Author: Elizabeth Warren
Published: April, 2014
A Fighting Chance, the autobiography by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is akin to a glass of warm milk. It may be a bit bland, but it goes down easy, and is oddly comforting. Warren, the liberal darling of progressives around the country, has earned every bit of the respect and accolades that have come her way. She’s a tireless advocate for the middle class and a resolute warrior against the banks that ripped apart our economy. She’s also a whip smart and compassionate politician, teacher and lawyer. She's a leader amongst her colleagues and a role model to millions. So given her sterling resume and accomplishments, it’s easy to forgive her talents as a writer, which can be described as mediocre at best.
Warren briskly covers her childhood in Oklahoma, where she lived alone with her loving parents while they struggled to make ends meet. Her three older brothers, each of whom had joined the armed forces, were out of the house and largely absent by the time she came of age. It sounds like a lonely upbringing, but signs of Warren’s intelligence and determination are present from the start. Her scrappy performances on the debate team resulted in a state championship, and her relentless pursuit of a college scholarship allowed her to attain higher education.
But society expected certain things of young ladies at the time, and Warren quit school when the first boy she had ever dated asked for her hand in marriage. Two babies later she found herself suffocated by the homemaker’s life, and managed to earn her law degree while juggling day care, dinner and chores. These were tough years for Warren, who tried in vain to do it all. Her husband dismissed her desire for a career of her own, and soon the marriage crumbled under the strain of her ambition.
With the help of a beloved Aunt, who moved in to help raise the kids, Warren was soon back on her feet, teaching law and falling in love with a man unafraid of a purposeful woman. Her marriage and career blossomed, and she procured a prized teaching position at Harvard.
Citing her parents past concerns about money as inspiration, Warren slowly became an expert in Bankruptcy law, and was horrified to see the number of families declaring bankruptcy was sky-rocketing. With the help of two colleagues she dove into the causes behind the numbers, and was shocked to find the conventional wisdom - that people declaring bankruptcy were deadbeats and fools - was way off the mark. Decades of stagnant wages, a slow economy and unreliable medical insurance spelled most people’s doom, even though they had fought tooth and nail to stay afloat.
Her research and policy papers started gaining national exposure, and soon she was enlisted by democrats in congress to help combat the financial industries latest bill, making it exponentially harder for individuals to declare bankruptcy. After all, why wouldn’t banks want to squeeze people for more interest rather than forgive their debts? The fight was on, and Warren brings us into her meetings with Ted Kennedy and other democratic heavy hitters who waged a heroic but ultimately futile battle to stop the bill. (Who would eventually sign it into law? Who else? George W. Bush).
Nevertheless, Warren had gained a reputation as a valuable source of knowledge and a skilled policy wonk amongst the DC elite. Soon Washington came calling again, enlisting her to chair the Congressional Oversight Panel (COP), a small committee charged with the Herculean task of watching and reporting on the billions of dollars in bailout money given through TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) to the major banks in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Her committee’s exceptional reports saved taxpayers billions in returned bonuses for some of banking’s worst offenders, saved over a million jobs in the auto-industry by providing the decisive report in favor of bailing out the big automakers, and put the insidious “Too Big to Fail” dilemma out into the public consciousness.
Shortly thereafter she was recruited by industry watchdogs and nonprofits to put forth new ideas that could strengthen oversight. Her original idea for the country’s first Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was a stroke of genius, and through her tireless efforts, was codified into law when the Dodd/Frank regulatory act was signed by President Obama. In the process Warren became a political lightening rod, and was unable to take over the CFPB due to Republican intransigence. But despite fierce opposition, the Bureau has already cracked down on predatory credit card practices, hidden banks fees, and Wells Fargo's phony-accounts scandal.
Her years advocating for consumers made her a folk hero to many, and public enemy number one in the world of high finance. Her most memorable chapters come near the end, when Warren describes her greatest battle, running and winning Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat against Banking’s boy toy Scott Brown.
Her life story is an amazing testament to perseverance and service, and you find yourself rooting for Warren as she wages war upon a broken and corrupt financial and political system. But sadly, we never get closer than the sidelines. Warren writes everything as if she’s reading aloud from a podium, no doubt leaving out juicy and more intimate details for fear of political consequences. The result is an extremely earnest telling of the events and battles that led her to where she is today, but not exactly memorable. At one point she employs the term “bullshit”, but quickly apologizes for the vulgar expression. No need to apologize Elizabeth. Your readers are with you all the way. I just hope you’ll let the veil slip a little further next time.