Every modern political memoir begins as a country song. Even the most privileged politicians paint their backgrounds in sepia tones of hardscrabble upbringings in order to coax sympathy from their readers. All the dead relatives are paraded out one more time, financial troubles are crooned in seductive tones, the scratches and bruises of childhood and early adulthood are shown to the reader with a solemn, self-aware dignity. I'm just normal folks, the politician affirms, just like you.
Senator Elizabeth Warren's new memoir, A Fighting Chance (Metropolitan Books, $28), certainly doesn't buck the political-memoir-as-country-song trend. The book opens with a lie Warren told as a child in order to preserve her mother's dignity, it continues through her divorce, and she also talks—a lot—about the deaths of her dogs. It gets to be a little much; you can practically hear the twang of the steel guitars as each dog dies in turn. I'm not suggesting that Warren didn't come through struggle to get where she is now—her poor Oklahoma upbringing is far more suited to the country-song treatment than, say, Mitt Romney's blue-blood attempts to woo his future wife while on his Mormon mission in Europe—but I am suggesting that Warren doesn't need to follow this formula to make herself likable. She's already likable—intensely so—because she's a smart woman who doesn't always say what's popular.
Even though political writing now lives on Twitter, political memoirs are still powerful tools. They encapsulate a politician's worldview and establish a narrative that voters can assign to the candidate. In modern parlance, they create a brand. Speaking as someone who believes in Warren's politics and who would like to see her run for president in 2016, I think her brand is smarter than this book, but it wasn't written for the political junkies. It's written to normalize Warren, to transform her from Fox News' big-government, anti-business monster to a woman who has devoted her life to defending the poorest and most vulnerable Americans from predatory banks. (Warren does chafe slightly at the nicey-nice, formulaic publishing industry when she complains that she had to rewrite a previous book, The Two-Income Trap, because her publisher said it was too "depressing." Warren complied with her publishers' notes, she says, but "I felt as if someone were asking me to deliver stand-up jokes at a funeral." On reading that line, one wonders how much of A Fighting Chance consists of "stand-up jokes" conjured up in rewrites.)
Once her just-folks bona fides are established, Warren enters academia and becomes interested in bankruptcy. This is when A Fighting Chance really heats up, as Warren—and it is Warren, no ghostwriter here—learns how common bankruptcy is. By 2001 in America, she writes:
• More children would live through their parents' bankruptcy than their parents' divorce.
• More women would file for bankruptcy than would graduate from college.
• More people would file for bankruptcy than would be diagnosed with cancer.
Warren battles to reform the bankruptcy process, first as a college professor, then as a member of a special government panel, and finally as a political player in her own right when the economy ruptures and the banks walk away unscathed. The how of it is much less interesting than the why: Warren thoroughly understands the financial industry, and even the basic information about the 2008 economic collapse that she drops throughout A Fighting Chance is enough to get a reader mad. And she's not afraid to get partisan about it: Warren doesn't try to build bridges to the Tea Party, for example, and she lays the blame for contemporary antigovernment culture directly where it belongs, with the patron saint of the modern Republican party.
Over the past generation or two, many Americans had come to believe that government service was synonymous with bureaucracy and complacency. Ronald Reagan's famous line—"The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help'"—had inflicted an injury, all the more painful because it came from the president of the United States. Every dismissive comment ("Well, what do you expect—it's the government") had left a small cut.
As I got to know more people in government service, it seemed to me that those complaints were pretty unfair.
At every stop on her book tour so far, Senator Warren has been asked if she's going to run for president in 2016. She has replied in the negative every time. When she reads in Seattle this Thursday, the scene will probably be no different. But it must be said: I've read a lot of memoirs written by presidential aspirants, and Chance reads a hell of a lot like a memoir by a presidential aspirant. It hammers her biography home, it devotes a lot of space to the potential candidate's pet issue, and it avoids serious controversy—Chance ends after Warren's election-night victory over former senator Scott Brown, allowing her to neatly sidestep issues like drone warfare or NSA surveillance that have torn the Democratic Party apart in recent years. If she's not testing the waters for a presidential bid in this book, she's doing a pretty damn good impression of someone who's running for president, sad country song and all.