The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Elizabeth Warren: U.S. senator from modest means and fierce financial oversight

Maura Casey is a former New York Times editorial writer.

In her biography of Elizabeth Warren, Antonia Felix recounts the moment the future U.S. senator went “all in” in her 2012 bid to represent Massachusetts. At an early campaign stop in New Bedford, Warren met an unemployed woman with two master’s degrees, whose car was in disrepair and whose hope was running thin. “I don’t care how hard it gets,” the woman said. “I want to know that you are going to fight.” Warren grasped the woman’s hands, her heart surging. “Yes, I’ll fight,” she replied.

It was a poignant scene. But if it sounds familiar, that’s because Warren wrote about it in her autobiography, “A Fighting Chance.” Felix repeats it in her book, “Elizabeth Warren: Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life.” There are a lot of moments like that here for any reader who has kept up with Warren’s career as a law professor, author, crusader for consumers’ rights, senator and possible presidential candidate. The book has more than 20 pages of mostly published source material and lists 30 interviews Felix conducted — including several people who attended Oklahoma City’s Classen High School with Warren when she was Elizabeth Herring. The source listings do not include any interview of Warren or her family.

Warren’s formative years were financially difficult, leaving her with a “wobbly sense of security” that “lived side by side with her confidence in her intellectual strengths.” She became a star on the debate team and talked politics with a close friend whose family was made up of Democrats, unlike the Republican Herrings. “She was very conservative back then,” said classmate Katrina Cochran. Warren aspired to become a teacher, but her mother was against her even applying to college. No one in the family had ever gone, and they couldn’t afford to send her. Her goal, her mother thought, should be to find a good husband. The conflict resulted in arguments, hurt feelings and at least one abandoned attempt to leave home.

Warren’s debating skills gained her a full scholarship to George Washington University. But when a former boyfriend from high school, Jim Warren, proposed less than two years later, she left the university and got married at age 19. She finished her degree in Houston, where her husband worked for IBM. After having her daughter, Amelia, she moved to New Jersey when IBM transferred her husband, and she applied to law school at Rutgers. Former members of her high school debate team, whom she had met by chance on a trip to Oklahoma, encouraged her to go, but her husband and mother were not in favor of it.

One could argue that her decision to attend law school was pivotal to her rise in politics. After her graduation and the birth of her son, Alex, Rutgers offered Warren a teaching post, which led to another at the University of Houston Law School when IBM transferred her husband once again. The couple eventually divorced; Warren married law professor Bruce Mann, and they both became professors at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.

It was there that Warren and two colleagues began a wide-ranging study of bankruptcy that led to her becoming recognized nationwide as a leading expert in the field just as middle-class Americans were winding up in bankruptcy court in soaring numbers, often because of circumstances beyond their control such as medical bills, layoffs or divorces. The findings surprised and troubled her, and formed the basis of her growing conviction that the free-market system had become slanted in favor of those at the top. Her expertise led to a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania and, ultimately, Harvard. Her growing influence led to her role in overseeing the $700 billion government bailout Congress authorized during the 2008 recession and her organization of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Felix’s admiration for her subject creates a very rosy picture of Warren. We learn, for example, that over 17 years at Harvard, Warren’s students found her “tough yet engaging in the classroom, personable and empathetic and a generous mentor.” We also learn that “Elizabeth’s high standards for the agency [CFPB] lived side by side with her down-to-earth, considerate style of interacting with everyone.” Criticism of Warren is sparse. The book omits any reference to doubts, however faint, about Warren’s bankruptcy research conclusions. We hear nothing about those who contend that her estimate of the percentage of bankruptcies arising from medical bills is vastly overblown.

But the book provides a solid discussion of the most controversial aspect of Warren’s career: her claim to Native American ancestry based on family stories, and the accusations that she made the claim for nine years in the American Association of Law Schools directory to raise her chances of getting hired as a professor. At least one member of the hiring committee at Harvard rebutted the charge against her. Perhaps the strongest indication of her ancestry was that her parents, Pauline and Donald Herring, were forced to elope; the Herrings didn’t want Donald to marry Pauline because she had Native American blood. The rift between the families never healed. While Warren has made the distinction that she has no documentation, only family stories, the biography gives a robust representation of both sides. Would that this approach had been used more fully elsewhere in the book.

Elizabeth Warren

By Antonia Felix

Sourcebooks. 359 pp. $25.99