Watch Out for Warren

By Susan Estrich

June 22, 2019 5 min read

No one had a worse campaign debut than Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Pocahontas.

Why was she listed as Native American in law school directories in the '80s and '90s, as she was rocketing her way up the law school rankings, from Rutgers to Houston to Texas to Penn to Harvard?

How could such a brilliant person be so stupid as to take, let alone release, a DNA test that proved she's got about as much Native American ancestry as the average American WASP?

Here's the thing: The listing made absolutely no difference to her career ascent. Yes, law schools were looking — finally — to be more inclusive in those years, even if most of us were still first "this" or "that."

But they weren't looking in the phone book, which is essentially what that directory was and is, providing a handy source for email addresses of colleagues at other schools. Every year, I think, they send you a form asking for updates, and if you're like me, even a little, you don't bother to look at it.

Neither do the members of law school appointments committees, generally respected tenured faculty who consider themselves fully capable of deciding who to hire without the assistance of old forms. The Boston Globe did an investigation, talked to everybody, reviewed every piece of paper (God help it) relating to her appointment to the Harvard faculty, as well as the earlier appointments, and concluded that her ethnic heritage had nothing to do with any of them.

Of course it didn't. Elizabeth Warren was a bankruptcy scholar, one of the biggest in academia, who had figured out how to explain very complicated ideas in English. She had a chair at Penn when she came to Harvard, and she came to fill a chair. It was a big deal for Harvard.

I never heard her referred to as a Native American professor, or as a member of any Native American tribe, until someone found those old directories. I can understand not remembering you filled out a form 30 years ago with the simple intention of showing pride in your ancestry. But taking the DNA test? Standing by your uninformed youthful self?

And then she did something that some of the guys in this race seem to be allergic to. She owned it. As a mistake. For which she was responsible. She made amends; made public her fault in even suggesting that DNA alone would establish membership (technically, it is "citizenship") in the Cherokee nation; paid a surprise visit to a convention of Native American leaders and received a standing ovation for doing the right thing.

In the meantime, she has been churning out the most thoughtful and detailed policy proposals of anyone in the race, and has put together the kind of strong ground operation in Iowa and New Hampshire that those of us who learned our politics trying to sell Massachusetts in Iowa know enough to credit.

One of those wiseguys, my friend Jack Corrigan, sees a clear path to the nomination. In my experience, it rarely pays to bet against Jack.

Even so, I was skeptical. It seemed like a fatal mistake. How would she overcome it?

The answer is that her background has more in common with my mother's than millennials', which tells you a great deal about her. She could have spent her life working as a speech pathologist. She'd be retired now. Instead, she is a Harvard professor, a Massachusetts senator and now a candidate for president.

She grew up in rural Oklahoma. She married her high school sweetheart. She followed him to Houston, where she got her degree in speech pathology. He got a transfer to New Jersey, so they moved there. When her oldest child turned 1, she enrolled in law school at Rutgers. By the time she graduated, she was pregnant with her second. She took a job as a lecturer at Rutgers until her husband got a job at NASA, and the family moved back to Houston, where she got a job as an assistant professor. Two years later, she and her husband separated, and she had primary custody of their 8- and 3-year-olds. She raised her children and wrote (and lectured) her way to the top. I don't know anyone else who started at Rutgers or the University of Houston and ended up with a chair at Harvard and a Senate seat in Massachusetts. It had nothing to do with ethnicity and everything to do with raw talent and sheer drive.

If she can do that, if she can own both her successes and mistakes, she just might do it.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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