl anymore.”
This defining moment, according to her new book, A Fighting Chance, would lead to a career championing the middle class, in a time when minimum wage doesn’t stretch as far as it did when her mother found work, in a time when students can no longer earn enough waiting tables to pay for college tuition.
Hard to imagine, however, is how late-blooming Warren came to be the battler of billionaire bankers and their congressional sycophants. Although a baby boomer, Warren, now 65, mentions nothing about the civil-rights movement, the antiwar movement or the early stirrings of feminism, which enveloped the 1960s.
At 19, in 1968, she married, not for love, it seems, but because it was the thing to do. “Less than eight weeks after Jim proposed,” she writes, “I gave up my scholarship, dropped out of college, sewed a wedding gown and walked down the aisle.”
She bore children, cleaned house, watched her frowning husband look at his watch when dinner wasn’t on time, and felt guilty because this life wasn’t enough for her. (One day she calmly asked her husband if he wanted a divorce. He said yes and moved out.)
Could this be the woman who now ignites the Democrats, especially the liberal wing, with her pro-consumer views on financial reform and bankruptcy laws, described by an Obama operative as “a red hot poker in the eyes of the Republicans”? Is this the woman who continually blasts Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and is campaigning for his opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, after he blocked Warren’s bill that would have taxed millionaires to lower student-loan interest rates?
Well, yes, it is the same woman. If Warren grew up at 12, she grew up over the years again, shedding her first marriage, zooming up the ladder to become a law professor at Harvard, becoming the progressive leader railing against the subprime-lending thieves and the financial collapse they created.
Warren, a star debater, went to law school and made her mark in an area not abundantly pursued by women in her day: “I headed straight for the money courses. I started with contract law” then “business and finance courses,” some of the most technical in law. “I loved the idea of mastery over money.”
Could this be the woman who now ignites the Democrats, especially the liberal wing, with her pro-consumer views on financial reform and bankruptcy laws, described by an Obama operative as “a red hot poker in the eyes of the Republicans”?
Warren learned that 90 percent of bankruptcies were filed by hard-working families “hit hard” by job loss, medical disasters or divorce. This started her on the path to defending these people, initially as an adviser to the FDIC’s Advisory Commission. From the beginning of her career in public life, she attacked the big money and legislators steamrolling Congress on behalf of the banking industry. When President Obama sought her out to serve as consumer advocate in the Treasury Department, she pushed him to make sure that she could accomplish something.
“You’re jamming me,” she recalled Obama saying. She got the same message regarding economic policy more than once from Treasury’s old-boy network (Larry Summers and Tim Geithner). When time came to nominate a permanent head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Obama turned not to Warren but to a male more acceptable (Obama thought) to the Senate.
In 2012, Warren, who had never run for office, unseated Wall Street’s darling, Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, who had replaced the late Ted Kennedy.
“I really didn’t want to run. I’d had enough of Washington.” But “there was so much at stake in this election. I’d spent nearly 20 years fighting to level the playing field for the middle class, and I’d seen millions of working families go over the economic cliff—and it was getting worse. What kind of country would my grandchildren grow up in?”
Warren’s book reads like the woman she appears to be, no nonsense, straightforward. Her writing about banks and finance is free from wonkmanship, most of the time. She is as unstinting in her criticism of Wall Street as she was when she served as the congressional watchdog over the Troubled Assets Relief Program. Regarding the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s $5-billion settlement offer, she writes: “These big banks earned $1 billion every single day, so the settlement would amount to less to five days of revenue in payment for deliberately and repeatedly breaking the law for years.” To which she added: “Whoop-dee-doo.”
Although Warren says she will not run for president in 2016, she remains a great hope for those who want a woman president (who carries little baggage), who has kept to a mission of helping struggling middle-class Americans. Running for the highest office in the land may be out of reach for a firebrand champion of the middle class with limited name recognition.
But we have to remember that Elizabeth Warren’s favorite word is “fight.”
Myra MacPherson is the author of five books, including The Scarlet Sisters: Sex Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age.