A Fighting Chance

A Fighting Chance is the fourth book by Elizabeth Warren, her first since the former Harvard law professor became a regular guest on The Daily Show, a darling of progressives, a first-term U.S. senator (D-MA) and a possible candidate for president (as of May 2015 she's stated repeatedly that she is not interested in running).

I apologize to those who dream of Goodreads remaining a safe zone from the contentious subjects of politics, religion or sex, unless being discussed in relation to Elizabet

A Fighting Chance is the fourth book by Elizabeth Warren, her first since the former Harvard law professor became a regular guest on The Daily Show, a darling of progressives, a first-term U.S. senator (D-MA) and a possible candidate for president (as of May 2015 she's stated repeatedly that she is not interested in running).

I apologize to those who dream of Goodreads remaining a safe zone from the contentious subjects of politics, religion or sex, unless being discussed in relation to Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. But I've been a great admirer of Warren's since she created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and used her tenure in the Senate to advocate for the middle class against the major banks.

Warren is not the first politician to utilize a book deal to tell their story, promote their ideas in long form and get their message out, possibly in a run-up for higher office. But having already authored three books on bankruptcy (two with her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi), Warren has admitted she enjoys writing and other than help from research assistants, wrote this book herself.

A Fighting Chance is a memoir, balancing Warren's personal life with her increasingly visible work in Washington, beginning in 1995 with a bipartisan commission launched by President Clinton to review the nation's bankruptcy laws. Any of you ready for a nap by what I've described will likely be more interested in Mr. Darcy's affairs than this book. Those crushed that Warren is not running for president should be ecstatic by this book.

Fascinating facts about Elizabeth Warren (or, things I didn't learn on C-SPAN or The Daily Show):

She was born and raised in Oklahoma with three older brothers. Her father dreamed of aviation but was too old to serve as a fighter pilot in World War II. Hoping for a job as a commercial pilot after the war, he missed out there too. (Warren's mother believed the airlines wanted younger men in the cockpit). He sold carpeting at department stores until a heart attack greatly reduced his hours. Warren's mother entered the work force at age 50 answering phones at Sears. The year was 1962 and Warren was 13.Despite resistance from her mother, Warren dreamed of going to college. She'd excelled at debate club and found two schools offering scholarships, Northwestern and George Washington. She sent off for the applications without telling her family and after her father told her mother to let their daughter try, Warren was accepted to both schools. She chose George Washington on a full scholarship and federal loan. Two years into college, a boy who Warren had met in high school on the advanced debate team named Jim Warren proposed marriage to her. He'd graduated college, landed a good job with IBM and after eight weeks of debate, she accepted, dropping out of school and moving to Houston. Finishing her undergrad at the University of Houston, Warren found work as a speech therapist for special needs children at a local public school. She gave birth to a daughter, Amelia, in 1970. Now a housewife in suburban New Jersey, Warren got the itch for grad school. After considering speech pathology, she chose law, thinking Amelia would be proud to have a mom who was a lawyer.

Telling my mother about my plans to go to law school was worse than telling her about college. She was sure something was wrong with me. I should stay home. I should have more children. I should count on Jim to support me. She cautioned me against becoming "one of those crazy women's libbers" and warned me they weren't happy and never could be. I loved my mother. I wanted her to smile, to believe I was doing the right thing. But that wasn't going to happen. So I ducked my head and kept on going.

In three years, Warren graduated from Rutgers Law School. Pregnant with her second child, a son named Alexander, Warren was unable to find a job. She made a brief run at setting up her own law practice at home when in early 1977, a Rutgers professor asked her if she could fill in teaching a class on legal writing. She started the next night. The Warrens returned to Houston in a year and she was able to land a job at UH Law School. Warren recalls there being only one other full-time female faculty member on the staff. She headed for the "money" courses: contract law, then business and finance, figuring if she could master the technical areas first, nobody would question whether she belonged there. Warren's marriage unraveled and her father, mother and aunt all moved to Houston to help her with the kids while Warren earned a living. During a summer course for law professors, she met Bruce Mann, a PhD in history whose specialty was law during the American Revolution. The two soon married. While Warren was teaching at the University of Texas at Austin Law School in the early 1980s, a new bankruptcy law went into effect. The law was so big, nobody had written the textbook yet. So, Warren and two fellow professors began collecting data. Assuming most debtors were deadbeats who

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blamed others for their own bad decisions, what Warren saw at a bankruptcy court in San Antonio and in the personal testimonies she read changed her outlook.

When writing about their lives, people blamed themselves for taking out a mortgage they didn't understand. They blamed themselves for their failure to realize their jobs weren't secure. They blamed themselves for their misplaced trust in no-good husbands and cheating wives. It was blindingly obvious to me that most people saw bankruptcy as a profound personal failure, a sign that they were losers through and through.

Believing education would make a difference, Warren started making speeches. Her family moved to Philadelphia, where Warren taught at Penn State. By the early 1990s, she began to see a pattern: Banks were targeting families already in distress, selling them products with high fees and astronomical interest rates, then lobbying to reform the bankruptcy laws so if their customers were pushed into a corner, relief would be much more difficult. Feeling she had no way to fight this, Warren's husband Bruce urged her to accept a job offer. Harvard Law School was calling. The year was 1994 and Warren was 45.Settling in Massachusetts, Warren's life changed. She received a call from Mike Synar, a high school debating peer who was now a congressman for Oklahoma. President Clinton had placed him in charge of a nine-member bipartisan commission to review the nation's bankruptcy laws. Synar wanted Warren on the commission. Public hearings were held to gather information and Warren noticed that while bank lobbyists were all over the place, very few families in bankruptcy were. They were barely part of the debate. By a 5-4 vote, the commission voted to keep the bankruptcy law intact with only a few modifications. When the banking industry pushed back, Warren was drawn deeper into a political fight to preserve the law. She met with Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and cajoled him into leading the charge in the Senate against a banking industry bill that sought to toughen the bankruptcy laws. Narrow victories and crushing defeats ensued until November 2008, when Warren received a call from the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to come to Washington and provide some oversight of the Treasury Department as they prepared to bail the major banks out of the financial crisis.

Warren's role was to make the process transparent and let those at home know what was going on. The financial crisis was such a major event that talk shows began searching for guests who could distill complicated data into simple ideas and quickly. Warren began making the rounds on television. She was invited to appear on The Daily Show but knowing how guests could be hammered by Jon Stewart, she threw up in the dressing room. Her interview was a disaster, but when Warren got up to leave at commercial break, Stewart stopped her. "You wanted to deliver an important message here and you didn't get to it." When the break was over and Warren was still at the desk, she unloaded.

This crisis didn't have to happen. America had a boom-and-bust cycle from the 1790s to the 1930s, with a financial panic every ten to fifteen years. But we figured out how to fix it. Coming out of the Great Depression, the country put tough rules in place that gave us fifty years without a financial crisis. But in the 1980s, we started pulling the threads out of the regulatory fabric, and we found ourselves back in the boom-and-bust cycle. When this crisis is over, there will be a once-in-a-generation chance to rewrite the rules. What we put in place will determine whether our country continues down the path of a boom-and-bust economy or whether we reestablish an economy with more stability that gives ordinary folks a chance at prosperity.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has said that when he was a boy obsessed with astrophysics, he was curious about Congressmen and what careers they had before going to Washington. His research came back Law, Law, Business, Law, Law, Law, and he wondered where in government all the teachers or engineers were. Warren's story would make her seem like another pugilist, and indeed, her love for robust debate has been a major part of her life, but she struck me as a teacher first and foremost. Each time Washington called, she had to leave a classroom and her students behind. That is the essence of her character and what makes her unique. Warren's writing style is passionate and direct. At 287 pages, not including acknowledgments and the index, I finished the book in two afternoons. It doesn't go into detail about the financial crisis or her election campaign against Scott Brown in 2012, but the anecdotes that are here are terrific. Warren's realization that Brown was the candidate voters most wanted to have a beer with didn't phase her and in the end, didn't matter. The firemen union endorsed her because as one union leader said, "Fuck it, we gotta raise our families. And you are the best shot we've got."Warren divides her memoir neatly between her family and her career, and shows how one came to affect the other and vice-versa. Almost any politician can make claims that they started from a humble background, but Warren's path -- from a time fifty years ago when girls were discouraged from attending college, to bankruptcy law, to education and all the way to personal meetings in the Oval Office with Barack Obama -- and what she learned are impossible not to be inspired by.

Warren also watched Star Trek: The Next Generation with her son when she was still a law professor and for this reason alone, the book gets five stars.


Category: Review

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