Elizabeth Warren's really not running for president -- and other big takeaways from her book

Her folksy but candid memoir explains why she won't run, in oh so many ways -- plus other political revelations

Published April 23, 2014 4:24PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Admit it, you’re reading this post about Elizabeth Warren’s new book, “A Fighting Chance,” with one question: What does it tell us about whether she’ll run for president?

Sure, she says she won’t, but her book is coming out in the second year of her first term, just like “The Audacity of Hope,” by another freshman senator, Barack Hussein Obama. He also spent his first 18 months in Washington denying he’d run for president before turning on a dime and jumping into the 2008 fray. In Mother Jones, Andrew Kroll argues the book itself is proof she’s running, because otherwise, “why’d she write a campaign book?”

In fact, “A Fighting Chance” convinced me Warren will stick to her word. (What I feel about that, I’ll discuss later, so keep reading.) Why write a “campaign” book, if not to run for president? First of all, I’d argue that it’s better than a campaign book, though it has its clichéd moments.  More than even the literary Barack Obama, Warren is a writer of books; this is her fifth; that was his second.  She understands that politics is about stories, and she’s got a good story: of being born into a loving but struggling Oklahoma family at the middle of the last century, which was a time when kids of struggling families could rise:

I will be grateful to my mother and daddy until the day I die. They worked hard – really hard – to help my brother and me along. But we also succeeded, at least in part, because we were lucky enough to grow up in an America that invested in kids like us and helped build a future where we could flourish.

Here’s the hard truth: America isn’t building that kind of future any longer.

The first quarter of Warren’s book acquaints us intimately with her family, who moved around Oklahoma searching for opportunity and ultimately the best possible school for bright young Liz. But their grip on middle-class life weakened when her father had a heart attack and lost his job. Then lost another. In danger of losing their home, Warren’s mother put on her only nice dress, which was too small, and unsteady high heels and walked downtown to apply for a job at Sears, which she luckily got. She begged the young Elizabeth to be normal, to just find a husband who’d take care of her, to keep his home and raise his kids, but young Elizabeth – both very smart and a witness to the fact that even wonderful husbands fail as providers – ignored her.

Well, not entirely: She worked for a debate scholarship to George Washington University only to give it up when her first boyfriend, Jim Warren, asked her to marry him during her sophomore year. They walked down the aisle in Oklahoma then took off for Houston, where she ultimately finished college and began to work. But she describes herself as “done in by child care,” like so many working moms, shifting her two kids into various mediocre situations and unhappy with all of them. Miserable, she’s about to quit her job when her Oklahoma family relocates to help her: first her Aunt Bee, then her parents.

It wasn’t enough to save her first marriage, but with her reassembled family unit she raised her kids, went to law school, began teaching law and met the law professor who would become her second husband, Bruce Mann. This extended family tribe, which included a cocker spaniel and a golden retriever, even moved around to support the two young lawyers trying to find jobs together. You imagine them a modern-day Okie caravan -- she calls them Okies -- traveling the country searching for opportunity, and finding it beyond her wildest dreams.

Warren acknowledges she’s been enormously lucky, but the years of struggle, from her childhood through early motherhood, made her interested in people who struggle. She begins to teach bankruptcy, figuring a female law professor who knows about finance will be more marketable, and finds herself obsessed with the people behind the law. Bankruptcies doubled in the course of the 1980s and she wanted to know why.

Most lawyers considered the bankrupt slackers and moochers living high on the hog who then refused to pay their bills. Doing the first ever study of exactly why people went bankrupt, Warren found a different story: 90 percent of bankruptcies involved job loss, a serious medical problem or a family breakup, whether through divorce or death. Yet her subjects didn’t share the compassion she comes to feel for them: They’re guilty and ashamed of the bad choices and even the bad luck that led them to bankruptcy court. In a form asking why they were declaring bankruptcy, one man wrote:




She saw some of the same traits in her father, whose years of moving from job to job left him afraid of poverty but loath to talk about it. “My daddy stayed away from big sores that hurt,” she writes. “I poked at them.”

* * *

Just as Warren began to see how the system was rigged against these struggling families – “Rigged” was the book’s working title, and I wish she’d kept it – the banks who had worked to get struggling people hooked on credit began fighting to make it harder for them to get out from under it. Warren starts out hoping banks will want to understand her research into the causes of bankruptcy. Indeed, Citibank executives ask to meet with her, and she explains that the bank could cut its losses by identifying families who won’t be able to pay off their credit cards and home equity loans, and stop lending to them. But the top executive in the room tells her: “We have no interest in cutting back lending to these people. They are the ones providing most of our profits.”

She then gets involved with a series of efforts to fight first regulation, then legislation, that would make bankruptcy harder. It turns into a 10-year struggle that she eventually loses, when President George W. Bush signs the bill she’s been trying to stop. But there are inspiring wins along the way. The day she enlists Sen. Ted Kennedy, meeting in his lovely Boston office with a view of the water, she turns a 15-minute appointment into an hour, and ultimately convinces Kennedy not merely to vote against the newest effort to cut the lifeline of bankruptcy but to lead the charge against it. Leaving his office, Warren doesn’t cheer for joy; she cries.

She cries a lot. This book isn’t quite a tell-all, but she doesn’t try to hide her flaws. She cries, she vomits (before her first "Daily Show" appearance), she burns dinner (more than once), she sets a toaster on fire, she walks into streetlights, she trips, she upends her backpack, and she gets lost – a lot. In her prologue she introduces herself first as “a wife, a mother and a grandmother,” and she stays true to that story, with tales of domestic heartbreak and triumph alongside political skirmishing on nearly every page. We learn she fell in love with her second husband because of his long, sexy legs (also, he’s a good kisser). We get to know her three grandchildren, and each of her three golden retrievers (there are pages devoted to their illness and death; we cry). She buys shoes that hurt and jackets that are too hot for the withering D.C. humidity. In an outdoor meeting with the president on a brutal summer day, she’s dying to remove her jacket but she fears the shell she’s wearing underneath is too revealing. Who among us hasn’t had the same problem (well, maybe not in a meeting with the president)?

I’m of two minds about all this detail, watching a brilliant, accomplished woman bending over backward to show her womanly ordinariness. Kroll sees that as evidence this is a campaign book; I think it means she knows her story, all of it -- the child of hardship, the young mother who cries juggling jobs and babies, the grandmother who wishes she could leave another tedious hearing and be with her grandchildren – is important to convincing people she’s one of them, and not the elite, out-of-touch Harvard law professor her opponents paint her as. Sometimes it’s distracting, but it’s her story.

In the end, she tells you so much detail, you feel you know her. And thus, although I have never met her, I feel I can say from this memoir: She’s not running for president. Maybe it’s that I empathize so much with her, I can’t imagine making that tough choice in her shoes, given all her other choices. It’s also that “A Fighting Chance” is fairly candid for a campaign book, and it dishes on Democrats, not just Republicans: Larry Summers sits her down and warns her that she has to make a choice between being an outsider and an insider, and urges her to become an insider but warns “Insiders never criticize other insiders.” (She obviously doesn’t listen.)

We see TARP administrator Neel Kashkari lie to her face, telling her there will be no more big bailouts for big banks the very day Citibank is being awarded another $20 billion in TARP funds plus a $306 billion taxpayer guarantee. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is depicted trying to thwart her first at the Congressional Oversight Panel and then when she wants to be appointed head of the brand-new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (her baby).

She’s occasionally tough on Obama, too, though she credits him with keeping the CFPB in the Dodd-Frank bill even when other Democrats wanted it out. Still, she faults his Department of Justice, among others, for failing to prosecute any financial industry higher-ups for the manipulation and corruption that led to the 2008 crash. “Where were the fullscale public investigations? Where were the armies of auditors, seizing hard drives?” she asks. And why were banks so lavishly protected when the consumers they abused with toxic mortgages were being thrown out of their homes when they couldn’t afford it? She concludes: “The president chose his team, and the president’s team chose Wall Street.”

Warren even brings us inside the three meetings she had with Obama to discuss whether he would nominate her to head the CFPB, each one more tense than the last. She admits she lobbied hard for the job, even asking that he make a recess appointment (he refused), because the president and his staff believed she would never be confirmed. Obama told her he had cut a deal with Senate Republicans that if he didn’t nominate Warren, they’d confirm whomever he picked. Of course, it didn’t work out that way – Richard Cordray, who was also Warren’s choice (after herself), wasn’t confirmed for another two years, after Sen. Harry Reid threatened to use the nuclear option unless Republicans stopped filibustering presidential nominations. Warren isn’t shy about reminding us of yet another time the president was played by the other party.

* * *

So much candor about powerful Democrats makes me doubt this is the opening salvo of a presidential race. Ironically, so does a rare example of non-candor about another powerful Democrat: Hillary Clinton. We only meet her once, as the first lady who’s on Warren’s side opposing legislation to make bankruptcy tougher, urging her husband to veto “that awful bill.” President Clinton obliges. But we never learn in the book that Clinton herself, as senator, voted for the 2001 version of the bill (though Warren reminds us that Delaware Sen. Joe Biden sponsored it, a rare blight on the vice president’s progressive credentials should he run in 2016.) On the defensive in 2008, Clinton claimed she supported the bill because an amendment made it easier for single mothers to get child support. She didn’t vote on the 2005 bill because of her husband’s illness but claimed she would have opposed it; freshman Sen. Obama voted against it.

Noam Scheiber thinks this rare example of punch-pulling when it comes to Hillary Clinton shows that Warren isn’t running for president, which is significant, because he’s among those who have argued that the progressive hero should, and likely will, join the 2016 fray. Warren told a different and damaging story about Clinton in her book “The Two-Income Trap,” Scheiber points out, depicting Clinton as flipping on the bankruptcy bill because “big banks were now part of Senator Clinton’s constituency.”

The “whitewash” of that history in “A Fighting Chance” tells Scheiber that Warren “is more interested these days in downplaying (even erasing) differences between herself and Clinton than highlighting them. And if Warren is vouching for Clinton as a defender of working families and slayer of banks, it’s going to go along way toward defusing populist suspicion of Hillary, the very place from which the energy for a Warren campaign is most likely to come.”

I wouldn’t go that far. Warren’s only positive remarks about Clinton refer to her long-ago years as first lady, so I didn’t see her as “vouching” for the populism of the 2016 front-runner. But I did see it as evidence Warren would be comfortable enough with a Clinton candidacy (which she also endorsed in a letter urging the former secretary of state to run) to skip what would be an ugly and draining race herself.  (If Clinton decides not to run, I might lose my certainty about Warren’s choice.)

Warren only took on Scott Brown because prominent Democrats (including Obama) told her she was one of the rare Massachusetts liberals with the stature to beat him – and she didn’t enjoy a lot about the experience. Revisiting the non-story of Brown’s challenge to her Native American heritage makes you sick all over again, especially when Brown opened a debate by declaring “Professor Warren claimed that she was a Native American, a person of color, and as you can see, she’s not.” Her discomfort with the way the campaign smeared her family was equaled by her hatred of the incessant fundraising it required.

All of those things would be worse in a presidential race. Not that she’s asked me, but I don’t think the time and the energy and the fundraising it requires is the best use of her talent. Even as president, I think she’d get to do even less of what she loves. So if a dominant Democrat like Clinton who’s liberal enough enters the race, I don’t see why she’d bother. This wife, mother, grandmother and popular, populist senator is making a huge difference where she is.

I’ll close with a couple of images that brought that home for me. In one of her meetings with Obama, he brings her out to the Truman Balcony, which he has described as his sanctuary. She was miserable: “The space was tightly enclosed by dense hedges and felt small – and there was no breeze at all. The president described it as a hidden retreat. I thought it felt like a green version of hell.” She never makes the White House or Oval Office seem alluring. More than once, the president is described as a good man who wants to do the right thing but can’t, because of his political enemies. Another version of hell.

But there’s another recurring image: Several times Warren finds herself looking at or musing about Sen. Ted Kennedy’s worn leather satchel, which for years famously carried the “homework” he’d do on his Senate priorities. The old satchel seems to symbolize the tough but rewarding work Kennedy did for decades as a senator. She has her last voice mail from Kennedy, before he died, and she says she still likes to listen to it. She enjoys sitting at Kennedy's desk in the Senate.

Warren doesn’t mention it, but Kennedy’s biggest career misstep was listening to his admirers and challenging President Carter from the left – losing, but weakening Carter, and helping Ronald Reagan win in 1980. I see her as understanding the nation needs a senior senator from Massachusetts who makes the progressive legislative difference Kennedy did. I think she thinks she can be that senator, so I expect her to stay where she is.

By Joan Walsh