One of the most moving scenes of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s absorbing book “A Fighting Chance” occurs in its first 10 pages. After a heart attack, her father lost his job selling carpets in Oklahoma City and was demoted to a commission-only job selling lawn mowers. It did not go well. The station wagon was repossessed; the family, Warren implies, teetered on the verge of losing its home.
One sweltering day, 12-year-old Elizabeth comes upon her 50-year-old mother, sobbing and trying to squeeze into her best dress, scared but determined to apply for a job answering phones at Sears. When she finally gets it on, she turns to her daughter and says, “How do I look? Is it too tight?” Of course it is. But Warren does the right thing. “I stood there, as tall as she was. I looked her right in the eye, and said: ‘You look great. Really,’ ” Warren writes, recalling it as the moment when “I wasn’t a little girl anymore.”
It may have been the last time Warren pulled her punches. That’s certainly the case in this book, which mostly details her decades struggling against financial institutions that, in her view, are bent on picking every last penny from our pockets even if they destroy the country in the process — along with too many lapdog lawmakers who abet their actions. As such, it is a political narrative first and an autobiography second. Yes, it tells how a self-described daughter of a “maintenance man” attended college on a debate scholarship, went to law school and, one day while she was home caring for her two young children, received an unexpected call from Rutgers University asking her to teach a law course — immediately. The judge scheduled to teach never showed up; were his identity revealed, he might be the most hated man on Wall Street.
Such was the inauspicious beginning of a career that led to path-breaking research on bankruptcy while teaching law at the University of Texas, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard; Warren’s evolution as a financial watchdog for ordinary Americans, too many of whom were the victims of predatory banking practices; her role as the brains behind the creation of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; and, finally, her improbable election to the Senate from Massachusetts in 2012. The odds were against Warren in that hard-fought race not just because of incumbent senator Scott Brown’s popularity, but because, as Rebecca Traister of the New York Times pointed out, the Bay State is not kind to women, having hanged more of them as witches during the 1600s (14) than it has sent to Congress in all the years since (five, including Warren).
This book demonstrates Warren’s stubbornness and her populism, but what it doesn’t reveal are her presidential ambitions, if any. You can read anything you want into sentences such as “There are many more fights ahead, and more work to be done — and I worry that we’re running out of time.” But nothing is explicit.
Her bluntness has made Warren a populist heroine and roused the ire of lobbyists for the too-big-to-fail banks that in 2008 drove the nation to its worst economic downturn in nearly 80 years — the same institutions that Warren attacks with verbal icepicks through most of these pages. She’s mad as hell, and many readers will be, too, by the time they finish this book. Warren explains how the financial crisis was preceded by congressional and court decisions that shredded public protection from high interest rates and predatory banking practices during the 1980s and ’90s. “Gradually [the bankers’] strategy emerged,” she writes. “Target families who were already in a little trouble, lend them more money, get them entangled in high fees and astronomical interest rates, then block the doors to the bankruptcy exit if they really get in over their heads.”
Ever the professor, she explains bankruptcy law (one reason the book has more than 50 pages of references), which would slow down the narrative considerably but for the stories that Warren and her colleagues gathered while doing research on bankruptcy. There’s Flora, a woman in her 80s, who lost her home after signing a new mortgage that a lender assured would lower her payments. The interest rate soared, swallowing her entire Social Security check; her fallback plan was to live in her car. There is Jason, who bought a car and carefully negotiated affordable payments, only to panic a few days later after the dealer told him that, sorry, the quoted interest rate was only preliminary, and the true monthly payments were $105 more. And there was nothing he could do about it.
But the very starkness with which Warren presents her case makes it seem almost a caricature, making me wonder whether there is a banker left in America who isn’t cackling happily while tying widows and orphans to railroad tracks. Meanwhile, in the autobiographical portions of the book, Warren falls in love and remarries; the kids grow up, get married, and grandchildren arrive; she mourns her beloved parents and Aunt Bee, not to mention her faithful dog, Otis, who died five days before Election Day.
Yet the banks together compose the major character in the book, and they are the root of all evil. Yes, there are some elected heroes here, all Democrats, among them the late senator Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and former congressman Barney Frank (Mass.) — and a few unelected and unsung heroes, too, such as Holly Petraeus, the wife of a four-star general, who documented and fought against lenders’ relentless exploitation of vulnerable military families.
There are victories. Warren chaired an oversight commission that publicized each month how the bank bailout money was being spent, exposing the fat bonuses bankers were taking, courtesy of taxpayers. She documented the jobs the auto industry bailout saved. She and the public wait in vain for investigations of the financial sector. Foreclosures mount; the government shrugs and looks the other way.
What keeps the reader from despair is the too-few moments of vulnerability Warren sprinkles throughout the book. On the verge of a divorce, she questions her ability to be a good mother while holding down her job. She notices that most of the time she is the only woman in the room during high-level meetings. While running for the Senate, she is careful to introduce herself to young girls by leaning down and saying softly, “I’m Elizabeth and I’m running for Senate, because that’s what girls do.”
Ultimately, the book’s message is that one person can make a difference, but change is painfully slow, uneven and the work of a lifetime. After reading this book, it is comforting to know that Elizabeth Warren, with her passion, anger and bluntness, will not be silenced.
A FIGHTING CHANCE
By Elizabeth Warren
Metropolitan. 365 pp. $28