The Warren Wing

Elizabeth Warren Lays Out a Theory of Change at First Democratic Debate

Sen. Elizabeth Warren arrives at the Massachusetts Democratic Coordinated Campaign Election Night Celebration in Boston, Mass., on Nov. 7, 2018. Photo: Sarah Rice/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Elizabeth Warren’s political obituary was written in a thousand hot takes, each one burning hotter than the last. She seemed to be the latest challenger who President Donald Trump had trolled into oblivion, deftly exploiting identity fractures on the left. But standing center stage at the first Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday night, Warren was back.

Her presidential campaign rolled out of the gate with anemic small-dollar fundraising, raising less than $300,000. Mired in the single digits, she was eclipsed in media attention by an embarrassing pair of contenders: Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman, and Peter Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who was paraded around magazine offices as the candidate with brains — never mind the Harvard law professor.

But on the ground, Warren began connecting with audiences starting the first day she hit the trail — and launching her campaign early allowed her to more or less put “Pocahontas” behind her and reset with an endless stream of new policy ideas. So far, she has risen in the polls along with Bernie Sanders, suggesting that the left is growing its share of the vote. The second choice of most Joe Biden voters, meanwhile, is Sanders, suggesting that he and Warren could continue rising together for some time. But at some point, the two will naturally begin to cannibalize each other, which will test the good will that has long existed between their respective camps.


Sens. Elizabeth Warren, left, and Bernie Sanders greet one another during a rally in Boston, Mass. on March 31, 2017.

Photo: Steven Senne/AP

Though Warren and Sanders now occupy a similar space on the ideological spectrum, Sanders arrived at his positions by moving from the left and moderating over the years, while Warren began further to the right. Both embrace the vocabulary of the fight and are eager to name villains, though Sanders is more prone to connect his politics to his theory of change, the political revolution, which involves mustering a mass social base and deploying it against the structural obstacles in Washington. Warren, throughout the Obama years, was adept at deploying outside progressive forces — typically online progressive groups and labor unions — to bring power to bear internally, but she does not make that element of her politics part of her stump speech.

That absence is a reminder to backers of Sanders that Warren is not of the left. There’s a worry that Warren’s political journey leaves her ill-equipped to lead the type of movement that could successfully implement an agenda in Washington over the objection of entrenched forces. That skepticism seemed to be on her mind as she took a question from NBC’s Chuck Todd on Wednesday night about how she would approach Congress if Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is still in charge of the Senate. Her answer alluded to the decision by President Barack Obama to shut down his campaign operation in 2009 after his election and focus instead on the inside game.

“The will of the people matters,” she said. “You better understand, the fight still goes on [after the election]. It starts at the White House and it means that everybody we energize in 2020 stays on the frontlines come January 2021. We have to push from the outside, have leadership from the inside, and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.”

Warren has returned to top-tier status the same way she rose a decade ago, through her use of plain storytelling, connecting her own upbringing “on the ragged edge of the middle class” to the country’s broader problem of economic inequality and immobility. She often begins the story during the nightmare that was the 1930s. Her first political memory is from around the time she was 6 years old, she told me, listening to stories about the Great Depression in Oklahoma from her grandmother, Hannie Crawford Reed. “They lost money when those banks closed up,” she said of her grandparents and extended family. “They watched these little towns shrivel up when the bank was gone. There was no money, there were no jobs. So my grandmother used to say one thing that was political that I can remember. She’d say, ‘Franklin Roosevelt made it safe to put money in banks,’ and she would say, ‘And he did a lot of other things too.’”

The Depression loomed especially large in her family lore. “I wasn’t born until long after the Depression, until after World War II, but I grew up as a child of the Depression, because my grandmother and grandfather, my aunts, my uncles, my mom and my dad, all my older cousins had lived through the Depression,” she said. “And it was such a searing experience in Oklahoma, that the Depression hung around our family like a shroud. It was always there.”

“It was such a searing experience in Oklahoma, that the Depression hung around our family like a shroud.”

Her politics today have been heavily informed by her childhood experiences — not just by Grandma Hannie’s stories of FDR, but also of her family’s Native American background. Her parents eloped at a young age, she was always told, because her father’s parents objected to him marrying Pauline Reed, citing her Native American roots, which dated back to Hannie’s own grandmother, O.C. Sarah Smith Crawford. Whether family lore is rooted in truth or in myth has little influence on how it is received by a child and later incorporated into an adult’s life story, and in Warren’s case, those perceptions would eventually be weaponized by her opponents into a political liability.

Her telling of her family’s financial difficulties, however, has not been challenged. Warren often talks about her father, Donald Herring, suffering a heart attack and being unable to work, the family nearly losing their home. It was only when her mother landed a minimum-wage job at Sears that catastrophe was averted, and the senator has regularly talked about how different a time it was, that a single minimum-wage income could support a family of three. (Her older brothers had left the house by then and joined the military.) The experience marked a starting point in her narrative of the destruction of the middle class over the next several decades, as workers’ wages fell in real terms and capital seized the growth from their increasing productivity.

Warren escaped Oklahoma by winning a debate scholarship at George Washington University but got married at 19, dropped out, and moved to Texas to finish college. She was just 21 when she had Amelia, who’d later become her co-author. At the time, the responsibility of caring for her new daughter was an obstacle between Warren and her plans to go to law school. Amelia was 2 when Warren started at Rutgers University.

That experience, too, has become part of her 2020 cycle stump speech. Her anecdotes of parenting struggles routinely evoke knowing laughter. She recalls her furious determination to potty-train Amelia by age 2, so that she could get her into daycare and go to class. In another, she highlights the tyranny of naps, remembering driving Amelia home after class, one hand to both operate the wheel and shift gears, and the other hand precariously stretched into the back seat, gripping and shaking Amelia’s foot so she’d stay awake. One nod in the back seat, the afternoon nap is ruined — along with her only opportunity to study.

Next came Alexander, and the family moved to Texas, where Warren tried her hand at homemaking. It was not her thing. Washing dishes one night, she turned to her husband and said simply, “I want a divorce.”


Then-Professor Warren teaches at University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia, Pa., in the early 1990s.

Photo: Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Getty Images

Warren’s path to becoming a prominent left-wing, anti-corporate politician was anything but direct. She was for decades what a political consultant might refer to as an infrequent voter, often missing midterms and primaries. And, despite her formidable education and intellect, she was a low-information one at that.

As the decade wore on, Warren’s career as a law professor had taken off. She got a job teaching at Rutgers Law School, then, in 1978, at the University of Houston Law Center. There, she began what would become her landmark research on bankruptcy in 1981, with Jay Westbrook and Terry Sullivan, a study that continues to the present day. When Warren started it, she was still a believer in free-market orthodoxy and influenced by a conservative law school ideology called “law and economics.” She approached the research from a right-wing angle, expecting to prove that people filing for bankruptcy were trying to bilk the system.

The results of the research woke Warren up politically, and she rejected the law and economics ideology she had tried on. “When we went into the whole consumer bankruptcy thing,” Westbrook said, “I think her attitude was very much balanced between, on the one hand, No doubt there are people who have difficulties and they’re struggling and so forth, and on the other hand, By golly, you ought to pay your debts, and probably some of these people are not being very committed to doing what they ought to do.”

Warren said that doing the work changed her politics. “Terry and Jay went into that with a pretty sympathetic lens that, These are people, let’s take a look, give them the benefit of the doubt that they had fallen on hard times,” she said. “I was the skeptic on the team.”

“I had grown up in a family that had been turned upside-down economically, a family that had run out of money more than once when there were still bills to pay and kids to feed — but my family had never filed for bankruptcy,” she said. “So I approached it from the angle that these are people who may just be taking advantage of the system. These are people who aren’t like my family. We pulled our belts tighter, why didn’t they pull their belts tighter?”

“When I looked at the numbers, I began to understand the alternative for people in bankruptcy was not to work a little harder and pay off your debt. The alternative was to stay in debt and live with collection calls and repossessions until the day you die.”

But then she looked into the stories of those who had. “Then we started digging into the data and reading the files and recording the numbers and analyzing what’s going on, and the world slowly starts to shift for me, and I start to see these families as like mine — hard-working people who have built something, people who have done everything they were supposed to do the way they were supposed to do it,” she said. Now they “had been hit by a job loss, a serious medical problem, a divorce, or death in the family, and had hurtled over a financial cliff. And when I looked at the numbers, I began to understand the alternative for people in bankruptcy was not to work a little harder and pay off your debt. The alternative was to stay in debt and live with collection calls and repossessions until the day you die. And that’s when it began to change for me.”

The research the team produced is widely cited around the issue of bankruptcies driven by medical emergencies, but it contains a less-heralded, though no less poignant finding: Many bankruptcies were caused by families moving to better neighborhoods than they could afford to get better schools for their kids.

From there, said Warren, she zoomed out from the particular stories of hardship she was encountering and began asking why she was seeing so much more of it in the 1980s than she had before.

“This happens over the space of a decade, I began to open up the questions I asked. I started with the question of the families who use bankruptcy. But over time it becomes, So why are bankruptcies going up in America?” she said. “What was changing in the 1980s and 1990s? What difference was there in America?”

The answer to that question, she said, led her to become a Democrat. “I start to do the work on how incomes stay flat and core expenses go up, and families do everything they can to cope with the squeeze. They quit saving. They go deeper and deeper into debt, but the credit card companies and payday lenders and subprime mortgage outfits figure out there’s money to be made here, and they come after these families and pick their bones clean. And that’s who ends up in bankruptcy. So that’s how it expands out,” she said. “And by then, I’m a Democrat.”

In 1995, Warren was named to the National Bankruptcy Review Commission. That role and her activism that came after it gave her a first taste of national politics, but it was the 2007 financial crash that brought her to Washington for good. Congress finally approved its bailout of Wall Street in early October 2008, and one of the conditions tacked on was that a commission would be established to audit how the money was being spent. The elections in November came and went, and Washington forgot about that provision. So the Treasury Department’s inspector general took matters into his own hands, and told the Washington Post that the bailout was “a mess” and there was nobody watching the billions of dollars go out the door.

Harry Reid, then-Senate majority leader, and Nancy Pelosi, then speaker of the House, scrambled, but Reid had somebody in mind: the Harvard professor he remembered from the fight over bankruptcy.

Reid phoned Warren at home in Cambridge in mid-November 2008. She was about to host a barbecue for law students when the call came. “Harry Reid,” the soft voice said.

“Who?” she asked.

“Um, Harry Reid,” he repeated softly, pausing. “Majority leader, U.S. Senate.”

“Oh,” she said.

He asked her to chair the commission that would oversee the bailout funds, and with no clue what that entailed, she said yes on the spot. Reid, who does not do small talk, simply hung up.

“I found her, put her on the debt commission. I read one of her books on poverty. She was a Harvard professor and she was just good from the get-go,” Reid told me.

Warren demonstrated an ability to create power where it didn’t exist before.

The commission was virtually powerless, but Warren demonstrated an ability to create power where it didn’t exist before. As chair of the commission, she used the platform to brutalize Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner every time he came before her. The exchanges went viral and earned her an enemy for life. She wasn’t thinking of her long-term career. “Growing up, I never saw an appetite for politics. Even now, I don’t think she really likes Washington or politics. She’s just there to do this one thing,” her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, told a Vogue reporter in 2010.


Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, center, talks with then-Congressional Oversight Panel Chair Elizabeth Warren before the start of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) oversight panel on Capitol Hill on Sept. 10, 2009.

Photo: Susan Walsh/AP

The gavel also put her in closer contact with members of Congress, and she used the proximity to push her idea for an agency dedicated to regulating consumer financial products, which she had first spelled out in an essay published in the journal Democracy in the summer of 2007. Its title, an homage to Ralph Nader’s consumer protection days, was “Unsafe at Any Rate.”

When she sat down with Barney Frank, then the House Financial Services Committee chair, he told Warren that he wanted to regulate the banks before turning to her consumer bureau. She told him about Grandma Hannie. “One of the earliest conversations we had about how to think about financial reform in the wake of the 2008 crash was, What goes first? What’s the first thing we need to think about? And Barney wanted to start with the nonbank financial institutions,” she said, “and stronger regulations over the largest, too-big-to-fail banks.”

Warren agreed that the argument made sense on a policy level, but politically it was important to win people’s trust. “I argued back to Barney that we needed to start where the crash had started, and where families understood it and felt it and that was, family by family, mortgage by mortgage, how those giant banks had taken down the economy. He and I were kind of going back and forth and then I said, Barney, let me tell you about my grandmother, and I told him that story,” she said. “Once he made it safe to put money in banks, my grandmother trusted Franklin Roosevelt. And so my argument to Barney was, Start where people will understand what we’re trying to do. And that’s with the consumer agency. And you know Barney, he has the quickest mind on earth — he cocked his head, took about 3 seconds and said, You’re right. We’ll start with the consumer agency.”

It was an uncanny insight for a politician, if she could be called one by then, and it was made possible, perhaps, by the decades she spent before becoming one. If Warren’s launch into politics can be pinpointed to 1995 with her commission appointment, that would mean that well into her 40s, she was still living, voting, and thinking, politically speaking, at least, like a regular person.

Warren still seemed like a regular-ish person when I first encountered her on April 10, 2009, at a Capitol Hill press conference where she joined a handful of House and Senate Democrats in introducing a bill to create something then called the “Financial Product Safety Commission.”

I quoted her at length in an article in the Huffington Post that day. Finally, here was someone talking in plain English about how the banks had caused the financial crisis by ripping off regular people, and how it could be stopped: “If there had been an agency, like the Financial Product Safety Commission, that had said, You just don’t get to fool people on pricing, then what would have happened is there would have been millions of families who got tangled in predatory mortgages who never would have gotten them.”

Without all those predatory mortgages that quickly imploded, she continued, there’d have been no housing bubble to pop. “It never would have been as profitable for mortgage brokers and others in the financial services industry to market these products, because they would not have been such high-profit products,” Warren explained. “If we never would have started at the front end, we never would have fed them into the financial system.”

She cultivated relationships with members of the blogosphere and progressive media in a way that few politicians were doing at the time.

The Wall Street reform bill that would come to be known as Dodd-Frank was being dragged through Congress by Warren’s consumer agency throughout 2009. The law professor and blogger worked the halls of Congress with her longtime aide Dan Geldon, who had previously been her student. Warren and Geldon, who would become her presidential campaign manager in 2019, both had an understanding of her ability to drive media coverage toward a particular element of the debate. She cultivated relationships with members of the blogosphere and progressive media in a way that few politicians — though she wasn’t quite one yet — were doing at the time. But she also met privately with as many lawmakers as she could.

In the summer of 2009, Warren and Geldon stopped in for a meeting with Chicago’s Melissa Bean, who had expressed interested in Warren’s idea for a consumer financial protection agency, but raised one objection after another. “Well, she didn’t agree with much of anything, but at least she was talking. Maybe we have a shot at persuading her,” Warren told Geldon. “For a moment, Dan looked like he was weighing whether to give me the bad news,” Warren later recalled. The bad news was that Bean had just run through, in order, every talking point that had been included in a press release sent that morning by the American Bankers Association.


Then-President Barack Obama greets Elizabeth Warren, who at the time was head of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the government’s TARP program after Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection financial reform bill in Washington, D.C., on July 21, 2010.

Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP

Warren first met with David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama, by coincidence, the day after Democrats lost a special election for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts in December 2009. Axelrod recognized that there was an anger in the population that the White House needed to understand and grapple with. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, he told Warren, was a clear way to do that. “We need to fight for this thing, need to show we’re standing up for people and not just banks,” he said. The White House had always been publicly supportive of the CFPB, but now it was committed on a political level too.

As the Dodd-Frank bill moved to completion in the spring of 2010, Reid saw a chance for a political win-win. He put the bill on the floor, knowing it didn’t have 60 votes, but from his perspective, there was no bad outcome. Either Republicans blocked Wall Street reform, which would make them look awful, or they’d support it, which would be its own good thing.

As cloture vote after cloture vote failed, Reid eventually grew impatient. He wanted to pull the bill off the floor and move on, said Chris Dodd, then chair of the Banking Committee. “I and others were able to convince him that no, that we thought we could win the issue and we ought to keep it up,” Dodd said.

That May, in an interview with the Huffington Post’s Shahien Nasiripour, Warren put it in simpler terms: No more compromises. “My first choice is a strong consumer agency,” she said. “My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor.”

She got her first choice.

Once the CFPB had been created, the question turned to who would run it. Geithner, the treasury secretary, argued internally it absolutely could not be Elizabeth Warren, but his well-known animosity toward her had the counterintuitive effect of blunting his criticism.

“My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor.”

Geithner found an ally in Rahm Emanuel, White House chief of staff, who called Harry Reid following news reports that Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., opposed Warren’s nomination to the post. “We don’t like her either,” Emanuel told the majority leader. The “we” in that formation was only partly true, as Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett were pushing for Warren internally. Though Reid had been a patron of Warren’s, there wasn’t much he could do, as the White House controls appointments. He spread the word that it wouldn’t be Warren, and Nelson got on board. “We wanted her to be the person who led the consumer [bureau] and I had a little pushback from my own caucus,” Reid said, “mainly one senator whose name I won’t announce, but with that, I didn’t feel I could push it at that time.” I asked if Emanuel had relayed the White House’s concerns. “I do not remember that, but with Rahm,” he said, “the first few words of any conversation was a bunch of swear words, so maybe we never got to the crux of the conversation.”

Keeping Warren off the agency she had created, however, was a difficult position to hold publicly. Warren, after all, had come up with the idea for the agency and then had been its most vocal champion, both publicly and privately, as it ran through a sewage pipeline of bank lobbyists and came out clean on the other side.

Before the administration announced its decision, it invited first-term senators to the White House for a meet and greet. Among them were several allies of Warren, including Bernie Sanders and Jeff Merkley. Sanders pressed the point, asking Obama if he would name Warren to run the agency. Obama held up a glass of water. “That’s the problem with you progressives,” he said. “You see this as half-empty.”

It was clear, however, Warren didn’t have 60 votes to be confirmed to the position. But Nasiripour discovered something useful in the way the law was written: The president was entitled to name somebody to establish the agency while the Senate deliberated on a permanent director. Progressive groups led a pressure campaign for Obama to name Warren to that temporary spot, and Geithner was overruled. Warren’s condition for accepting the job was that she would also be given the title of senior adviser to the president, so Geithner couldn’t push her around.

Still, he set out to embarrass her early, leaking to the press that she was demanding a fancy new paint job in her office. Warren confronted him about the egregiously sexist attack and the leaks stopped. Geithner and his chief of staff, Mark Patterson, under pressure from an embarrassed White House, both apologized to Warren, and she set up the agency without Geithner’s interference.

Scott Brown, whose 2010 special election victory earlier had blown up Democrats’ 60-vote supermajority, was up for re-election in 2012. His approval rating in Massachusetts was through the roof, and it looked like favorite son Republican Mitt Romney would be running for president, making it a tough year for Democrats to win back the seat.

Guy Cecil was in charge of recruiting candidates that year for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He traveled multiple times to Massachusetts, but couldn’t find anybody willing to take Brown on. “Scott Brown is unbeatable,” Cecil was told. “He’s too good. None of the old guard wanted to run against him.”

He knew she’d make a good candidate because of the questions she asked.

He turned his sights on Warren, part of a DSCC strategy that year to recruit the most progressive candidate they thought was electable in each state, a conscious policy he said they had not employed in previous cycles. “I’d go to Elizabeth’s apartment on Friday nights and we’d have a beer,” Cecil said. He knew she’d make a good candidate because of the questions she asked. What is my job description as a candidate? What do I do? What decisions am I responsible for rather than my campaign manager? Chuck Schumer, too, knew that in Massachusetts, in the right political environment, Brown could be beaten. So the man nicknamed “Wall Street Chuck” helped recruit Wall Street’s No. 1 enemy to run for the Senate.

During her last day at the White House, Warren sat down for an exit interview of sorts with Obama. She gave him the same advice she would later give Hillary Clinton ahead of her run for president, that he needed to understand how much anger was out there, and to surround himself with people who understood that, rather than with people from Wall Street and from the Rubin wing of the party. The housing and foreclosure crises were still ripping through the country, and she pressed him to take them seriously. He said that he wanted to hear more from her on what his approach to housing policy should be. “Get my email from Anita,” he said, explaining that it was a complicated pseudonym.

As she left, she told his assistant, Anita Decker Breckenridge, what the president had said. Well, just email me and I’ll make sure he gets it, she said, in what was likely a choreographed routine. Warren later emailed her some housing policy ideas, though nothing came of it.


Warren, center, talks with people at a diner in Framingham, Mass., during her first day of campaigning for the U.S. Senate, on Sept. 14, 2011.

Photo: Josh Reynolds/AP

Not long after Warren announced she’d be running for Senate, I went to Massachusetts to watch her campaign. But first I stopped at the encampment of Occupy Boston, which was then in full swing in the city’s financial district. I wanted to know what the occupiers thought of Warren, fully aware that many of them eschewed electoral politics entirely. I was surprised to find about half of the people I spoke with were fully in support of Warren’s run, even as they condemned the idea of electoral politics as a viable path to change.

Later that week, at an event at a VFW hall in Brockton, somewhere in the middle of the state, she greeted people as they entered, gabbing amiably. I asked her how she was enjoying retail politics, and she said that she got a thrill from engaging with so many people. “I was born to do this,” she said, quickly clarifying that she was referring to how much she enjoyed it, not that she was God’s gift to glad-handing.

Moments into her speech, with my video camera running, she was interrupted by a tea party supporter who stood up and began berating her. He said he’d been unemployed since February 2010, objected to Warren’s expressed affiliation with the frustrations of Occupy Wall Street, and argued that the tea party has been protesting Wall Street excess for longer than the nascent global movement camping out in downtowns across the country.

The crowd tried to shout the man down, but Warren told her supporters to let him speak. “No, no, it’s alright. Let me say two things,” she said. “I’m very sorry that you’ve been out of work. I’m also very sorry that the recent jobs bill that would’ve brought 22,000 jobs to Massachusetts did not pass in the Senate.”

Warren went on to address his question about her association with Occupy Wall Street. “I’ve been protesting what’s been going on on Wall Street for a very long time,” she said, adding that the movement had its own independent agenda and would proceed along its own course.

“I actually felt sorry for the guy. I really genuinely did.”

“Yeah, so has the tea party,” the man said, before losing his cool. “Well, if you’re the intellectual creator of that so-called party,” he said, “you’re a socialist whore. I don’t want anything to do with you.” The crowd now shouted him down as he added that Warren’s “boss,” presumably referring to the president, was “foreign-born.” He then attempted to storm out through a side door, but found it locked. “So, we are here to do work, and I think we have a reminder that we have a lot of work to do,” she said as the heckler continued to struggle with the door, before awkwardly retreating out the back of the VFW hall instead.

A Republican tracker with a video camera was at the event, too, so after it ended, in order to conduct an interview, Warren and I ducked into the back seat of her car, parked in the VFW lot. With two of her aides in the front seats, the tracker shot footage of the car from just feet away.

Warren, in the darkness, reflected on the man’s outburst, which she said was her first such encounter: “I actually felt sorry for the guy. I really genuinely did. He’s been out of work now for a year and a half. And bless his heart, I mean, he thought somehow it would help to come here and yell names.”

The assault stuck with Warren, and she continued to think about it throughout the night. I did, too, and I was conflicted about whether to report on it. It was an interesting exchange, and it foreshadowed the furor of the 2016 presidential campaign, a glimpse into the twisted rage that was transforming politics, rooted in economic anxiety and expressing itself as dangerous racism and misogyny. On the other hand, I didn’t want to encourage copy cats and put her or other politicians at greater risk. Earlier that year, Gabby Giffords, one of the friendliest, warmest members of the House, had been shot in the head and nearly killed.

Warren emailed me later that evening to say she still wasn’t upset with the man himself, but rather with those who attempt to channel his anger in a malevolent direction. “I was thinking more about the heckler. I’m not angry with him, but he didn’t come up with the idea that his biggest problem was Occupy Wall Street,” she said. “There’s someone else pre-packaging that poison — and that’s who makes me angry.”

I ended up deciding to publish the video, and Warren later said she was glad that I did, even though that night she had hoped I wouldn’t.

Warren turned out to be a strong candidate and began out-polling Brown. Cecil said that when he’d talk to the old guard in Boston, they remained unimpressed, “complaining that Warren should be up by more.” Her campaign would be tested in April 2012, when an article appeared in the Boston Herald that continues to resonate. It originated with a tip from a Native American Republican, who reached out to GOP operatives and told them that Warren had previously claimed Native American status, a claim he found questionable.

As Warren had surged in her career, she started moving in circles that were further and further from her Oklahoma roots. At the same time, her aunts began passing away, leaving her feeling unmoored. It’s not at all unusual for non-Native families in Oklahoma to grow up with stories about Native heritage, and Warren’s was among them. In the 1980s, she began listing herself as Native American.

The Herald article noted that claims of Native American heritage were fairly common. “Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama claim to have Native American heritage, but we were never able to find evidence of that, and in both cases we traced their ancestry fairly thoroughly,” Christopher Child, a genealogist at the New England Historic and Genealogical Society, told the Herald.

Internally, Warren’s staff scrambled to find documentation to back up the stories told by Grandma Hannie, but came up empty. “I’m very proud of my heritage. I’m very proud of the stories my grandparents gave me,” Warren responded, as pressure continued to mount. Her staff urged her to make clear to the public that she had not received any special treatment in the hiring process at any university. Though it was true — and an exhaustive Boston Globe examination in 2018 would find that it never came up in Harvard’s decision-making — she refused, telling her aides she didn’t want to appear as if she were undermining affirmative action, or implying that affirmative action was somehow wrong.

Because she genuinely believed the family lore, she was in a difficult position and felt she couldn’t simply apologize and move on without betraying her family. Her efforts to explain how prevalent the lore was in her family only backfired, coming off as tone-deaf, as when she relayed the story of her grandfather’s photo that sat on her mantle. “My Aunt Bea has walked by that picture at least a thousand times,” Warren told reporters, and “remarked that her father, my papaw, had high cheekbones like all of the Indians do, because that’s how she saw it. She said, And your mother got those same great cheekbones and I didn’t. She thought this was the bad deal she had gotten in life.”

Right-wing protesters stalked her at events, regularly breaking into whoops and chants and tomahawk chops. Despite it all, she beat Brown on Election Day by 8 points. Victory has a way of burying scandal, with the unwritten rule being that it will remain buried unless and until the politician seeks a higher position. But for now, she was on her way to becoming a senator, and I tagged along to watch her become official.


Sen. Elizabeth Warren, left, participates in a reenacted swearing-in ceremony with her husband, Bruce Mann, center, and then-Vice President Joe Biden at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 3, 2013.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Warren was sworn into office on January 3, 2013. As we ascended a staircase in the capitol building that morning, Warren was directed by an attendant to an elevator marked “Senators Only.” “Pretty cool,” she said, when I asked how it felt to take the exclusive ride.

Though she had been lobbying the Senate on bankruptcy issues on and off since that first rodeo with Kennedy, being on the floor was a new experience. “That’s the first time I’ve ever been on the Senate floor, literally the first time,” said Warren of the dark blue carpeting she had threatened three years earlier to cover with “blood and teeth.”

Senators get sworn in twice — once for real, and then once ceremonially in the Old Senate Chamber. She gathered with friends, family and supporters in the Kennedy Caucus Room before that ceremonial swearing in to take Kennedy’s seat.

I noted that Sen. Daniel Webster had delivered his famous “Liberty and Union” speech in the chamber Warren was about to enter. She would be taking Webster’s seat, though not his desk.

“Daniel Webster’s desk goes to the senator from New Hampshire, not the senator from Massachusetts,” she noted, ever the professor, adding that she had heard it skipped over the border by dint of the great orator’s last will. Webster, she noted, wasn’t just a senator from Massachusetts but held Kennedy’s seat, as did former President John Quincy Adams and the famous abolitionist Charles Sumner — who left actual blood on the Senate floor when he was brutally beaten within an inch of his life by a pro-slavery South Carolina congressman.

As she and her husband Bruce Mann waited in line outside the old chamber, which is bathed in a plush red velvet, they watched as other women were sworn in. One of them was Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota. Joe Biden, as vice president, was charged with emceeing the proceedings. “Spread your legs, you’re gonna be frisked,” Biden told the Heitkamp family. Warren was speechless, as was Heitkamp. Biden, through decades of saying idiotic and offensive things on the regular, had effectively raised the bar on what could possibly be considered a gaffe. But even he seemed to sense he may have managed to clear it with that one. Apparently, when a photographer had told Heitkamp’s husband to move one of his hands, Biden’s mind had gone to a police pat-down, and his mind had gone, as usual, directly out of his mouth. “You say that to somebody in North Dakota, they think it’s a frisk. Drop your hands to your side, y’know?” Biden added, trying to make the joke land. Warren and her husband looked at each other.

Biden turned to Heitkamp’s husband, hoping for a bailout. “They think you’re in trouble, right? You drop your hands to the side …” Her husband did his best to ignore him. “Ahhh, I’m a little formal, I know,” Biden concluded.

“We’re going to not only make history, we’re going to change history.”

Biden was on better behavior swearing in Warren. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the first woman elected without following a husband to the upper chamber, found Warren later on the Senate floor. She barely came up to Warren’s shoulder as the two embraced. Mikulski attached an official Senate pin to the lapel of the incoming senator’s pantsuit. “Think of it,” Mikulski said she told Warren, “like the Croix de Guerre for all the battles we women have fought.”

“Congratulations,” Mikulski said, with her eyes watering as she beat her hand against her heart. “You stand here now in the footsteps of so many women who for so long would have liked to have been here, should have been here, but didn’t get the shot. You’ve got the chance. You have a band of sisters. And we’re going to not only make history, we’re going to change history.”

This article was adapted from “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement” by Ryan Grim, published by Strong Arm Press. 

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