A Fighting Chance
Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren studied bankruptcy law. That got her interested in the individuals taking bankruptcy, why were they resorting to Chapter 7 or Chapter 11. Who were the people who were trying to get out from under their debts? Were they the usual suspects: free-loaders, "cheaters and lazy slugs who wanted the easy way out?"

She and her associates thus launched an in-depth study, asked people "to explain in their own words why they filed for bankruptcy."

She writes, "I figured that most of them would probably tell stories that make them look good or that relieved them of guilt. I still remember sitting down with the first stack of questionnaires. As I started reading, I'm sure I wore my most jaded, squinty-eyed expression:"

    The comments hit me like a physical blow. They were filled with self-loathing. One man had written just three words to explain why he was in bankruptcy:




    When writing about their lives, people blamed themselves for taking out a mortgage they didn't understand. They blamed themselves for their failure to realize their jobs weren't secure. They blamed themselves for their misplaced trust in no-good husbands and cheating wives.

"It was blindingly obvious to me that most people saw bankruptcy as a profound personal failure, a sign that they were losers through and through."

I usually avoid political tracts like ebola, so I picked up A Fighting Chance to sneer but found --- all too soon --- that I couldn't put it down. It was like a hot detective story. Great writing, and a strange mystery: why is it that those who run the country are trying to murder the middle class? Stabbing us with murderous credit card rates, sticking it to us with deceitful mortgages, pretending that we are robbing the banks when we merely ask that they not lie, cheat, and steal.

The middle class. You don't mess with them. After WWI, the German middle class got swatted down twice. First with the runaway inflation of 1923 (to buy a loaf of bread, you carted your paper money in a wheelbarrow to the store; your savings had gone up not in a puff of smoke but a mountain of worthless paper).

And then, less than a decade later, the worldwide depression, which wiped out savings, and jobs, and took away homes. Shortly after, in 1932 the Germans voted in a bunch of political heavies who managed in thirteen short years to destroy their country, and not a few others ... taking 60,000,000 lives in the process.

You don't mess with the middle class, yet Warren claims that the economic oligopolies in America are helping the politicians to do just that right now. Our dream of democracy is being chipped away, and we don't get it yet.

§   §   §

The last politician I read who could put together a sentence without putting me to sleep was José Sarney. He wrote a terrific novel, Master of the Sea, just before being elected president of Brazil. A politician who could write. With feeling. Like Warren.

For one thing, she's a wag, makes you want to go out and sign up for her campaign for president of the U. S. or, better --- the world. This is her story of meeting with President Obama and Tim Geithner as she is being designated special advisor to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and assistant to the president.

Just before the press conference, the three of them tried to go out the door to the Rose Garden all at once, and the president said "Well, not all three of us. This isn't a Three Stooges routine." We laughed and then started into a round of Three Stooges gags. The president and secretary knew a lot of Moe, Larry, and Curly jokes. "Surely the country was in good hands."

Geithner, the president and Elizabeth Warren as the Three Stooges! The country is in good hands.

In her studies, Warren found that the typical bankrupt wasn't a welfare cheat nor fraudster, but mostly a normal middle class person that lives, as most of us do in America, on the edge: trying to pay the mortgage, or the grocery bills, or for schooling for the kids --- and there's just enough to get by.

Then something cames along --- a sickness, the loss of a job, a family trauma --- and suddenly they find themselves going under: people ashamed to go into debt, even more ashamed of having to rely on Chapter 11 to bail them out even though it's a constitutionally guaranteed right. When the dark fates conspire, they, like all of us, merely ask for a chance to start all over again.

§   §   §

When she decided to run for the Massachusetts senatorial seat, she was contacted by the local Democratic Party head. "Get your name out there," he said, enthusiastically. "Stir things up!"

    After offering a few more thoughts about why I should run, he paused, as if suddenly remembering that he was speaking to a stranger about the strange land of politics. "Of course, I don't think you'll win. But don't take it personally --- I don't think anyone can beat Scott Brown."

"Run and lose," she writes. "Gee, that sounded like fun. Maybe I'd do that right after I deliberately slammed my fingers in a car door."

She tells us that "someone suggested that I meet with a campaign research pro, an expert in so-called opposition research, or "oppo." The idea was for them to start looking through her background to find things that would be seized on by the opposition in the middle of a hot campaign.

    The research guy asked me all kinds of questions about my personal life --- taxes, health, troublesome kids, alcohol, drugs. I understood that there were things everyone had a right to know, but this was so detailed and so invasive --- nothing private, nothing sacred.

"And then he asked more about my married life. At the beginning of our conversation, I'd told the researcher about Bruce [her husband], and since we'd been married for thirty years, somehow the guy missed the fact that I'd been married before. When I mentioned it, his head snapped up as if a dozen alarm bells had just gone off.

    He wrote down some basic details, then asked, "And where is your ex-husband now?"

    "He's dead...."

    Before I could take a breath and explain about Jim's terrible illness --- about the awful cancer, about the blow to Amelia and Alex [their children], about how he never had a chance to know his beautiful grandchildren --- the research guy shouted, "Great!"

    I felt as if I had been punched. The guy saw my face and tried to cover his blunder: "I mean, not 'great' that he's dead ..." But it was out there. And I couldn't help wondering: Who are these people? Who could say such a thing? And what comes next?

When it was time for her to prepare for her first debate with Brown, the polls showed the two of them neck-and-neck. Everyone told her "how important it was to do a good job. I started getting nervous --- really really nervous."

Her closest advisor, Dan, was "full of Dan-style encouragement." He kept saying, "You could lose the whole race in a single bad minute during the debate."

    The first question had to do with character, and was directed to Senator Brown.

    Brown wasted no time. He said his thank yous to the moderator and the viewers, then lunged straight for my throat. "Professor Warren claimed she was a Native American, a person of color, and as you can see, she is not." He expanded the accusation, asserting that on applications to Penn and Harvard, "she checked the box claiming she was a Native American, and clearly she's not."

"We were thirty-three seconds into the debate, and Brown had already called me a liar and then called the people who hired me liars. He had falsely accused me of using my background to get a job. And he had invited everyone watching on television to take a close look at my appearance so they could judge for themselves just who my parents and grandparents had been."

    I wanted to talk about Wall Street bankers and taxes and education, but Brown wanted to go in a different direction. So I stood my ground. I talked about my family. I made clear I never sought any advantages, and I pointed out that the people who'd hired me had all verified my account --- 100 percent. When I got the chance, I moved to the issues that I believed were at the heart of the election. I talked about how giant companies and billionaires were exploiting a bonanza of tax loopholes and how Scott Brown and the Republicans were determined to keep those loopholes open. I talked about how we should be investing in educating our kids instead of subsidizing Big Oil. And how billionaires should pay at least as high a tax as their secretaries.

§   §   §

Political manifestos or self-serving autobiographies are not my pot of tea. But A Fighting Chance took me over. I found myself kidnapped by a charming woman who can cry over her dog dying in the last days of her Senate race; who can drop a day of campaigning to celebrate a daughter's birthday; who can dragoon two of her grandchildren to introduce her to a roomful of volunteers trying to get her elected.

I know that a book is hot when I get to the very last page and then keep reading on --- I want more.

In this case, I got a lot more: I wandered on through forty pages of notes set in three-point type, holding the book about an inch from my nose, hoping --- as we all must hope at the end of a good story --- for another soupçon, another morsel for those of us who had been starving for a story complete with good guys and bad guys ... and an angel or two.

--- Pamela Wylie
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH