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Book cover of Elizabeth Warren's 'A Fighting Chance'
A Fighting Chance
By Elizabeth Warren
Metropolitan Books
384 pages
April 2014
$16.80 hardcover, $12.99 Kindle
This book tells a very public story about fraud and bailouts and elections. It also tells a very personal story about mothers and daughters, day care and dogs, aging parents and cranky toddlers. It's not to be a definitive account of any historical event—it's just what I saw and what I lived. It's also a story about losing, learning, and getting stronger along the way. It's a story about what's worth fighting for, and how, sometimes, even when we fight against powerful opponents, we can win.
Elizabeth Warren takes things very personally. And that's a good thing for America.

Her new book, A Fighting Chance, is rich with personal life story and behind-the-scenes anecdotes about her public life, but more than that, it's the story of one persistent woman determined to make a difference in as many lives as possible. This premise, of course, sounds naive and goofily optimistic phrased that way, but it's hard denying that Warren has given more than a few liberals a kick-in-the-pants hope with her perfect mix of down-home populism and Harvard Law School smarts.

She knows her way around a the minutiae of a statute, and she can wow voters with clear-cut communitarian ideology in a living room setting, as we learned when she campaigned for the U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts, in a particularly impressive off-the-cuff speech caught famously on the video below the fold.

What A Fighting Chance does is help readers understand where this heady mix came from. How did she get so good at explaining the complex, at boiling down mountains of regulation to simple matters of fairness that all of us can understand—and make no mistake, that's her special gift—making the usual wonky-headedness of policy liberalism sound like common sense?

Part of this obviously comes from her working class upbringing in Oklahoma. Her folks were strictly working class, and her brothers still are. No assumption of college for her was made by her parents—she applied to college and got scholarships for her debate skills almost behind their backs, so set were they on her settling down and starting a family. It wasn't that they didn't think she was smart—it's more that the kind of life she ended up forging for herself was so far out of their everyday experience, they couldn't imagine it.

But Warren could. Even marrying early and having children early (she was a mother of one child and eight months pregnant with her second when she walked up to to the stage to receive her Harvard Rutgers Law degree, almost fainting from the combination of heat, nerves and pregnancy), she clearly envisioned a life full of broader purpose than her family had dreamed up for her.

Even at that Harvard stage moment, she didn't guess it would be through the arcane world of bankruptcy law that she would find a path to eventual national fame. It was a serendipitous timing of her hiring in Houston as a law professor and a change in the law that created the Elizabeth Warren we know today—because the legislation was new, and she was new, she was asked by her department to learn it and teach it, winging it because of the lack of established law around it. So she did. And then she wrote a book about it, and then she spoke to audiences about it, and then she advised wonks and lawmakers on the law, urging updates that were vital, seeing as how the law's revision made it nearly impossible for many families drowning in debt to get relief to start over.

It was during this period that she met for the first time with national leaders, most movingly, Sen. Edward Kennedy, whom she respected beyond belief (Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin were also senators she calls out by name in her book as important to helping the foundering middle class during this period—Schumer most surprisingly). There's something magical for a reader as she recounts her conversations with Kennedy in his office, given that the book is told chronologically—it's goosebumps-inducing to know where this encounter will lead her, to ultimately occupying that specific, very revered Senate seat.

So yes, A Fighting Chance packs a wallop of a punch. But most importantly, it leads one to reflect on the particular allure of Warren as a political voice. As progressives, of course, we're gaga over her. But we have had more than a few lions in our midst before—Kennedy, the late Paul Wellstone, Howard Dean, to name just a famous few. These men have been brilliant champions, keen politicians, and in Dean's case, inspiring of a whole movement in the netroots for which we are all eternally grateful. Still, there's an extra … something about Warren.

And you come away from A Fighting Chance understanding a bit more what that magic is, and that it has to do with her uncanny ability to grab hold of really, really intentionally complex regulations and policies and simplify them for the rest of us. Those inscrutable laws and pages of sub-sections that are designed by whole industries to keep consumers and voters in the dark become clear when Warren casts her eye upon them and explains. Think of her tenure at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: make credit card agreements one page. Simplify mortgages and use language people can understand. Even her short tenure so far in the Senate: Students should not pay more for loans from the government than our big banks do. Simple. Fair. Obvious. Commonsensical. Those standards have become her trademark.

She explains in living rooms, as we saw above on the Daily Show. In committee hearings. As she writes at one point:

When you have no real power, go public—really public. The public is where the real power is.
Yes, that's one crucial part of the equation, one that she has made ample use of. But as we've learned over the years, liberals can be mind-numbingly dull policy wonks when they gain the public's ear, wasting precious opportunities for real communication. It does no good to go public unless you can dive into intentionally incomprehensible details of regulations and legislation and come out the other side with clarity and simplicity. In this area, nobody—and I mean, nobody—can do that the way Warren can. It's a gift combining intellect, experience and voice.

That voice was formed, those values were deepened, in her journey from Oklahoma to the halls of Washington DC. And right now, she's one of a kind, a treasure we liberals need to acknowledge and heed as we move forward into talking about our values, our solutions and our future. She promises, as her book title indicates, a fighting chance for all of us. This is a very hopeful message, but one that means if we want that chance to be more than a fighting one, one that really changes the world in better ways, we need to learn how to communicate our values as clearly and genuinely as Warren does.

Update: Thanks to new user dstoff for signing up and pointing out an error: Warren graduated from Rutgers Law School, not Harvard.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun May 18, 2014 at 06:15 PM PDT.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers.

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