JONATHAN COHN OCTOBER 7, 2011
Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown is taking a lot of flack for something he said about his top Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren. A few days ago, during a primary debate, Warren had joked that "I kept my clothes on" when finding ways to pay for college. It was a reference to Brown's decision to pose nude, in a spread for Cosmopolitan magazine, while he was a student at Boston College. On Thursday, a radio host asked Brown if he had a response. "Thank god," Brown quipped.
It's a pretty boorish statement, as my colleague Timothy Noah notes, although I tend to give public figures a little slack in episodes like these. (Everybody says stupid things sometimes, particularly when trying to be funny on live radio.) But it's the rest of Brown's quote that seems truly objectionable. Here it is:
Bottom line is, you know, I didn’t go to Harvard. You know, I went to the school of hard knocks. And I did whatever I had to do to pay for school. And for people who know me, and know what I’ve been through, mom and dad married and divorced four times each. You know, some real challenges growing up. You know, whatever. You know, let them throw stones. I did what I had to do. But not for having that opportunity, I never would have been able to pay for school, and never would have gone to school, and I wouldn’t probably be talking to you. So, whatever.
Presumably this is the way Brown and the Republicans plan to attack Warren during the campaign -- as an elitist who's out of touch with average Americans. She's an intellectual. She's had an easy life. Why, she even went to Harvard.
But it's not true -- not even the Harvard part. She teaches there, sure. But her degrees are from the University of Houston and the Rutgers School of Law in Newark. And while she didn't grow up in in poverty, she didn't grow up in privilege, either. As Jodi Kantor recounted in the New York Times a few years ago,
The defining event of Elizabeth Warren’s life may have taken place before she was born, when a business partner ran off with the money her father had scraped together to start a car dealership. She arrived a few years later, in 1949, another mouth for a strapped family to feed. But she used that mouth to talk her way into a debate scholarship at George Washington University at age 16.
She became a speech therapist, then a lawyer — she hung a shingle and did wills and real estate closings — then a part-time law instructor, and finally a leading scholar of bankruptcy. Her research helped change the stereotype of bankrupt people as feckless deadbeats: many, she showed, are middle-class workers upended by divorce or illness.
While Ms. Warren was building her career, her father became a maintenance man and her three older brothers back in Oklahoma worked in construction, car repair and the oil fields. Among them, they have endured all manner of financial crisis, including foreclosure, according to Ms. Warren’s husband.
“I learned early on what debt means, how vulnerable it makes people, what the security of owning a home means,” Ms. Warren said, her eyes welling. Even today, said Ms. Warren’s daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, her mother is so frugal that she eats shriveled grapes out of the fruit bowl.
Biography isn't destiny in politics. If it was, the sons of the Roosevelt and Kennedy clans would have been conservatives who coddled the rich.
But when it comes to championing the underdog, Brown can't match Warren's record. And so he's resorted to attacking her life story -- even if that means distorting it.