A few months back I was listening to the Common Sense podcast by Dan Carlin, when he mentioned a particular interaction from Elizabeth Warren’s book. He got some of the facts wrong, but the overall gist was correct:
Washington that spring. Late in the evening, Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice. By now, I’d lost count of Larry’s Diet Cokes, and our table was strewn with bits of food and spilled sauces. Larry’s tone was in the friendly-advice category. He teed it up this way: I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People—powerful people—listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders. I had been warned.
The very fact that Warren chose to include this dialogue suggests that she was breaking from the insider camp. I appreciated her openness and thought that her book might just be a welcome respite from the deluge of political memoirs that stream through Washington. Unfortunately, I was mostly wrong.
Warren’s voice is strongest when she discusses her early hardscrabble life growing up in Oklahoma or balancing family and career in Texan law school or even her time as a bankruptcy researcher and professor. I suspect the authenticity of these stories comes through because they occurred long before her political career was underway. She could afford to share details unvarnished and edited. As soon as her narrative turns to Washington, however, the stories become cliche, her statements decrying a rigged system repeat over and over, driving home her point that Americans deserve a fair deal.
I reached into the book almost at random to find this example:
And yet … there was so much at stake in this election. I’d spent nearly twenty 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? What if the conservatives and the big banks and the big-time CEOs got their way, and Washington kept helping the rich and powerful to get richer and more powerful? Could I really stand on the sidelines and stay out of this fight?
She focused again, looked me straight in the eye, and said: I’m here because I’m running out of hope. I’ve read about you for a long time, and I’m here to see you in person, to tell you that I need you, and I want you to fight for me. I don’t care how hard it gets, I want to know that you are going to fight. I looked back at her and said, “Yes, I’ll fight.” I didn’t really think about the size of the commitment I was making or what it would cost me or Bruce or the rest of our family. I simply thought, I can’t stand here and cry. And I can’t just walk out on her. She asked for a commitment, and I made it. Stand and fight—there was nothing else to say and nothing else to do. She didn’t smile. She didn’t encourage me. She just held my hands and looked at me. Then she was gone.
A fighting chance. I had to fight. This was my time to fight. For America. Sigh. The book follows a predictable pattern: A personal anecdote about family or her dog, then an anecdote about a voter, or middle class American who came up and told her she had to stand up for them and their family, finally followed by Warren gritting her teeth and moving forward. Rinse and Repeat.
Don’t get me wrong, I really like Elizabeth Warren. She seems to have done good work with the Consumer Protection Finance Bureau. I’m sure she is an exception to much of the shmuckness that passes for politician here in DC. I just wish her book held more specifics, more details, more policy. For goodness sake, you were a bankruptcy law professor at Harvard. Policy details are your specialty. Instead, we get common tropes: American deserves a fighting chance, the wealthy should pay their fair share, the middle class is hollowing out. These are all true, but let’s get into the nitty gritty. How are you going to change these? What laws, policies, checks and balances are you going to fight for?
In the end, I’m afraid Politics (with a capital P) limited this book’s potential. The reader must remember that Elizabeth Warren is a contemporary lawmaker. If she were to lay out firm policy in her book, she could very easily kill any real chance of negotiating on the Hill – either the readers of her book would feel betrayed when she couldn’t translate all of her aims into reality, or her political allies and enemies would view her words as leaving little room for compromise.
Sadly, Elizabeth Warren is somewhat of an insider now, and to get anything done, she must refrain from speaking badly about insiders. Obama and Timothy Geitner, both Democrats, are clearly not on her favorite person list. She jumps through hoops, however, to both describe her fighting independence, proving she can stand up even to Democrats who don’t give a fair shake to “ordinary americans”, while still supporting them as members of the “good guy team”. Republicans don’t receive such considerate behavior. They are fair game, and she gives it to them on all counts.
I was hoping for more from Elizabeth Warren. Perhaps, this book was written by a ghost writer, or her staff ran it through the washer so many times that it came out lacking her personal stamp. Perhaps it just isn’t possible to write an honest and frank book on policy in Washington while also being in office. Otto Von Bismarck did say: “Laws are like sausage. It is better not to see them made.”