As a classroom teacher, law professor, advocate for consumers, and U.S. Senator, Elizabeth Warren has lived by a rule: Anything worth doing is worth doing with enthusiasm. So it was when the “Gentle lady from Massachusetts” ran for President in 2020, as was evident by the hours-long lineup for Selfies after her packed 2019 summer rally at the Seattle Center.
She ran, Warren writes in the new book Persist (Metropolitan Books, $27.99), sensing a rare opportunity to tackle economic inequities hamstringing America. “During a crisis, the door to change opens just a crack,” she writes. “What had been impossible becomes hard-but-maybe-possible. That’s the moment to fight with everything you’ve got.”
Warren ended up being squeezed by Bernie Sanders’ following on the left and Joe Biden’s wide recognition and the perception he was a “safe” alternative to Trump. Third place doesn’t get you a medal in presidential politics. And, from her first call to a Democratic activist in Iowa, she was hobbled by a post-Hillary assumption: A woman can’t win. Bernie Sanders would be among those who told her so.
“On that first day of cold-calling (in Iowa) about half the people I spoke to pointed out that the last woman who ran for president had lost,” she writes. “As I fell into bed that first night, I wondered whether anyone said to Bernie Sanders when he asked for their support, ‘Gore lost, so how can you win?’ I wondered whether anyone had said to Joe Biden, ‘Kerry lost, so clearly America isn’t ready for a man to be president.’”
Warren has not written a tell-all campaign memoir. She is relatively kind to her Democratic foes, except for billionaire former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a rival she eviscerated in a Las Vegas debate. She’s generous to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, relating a lunch in which she asked the drop-out candidate if she could pick up his environmental ideas.
Warren brought to the body politic a biography of personal experience. She was married at age 19. She lost her first teaching job because she was pregnant with her first child. She had a #me-too experience as a rookie law professor at the University of Houston, being chased around a desk by a lecherous colleague who controlled her path to tenure. She decided to let it go, exchanged pleasantries with the lecher, and ended up returning from Harvard at his request to speak at his funeral.
Warren has the rare talent for using storytelling to shine a light on shortcomings of national policy. As a single mother of two, struggling with childcare and being a rookie law professor, she received a call from Aunt Bee back in Oklahoma. Warren, at the end of her rope, tried to sound upbeat but broke down over the phone. “I can’t come tomorrow but I can come Thursday,” Aunt Bee replied. She came and stayed 16 years, changing the course of young Warren’s life.
“Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that,” became a moniker of the 2020 campaign, even advertised on T-shirts. It set her apart. Bernie Sanders has been giving the same speech for 40 years. The Biden presidency is off to a bold beginning, but with a grab bag of ideas appropriated from his campaign rivals. With Warren, however, those plans and peoples’ lives are a seamless web.
“Policy is not only personal, it is also deeply important,” she writes. “Laws barring pregnancy discrimination didn’t change everything in a blink, but they moved mountains. They gave women legal rights, and those legal rights gave women the opportunity to find lawyers, get their unions involved, and build alliances with each other. Those legal rights created different expectations for the next teacher or factory worker, or Walmart clerk, who gets pregnant.”
Elizabeth Warren was once a Republican, but experienced an epiphany when she and other legal scholars researched the real reasons that Americans go bankrupt. She had stumbled into a fundamental view: Big money has corrupted the republic. In her words: “This corruption has delivered untold profits to a handful of billionaires and corporations – and it may cost us our future . . . Corruption stands in the way of every single policy that would help us build a more just America. Corruption is a cancer that is eating away at our democracy.”
Racism in America, in Warren’s view, is a tool of the corruption: “I argued that the powerful have long used fear and hate to put Americans against each other. Whites against Blacks and Latino people. Christians against Muslims and Jews. Straight people against gay and trans people. Everyone against immigrants.”
Warren is given to sweeping judgments and personal indignation. She champions big government as a means of breaking the rule of plutocrats. At the heart of her 2020 campaign was a plan that would squeeze rather than soak the rich. She would institute a wealth tax of two cents for every dollar above $50 million, and three cents for every dollar above $1 billion. The income would be spent on learning, from special education to grants to public schools, from better pay for teachers to canceling student loan debt.
Warren was faulted in the campaign for driving home arguments over and over again. Persist does that. It will inspire believers but frustrate those who believe our problems have different roots and causes. Nuance is not her style. “This book is not a campaign memoir,” she writes. “It is not a rehash of big public events. It’s a book about the fight that lies ahead.”
Warren is not just a fighter but a tactician, a skill underplayed in this book. She knows to seek allies, and where. She has found jobs for her allies at all corners of the Biden Administration, most notably campaign co-chair Deb Haaland as U.S. Secretary of the Interior. She played hardball in the Obama administration (with help from our state’s Sen. Maria Cantwell) to win creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
The run for the White House tends to attract candidates who may be from the people and for the people, but not of the people. The regal, somewhat aloof Barack Obama is an example. While they developed a taste for pork rinds at election season, the Bushes were very much political royalty. Barbara Bush treated the Reagans as parvenues. With some candidates, hand sanitizer has become a metaphor for wiping clean human contact.
Warren is the exception. Everyone was entitled to a hug and a Selfie, despite the impatience of handlers. More than 100,000 people had pictures taken with Warren. She took soundings from folks who lined up for those photos. She held town meetings at which a lottery chose those who asked questions. “Hundreds of times a day, the Selfie lines drove into my brain the simple fact that Americans are profoundly affected by federal policies,” she writes.
In the end, Warren’s new book is a little much to take, even at a brisk 304 pages. But we are fortunate that Elizabeth Warren traded the law school classroom for the national stage. And that Aunt Bee showed up on Thursday.