Carol Felsenthal
On politics

What Elizabeth Warren’s New Memoir Is Really About

Locally, the senator praises Dick Durbin and skewers Jaime Dimon in A Fighting Chance. And nationally, the bestselling book may signal the start of a big campaign.

Elizabeth Warren Photo: Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune

My sense of politics tells me there’s a growing group of democrats who would love to see Hillary Clinton opt out of running in 2016 so they could openly back rookie Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, elected in 2012 to the seat once held by Ted Kennedy. She is the latest political rock star, reminiscent of Barack Obama in 2004; long lines and adoration characterize book signings for her new bestselling memoir A Fighting Chance, number two on Amazon last time I looked.

If there’s something stale about Hillary, and downright moldy about the prospect that she and Jeb Bush might compete in the general election, there’s something fresh about Warren, 64. Obviously it’s not about age—Hillary is less than two years older—rather it’s about ideas and energy and fight and fundraising might (more than $2.3 million for Senate Democratic candidates this cycle).

Warren’s memoir takes her from a childhood in a struggling working class Oklahoma family that worried about losing its house—the family station wagon was repossessed. The parents had modest expectations for their daughter: graduate from high school, get married, have kids, and stick around Oklahoma City. Betsy, as she was called, had other ideas and struggled to traverse some deep potholes along a long road that eventually led to a professorship at Harvard Law School—as, appropriately, an expert on bankruptcy law—and a seat in the U.S. Senate. 

Warren presents herself as a plain speaking, fired-up populist, an unadorned champion for the working/middle class—“I knew what it was like to be afraid, to fear that whatever you had built could be taken away”—who is tired of watching the one percent feed off regular folks by cheating them on such things as credit cards and mortgages. She places blame squarely on Wall Street, big banks, their “armies of lobbyists and lawyers,” their deliberate predatory lending practices. “These guys were allowed to just paint a bull’s eye on the backsides of American families,” she told This Week’s George Stephanopoulos.

Locally, she pays repeated tribute to Illinois senator Dick Durbin because, in her telling, he fought so hard for bankruptcy law reform and debtor-friendly laws. She calls him one of her “terrific allies in the Senate” and notes that he was on her side during his first term and surely “could have used some hefty campaign contributions from the banking industry, but that didn’t matter.” On her signature  (and brainchild) Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—the agency President Obama asked her to construct and structure but then selected someone else to lead because, to bankers and Republican senators, she was “radioactive”—she credits Durbin as one of her lawmaker “heroes who “championed the idea when no one thought it had a prayer of becoming law.” She notes that Durbin “master[ed] the details of the very complex bill” and was “constantly on the lookout for changes that would help families in trouble rather than hurt them.”

Her admiration for Durbin matches her disdain for former Chicagoan Jamie Dimon, who lived here in a Gold Coast mansion while CEO of Bank One, and, after it acquired Bank One, President of JP Morgan Chase. Warren describes sitting next to Dimon, then back in New York as CEO of JP Morgan Chase, at a Financial Services Roundtable dinner. Warren, that evening’s speaker, had been critical in a Wall Street Journal op-ed of Dimon and “his remark that a financial crisis every 5-7 years was inevitable.” She writes that she expected an argument from him “over the salad course,” but instead he just held forth, “complaining loudly about how painful it was for him to be a Democrat when the Democrats were trying to regulate the banks.  He talked about his many, many conversations with the president [Obama] and offered details about the advice he had repeatedly given him.” 

Bitterness creeps into Warren’s tone as she describes the controversy over her Native American roots, her distress at being labeled “Fauxcahontas.” She insists that she never mentioned the maternal family roots when applying for any job. (She had been accused of using that status to land her job at Harvard Law.) 

And that’s where Dimon reemerges in her story. “About the same time, the story broke that JP Morgan Chase had lost billions of dollars in high-risk trading in a scandal involving a trader known as `the London Whale.’ It seemed pretty clear that three years after the crash and the TARP bailout, the giant bank and its CEO, Jamie Dimon, hadn’t given up their high-risk trading…. My encounters with the press during this period were dominated by questions about my mother’s background—almost nobody asked about Jamie Dimon’s recklessness.”

Warren has said repeatedly that she’s not running for president, but her protestations lack credibility. When she was being goaded yesterday by ABC’s Stephanopoulos, to proclaim her support of Hillary, she dodged, and more than once. I believe she’s testing the waters.

That’s why I decided to read her memoir, which, as presidential campaign books go (and I believe that’s what this is), is a pretty good read. She displays a winning, folksy tone in recounting her own life and she brings that folksiness, rather than wonkiness, to her discussion of policy and her belief that big banks and corporations have “rigged” the system against the middle class. (She has previously written seven more academically-toned books on bankruptcy and related topics;  one,  The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke,  co-written with her daughter.)

When I lived in the Boston area for a few years in the ‘70s, I always scoffed at the locals hailing their small, parochial city as “the hub of the universe.” If Warren were somehow to become the 45th president, Boston would have new reason to boast, and Chicago, would, for the time being, have to retreat into more ordinary territory.

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