Read A Fighting Chance Online

Authors: Elizabeth Warren

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Political, #Women, #Political Science, #American Government, #Legislative Branch

A Fighting Chance

BOOK: A Fighting Chance
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For Octavia, Lavinia, Atticus, and all our children

 

Contents

Title Page
Copyright Notice
Dedication
Prologue: A Fighting Chance

 

1 |
Choosing Battles
2 |
The Bankruptcy Wars
3 |
Bailing Out the Wrong People
4 |
What $1 Million a Day Can Buy
5 |
An Agency for the People
6 |
The Battle for the Senate
Epilogue: Fighting Again … and Again

 

Photographs
Notes
Index
Acknowledgments
Also by Elizabeth Warren
About the Author
Copyright

 

Prologue | A Fighting Chance

I
’M ELIZABETH WARREN.
I’m a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. For nearly all my life, I would have said I’m a teacher, but I guess I really can’t say that anymore. Now I’d have to introduce myself as a United States senator, though I still feel a small jolt of surprise whenever I say that.

This is my story, and it’s a story born of gratitude.

My daddy was a maintenance man and my mother worked the phones at Sears. More than anything, my parents wanted to give my three older brothers and me a future. And all four of us have lived good lives. My oldest brother, Don Reed, served twenty years in the military, with 288 combat missions in Vietnam to his credit. In good years, my brother John had a union job operating a crane, and in leaner years he took whatever construction work he could get. My brother David had a special spark; he started his own business, and when that didn’t work out, he started another business, because he couldn’t imagine a world where he wasn’t living by his wits every day. I went to college and became a teacher, first for special-needs kids and then for law students; only much later did I get involved in politics. My brothers and I all married and had children, and my parents plastered their walls, their refrigerator, and their tabletops with pictures of their much-loved grandchildren.

I will be grateful to my mother and daddy until the day I die. They worked hard—really hard—to help my brothers and me along. But we also succeeded, at least in part, because we were lucky enough to grow up in an America that invested in kids like us and helped build a future where we could flourish.

Here’s the hard truth: America isn’t building that kind of future any longer.

Today the game is rigged—rigged to work for those who have money and power. Big corporations hire armies of lobbyists to get billion-dollar loopholes into the tax system and persuade their friends in Congress to support laws that keep the playing field tilted in their favor. Meanwhile, hardworking families are told that they’ll just have to live with smaller dreams for their children.

Over the past generation, America’s determination to give every kid access to affordable college or technical training has faded. The basic infrastructure that helps us build thriving businesses and jobs—the roads, bridges, and power grids—has crumbled. The scientific and medical research that has sparked miraculous cures and inventions from the Internet to nanotechnology is starved for funding, and the research pipeline is shrinking. The optimism that defines us as a people has been beaten and bruised.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

I am determined—fiercely determined—to do everything I can to help us once again be the America that creates opportunities for anyone who works hard and plays by the rules. An America of accountability and fair play. An America that builds a future for not just some of our children but for
all
of our children. An America where everyone gets what I got: a fighting chance.

My story seems pretty unlikely, even to me. I never expected to run for office—but then again, I never expected to do a lot of things in my life. I never expected to climb a mountain. I never expected to meet the president of the United States. I never expected to be a blonde. But here I am.

The story starts in Oklahoma, where I grew up, and it tumbles through a life built around husbands and babies and setting the kitchen on fire. I made my way to a commuter college, a teaching job, a public law school, and, eventually, a professorship. As I started weaving in academic research, I became more and more worried about what was happening to America’s families, and the story shifted to Washington, where I picked my first public fight. In 1995, I agreed to take on what I thought would be some part-time public service for a couple of years, and I quickly got caught up in a battle over our nation’s bankruptcy law. I know that sounds a little obscure, but underneath it was a clash about whether our government exists to serve giant banks or struggling families.

The battle lasted much longer than I’d expected—a full ten years, in fact. My own life threaded through, of course, with graduations and funerals and grandchildren of my own. When that battle ended, I picked up another, and then another and another—a total of five big fights in all. They ranged from fighting for a fresh start for families who had suffered a job loss or a serious illness, to trying to force the government to be transparent about what was really going on with the bank bailout, to tangling with the big banks over dishonest mortgages. But the way I see it, even as they took me this way and that, all five battles were about a single, deeper threat: America’s middle class is under attack. Worse, it’s not under attack by some unstoppable force of nature. It’s in trouble because the game is deliberately rigged.

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 meant 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 very powerful opponents, we
can
win.

I never expected to go to Washington. Heck, for the most part I never even
wanted
to go. But I’m here to fight for something that I believe is worth absolutely everything: to give each one of our kids a fighting chance to build a future full of promise and discovery.

 

1 | Choosing Battles

I
KNOW THE DAY
I grew up. I know the minute I grew up. I know why I grew up.

I was twelve, tall for my age and self-conscious about how thin I was. My bones stood out in my wrists, my knees, my elbows. I had crooked teeth and wore glasses for reading. I had straight-as-string dark brown hair that my aunt Bert cut twice a year. I already knew that I would never be beautiful like my much older cousin Candy, who was a sorority girl and had married the son of a successful car dealer.

I was standing in my mother’s bedroom on a warm spring day. Mother had pulled a black dress out of her closet and laid it on the bed. She was crying. My mother cried a lot after my daddy got sick.

A few months earlier, on a cold, gray Sunday, my daddy had been working on our car. Near evening, he came in and sat down at the kitchen table. He just sat there. Daddy was always on the move, so it was odd to see him sit still, looking down, as if he was concentrating on something. His skin looked splotchy and his hands shook.

I was at the table reading, and Mother was at the stove, frying something for dinner. She asked him what was wrong. When he didn’t say anything, she accused him of being sick, and he denied it. I closed my book and went upstairs to my bedroom.

After a while, Mother called up the stairs, “Betsy, we’re going to the hospital. You stay here. Eat your dinner.” By then my three brothers had all grown up and moved out, so it was just me and my little dog, Missy. After dinner, Missy got the scraps and I waited for someone to come home.

For the next week, Aunt Bee and Uncle Stanley picked me up from school. Every afternoon, they took me to the hospital, where Mother sat by Daddy’s bed. Daddy was slim, with close-cropped gray hair. He had light blue eyes and fair skin that was always slightly sunburned, but now he looked gray and tired.

All week, people from our church came by our house with casseroles and thick, sweet desserts. I remember how they used the words
heart attack
. Everyone paused before they said it. “When your father had his, uh, heart attack, was he working outside?” “I heard your daddy had, um, a heart attack. I hope he’s going to be all right.” The pauses scared me.

After Daddy got out of the hospital, he stayed home for a long time.

He ate poached eggs with the yolks taken out, and when he lifted a bag of groceries out of the car, Mother would yell, “Don, stop! Stop that!” I could hear a thread of panic in her voice.

We lived in Oklahoma City. My parents had bought this particular house because it was right inside the boundary line of what my mother believed was the best school district around. The house had wiring that sparked and plaster that fell off the ceiling, but Daddy was handy, and it had a big yard where my mother grew irises and roses. That spring, Daddy didn’t work around the house. Mostly, he sat by himself on an old wooden chair in the garage, smoking and staring somewhere far away.

My mother usually picked me up from school in our bronze-toned station wagon. One day she showed up driving the old, off-white Studebaker that Daddy had been driving back and forth to work. As I climbed in the car, I asked where the station wagon was.

“It’s gone.”

“Gone where?”

“Gone.”

I kept pushing. My mother was staring straight ahead, fingers tight on the steering wheel.

After one more “Where?” she answered in a low voice, “We couldn’t pay. They took it.”

I never should have asked.

Eventually, Daddy’s doctor said he could go back to work, but somehow his old job—selling carpeting at Montgomery Ward—was gone. The store gave him a different job selling lawn mowers and fences, only he didn’t get a regular paycheck anymore. Now he depended on commissions. Daddy was naturally quiet, not the kind who usually thrives in sales.

One night at dinner, I asked him why he didn’t work in the carpet department anymore. My mother cut in with something about his hours and his insurance. I didn’t understand it, but I understood the bitter tone. In her view, his company had robbed him of something he’d worked for. And now, she said, “They think he’s going to die.”

I needed to stop asking questions.

After school one day, I went with Mother and Aunt Bee to look at a little house with a
FOR RENT
sign in the front yard. It was small, white, and up on blocks, which meant dogs or raccoons could hide under it. I still remember that it smelled funny, like dust and old cooking.

I didn’t ask why we had to move.

Sometimes that spring I would overhear my parents arguing. I guess I shouldn’t describe it as arguing; my father never said much of anything, while my mother yelled louder. They drank more, a lot more. No one told me, but I knew, the way kids always know. I knew we were about to lose our house, pretty much the same way we lost the car. I knew that my mother blamed my daddy for not doing “what a man is supposed to do” and taking care of us.

A few days later I was upstairs, standing in my mother’s bedroom. Mother’s face was puffy, and she had rubbed her eyes to a fierce red color. About a dozen wadded-up tissues were on the bedspread next to the black dress.

I remembered the dress from years earlier, when we still lived in Norman. It was the dress she wore to funerals and graduations. It was a stiff black fabric, with short sleeves and an insert panel in the front, and it had a short black tie at the neck. The dress zipped on the side.

At first I was confused. I wondered if someone had died. But then I understood that she had an important appointment. She had heard that they were hiring at the Sears, Roebuck near our house, and she was interviewing for a job. She was fifty.

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