Larry Summers and Elizabeth Warren had spent hours debating fiscal policy at the Bombay Club, the white-tablecloth Indian spot just north of the White House, when Summers leaned back in his chair, took a sip of his Diet Coke and offered a piece of advice.
“Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them,” the then-director of the National Economic Council told Warren during the April 2009 meal. “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 understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.”
Warren recounts the exchange in her memoir, “A Fighting Chance,” released this week. In the 384-page book, the senator from Massachusetts eschews the policy-centric themes of her previous four books to focus on the personal. Bred to believe she would probably never leave the modest confines of her Oklahoma neighborhood, she chronicles the tug-of-war during her formative years between her educational aspirations and her parents’ desire that she marry, have children and stay nearby. Even now, Warren describes being torn between a desire to take center stage as an advocate for the middle class and her sometimes debilitating stage fright — ducking into a backstage bathroom to throw up (twice) before her first appearance on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”
Her ambition and achievements would take Warren far from home — a professorship at Harvard Law School, a role helping President Obama oversee the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and eventually to Capitol Hill.
A year and a half after defeating Republican Scott Brown in a widely watched Senate showdown, Warren is considered a star of the Democratic Party and has been employed broadly to raise funds for vulnerable Democratic incumbents in this year’s midterms. Progressives, meanwhile, openly pine for her to mount a presidential run.
The book’s release — coming, as it did, two months before the scheduled June publication of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s memoir — has sparked a new round of speculation about Warren, who declined an interview request for this piece. Not a day goes by in which her name isn’t floated as a potential rival to Clinton for the 2016 Democratic nomination.
Not going to happen, those close to her say. “Her mission is all about the middle class,” said one senior Warren adviser. “Running for president doesn’t help that mission.”
As Warren writes in the final pages of her memoir, that mission entails creating an “America that builds something better for the next kid and the kid after that and the kid after that.”
Warren, 64, writes that she was once one of those kids, a socially awkward high school girl so self-conscious about her family’s lack of money that her father would drop her off a block away from school so her classmates wouldn’t hear the rattle of their station wagon.
She found fulfillment in her high school debate team, an experience that fueled her drive to apply — over the apprehension of her parents — to far-away undergraduate programs. She wanted to know what else was out there, what else she could be.
Decades later, that same curiosity led Warren, then a law professor at the University of Texas, to study and teach bankruptcy law.
What Warren discovered was a window onto despair.
“When a family goes bankrupt, it is a moment of great defeat and, often, personal shame. For many, it’s like going before a judge and declaring to the world that they are losers in the Great American Economic Game,” Warren writes. “I wanted to know who those people were, what they did, and what exactly had gone wrong.”
As she continued to research and write — including several books and papers on bankruptcy — Warren was invited to speak to groups of bankers. It wasn’t long before she concluded that the big banks had no intention to stop lending to families least capable of paying back those loans, Warren writes, arguing that banks were exploiting the system to block the most vulnerable families from securing bankruptcy protection — and lining their pockets.
“I didn’t have the power to change anything, but the deep cynicism behind these new tactics infuriated me,” she writes.
Warren eventually landed spots on the National Bankruptcy Review Commission and the FDIC Advisory Committee on Economic Inclusion. In 2008, she was named to the congressional panel overseeing the bank bailout.
“You have to remember, she never ran for office until she was 62,” said a former Warren staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could speak freely about his former boss.
Even after winning the Senate seat, Democrats in Massachusetts say, Warren has set aside bolstering her individual national profile and focused instead on strengthening her status among the state’s Democrat-heavy electorate and forging partnerships with other Bay State lawmakers.
At most meetings of the state’s congressional delegation, she sits toward the far end of the table, frequently deferring to those who have been in Washington longer. Democratic aides say Warren has made clear her desire to play by the old-school rules of the Capitol, building influence rather than joining the ranks of freshman senators who may have chalked up a prodigious number of sound bites but have little sway.
Meanwhile, Warren has poured resources into setting up offices in parts of Central and Western Massachusetts, far from regions that usually get the most attention from the state’s senators.
When a fire claimed the lives of two Boston firefighters last month, Mayor Marty Walsh — a longtime friend of Warren’s — said that the flames had not yet been put out when he got a call from Warren, who wanted to know what she could do to help.
“She calls me a lot,” Walsh said. “She’s been excellent.”
But she apparently has not been consistent on all fronts. Warren once criticized Bill and Hillary Clinton and other Democrats who supported a bankruptcy bill that Warren decried as tilted in favor of corporate interests. She lambasted Hillary Clinton by name for voting, as a senator in 2001, for that bill.
“As First Lady, Mrs. Clinton had been persuaded that the bill was bad for families, and she was willing to fight for her beliefs,” Warren wrote in “The Two Income Trap,” the 2003 book she co-wrote with her daughter. “As New York’s newest senator, however, it seems that Hillary Clinton could not afford such a principled position. . . . The bill was essentially the same, but Hillary Rodham Clinton was not.”
Warren provides a different take in her memoir, recounting her meeting with Hillary Clinton in 1998 to discuss the proposed bankruptcy legislation. The then-first lady, according to Warren, said she would fight against “that awful bill.” As the New Republic first noted, in “A Fighting Chance,” Warren doesn’t make reference to Clinton’s subsequent vote in favor of the bill.
A softer tone? No doubt, and one worthy of an insider.