At the beginning of her new book, “A Fighting Chance,” U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren describes the moment she grew up.
She was 12, living in Oklahoma with her family, and noticed her mother putting on a dress for a job interview to answer telephones at a local Sears store. Warren’s father had had a heart attack and bills were piling up.
Her mother’s stubborn insistence to hold onto the family home not only sets the young girl on the path to adulthood but also lays out the larger theme of Warren’s life work: the struggle of working families to get a fair deal in an economic and political system rigged against them.
It’s a narrative that runs throughout her story, from breaking out of a rigid homemaker role of the 1960s, to landing a job as a Harvard law professor, to becoming a U.S. senator from Massachusetts.
There are plenty of familiar characters who pop up along the way.
Warren recalls her first meeting with the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy to ask him to help stall a bankruptcy bill she said would jeopardize homeowners and benefit big banks.
At the meeting, Warren abandons her charts and graphs and relies instead on tales of families broken by “a cascade of financial problems and crushing debt.”
Warren said Kennedy was sold — and kept his word.
A few years later, she received a call and heard a man shouting: “We showed those (expletives). They shouldn’t mess with us!” Warren said she was about to hang up when she realized the caller was Kennedy explaining how he and other Democrats had blocked the bill.
Although her side would ultimately lose, Warren credits Kennedy and others with staving off defeat for years.
The story can sometimes read like a political Horatio Alger tale of a small-town girl learning the down and dirty ways of the big city — in this case, Washington.
That includes Warren’s stint as head of the Congressional Oversight Panel — designed to monitor the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Fund intended to bail out the financial system — and her work creating the Consumer Financial Protection Agency to help root out financial traps.
Warren isn’t shy about turning her criticism on herself at times. She describes a bungled appearance on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” that began with her vomiting before heading out on stage after a bout of stage fright.
At other times, Warren portrays herself as willing to push back against party leaders.
She describes one meeting with President Barack Obama where the two locked horns over her futile hope of being named head of the financial protection agency she helped create.
Warren, whose nomination was running into Republican headwinds, balked at being given a lesser job she feared would be “all show.”
“You’re jamming me, Elizabeth,” Obama said, warning her not to overplay her hand.
“A Fighting Chance” apparently isn’t meant to be a presidential manifesto. Warren has repeatedly insisted she has no interest in running for the White House in 2016.
At other times in the book, scheduled to be published Tuesday, Warren can sound like she’s channeling Jimmy Stewart’s character in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the Hollywood classic about an earnest outsider confronting the uglier realities of politics.
The book can also be self-deprecating — she tells one slapstick episode about how she nearly burned down her house after burning the toast — but is filled with her indignation over what she sees as the plight of struggling families outmatched by the rich and powerful.
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