The day before the Massachusetts Senate election, the polls still have it a dead heat. Neither Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren or incumbent Republican Senator Scott Brown can justifiably claim at this point to holding a numerical advantage of any substance. The race will be decided tomorrow by the good people of Massachusetts, and by how many of them are passionate enough to brave the early November cold to find their way down to the polling places. As a political journalist in an age when politics so rarely rises to a level that even deserves journalism -- even the degraded, nonsensical version of journalism practiced today -- it's a little sad to see this brilliant, fascinating race finally come to an end.
My favorite Democrat, writer Mike Barnicle, told me in an interview back in April -- just two days before Elizabeth Warren's marquee scandal broke -- that Warren-Brown was already shaping up to be the most "literary" political race that we've seen in our lifetimes. It was exactly the kind of observation a Massachusetts native would make, and exactly the kind that Elizabeth Warren, for all her academic pedigree, would never be able to fully understand.
There was a moment in the second debate, held in October at the Tsongas Center in Lowell, Massachusetts, that defined better than anything what's truly at stake in the election. Asked to say one nice thing about his opponent, Brown replied, "She's a very hardworking, accomplished professor, and she's certainly very qualified." He paused for a moment. "As a matter of fact, she's such a good professor, and I've heard from parents who have actually had their kids being taught by her, that she's wonderful. So I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that she can continue to be in that position." The crowd laughed. Elizabeth Warren didn't.
Massachusetts is defined by its love of politics. That love stems from many different historical factors -- including a boisterous local press and a tradition of Boston political machines so charming that their rampant corruption was merely considered colorful behavior. Scott Brown grew up in Massachusetts and so he appreciates that love. It's why, when he's holding a press conference accusing Warren of disenfranchising asbestos victims with her legal work, he knows to hold the incriminating documents up to the cameras, palms out, one on either side of him. (Can the reporters read, from that distance, what the documents say? No, but that's just what you do when holding such press conferences.) It's why, when the Warren camp trots out some lawyer to stage his own outdoor press conference accusing Brown of holding up misleading documents, Brown's campaign manager goes down to the event, points at the lawyer and smirks to the reporters, "I think he's donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democrats, but…"
One side genuinely loves this stuff. The other side doesn't.
Warren's own past sins, of course, were a large part of what made this race so literary. They were deep, dark, devious sins, ones that perfectly fed into the state's Catholic thirst for tragedy and scandal. But they proved how out of touch she is with the Massachusetts sensibility. They proved that she cares only about the ends and not the means, the accomplishments and not the process. In a state that values hard work for its own sake and elections for their own sake, that's a terrible quality for a politician to have.
Some Americans will always remember where they were when they watched the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the Red Sox winning the World Series. I have my own conservative blogger version of that.
On April 27, 2012, the Boston Herald reported that clearly-white Elizabeth Warren had identified herself as a Native American when applying to teach at Harvard Law School, and that Harvard later cited her presence on staff as evidence of its faculty's diversity. When it first went to print, the Warren campaign was shellshocked. The Herald wrote that "campaign aides last night scrambled but failed to produce documents proving her family's lineage." A video showed Warren and her staffers frantically running out the back door of a campaign event to avoid the press. A week later, Warren finally told reporters that she knew of her supposed 1/32nd Cherokee roots because her "papaw" had "high cheekbones, like all of the Indians do."
It was utterly amazing. Dominick Dunne couldn't have written a sexier story. This woman was caught in one of the most bizarre acts of fraud ever committed by an American politician. The questions poured out onto the Internet almost faster than conservative outlets could type them. When did she first list herself as nonwhite? Was she an Affirmative Action hire? Was Harvard complicit?
The Boston press, which still hasn't changed its tone very much since the 1770s, whipped the Bay State into an Indian-themed frenzy. Cameramen were dispatched to chase Warren around at her public appearances. A local Fox news anchor played Paul Revere and the Raiders' song "Indian Reservation" on the air. Herald columnist Howie Carr and midday conservative radio host Michael Graham fanned the flames. And the national conservative media fanned them harder. Michelle Malkin branded the Harvard professor "Fauxchontas." Dennis Miller offered to send her a campaign contribution in beads.
But when a story is simply too good to be controlled, all kinds of concerns arise -- as they did in this case for Republicans. Would the media attention undercut just how serious Warren's sin really was? What about the poor real-life Native Americans Warren disenfranchised? Would they be exploited by the 24-hour cable coverage, creating backlash against Brown?
Covering the race for the Washington Free Beacon, I called up the prominent Cherokee writer Twila Barnes to get a genuine Native American perspective. She denounced Warren and explained how her fellow Cherokees found Warren's cheekbone comments "stereotypical and insulting." Two days after I published my interview, Barnes appeared on Fox News to repeat those same charges. Liberals started fighting back in the blogosphere, calling Barnes a Republican shill trotted out by conservatives to lend credence to the controversy. Barnes' sincere motives aside, the public wasn't entirely buying her angle.
But another Boston source phoned me and explained just how damaging the story truly was for Warren in Massachusetts, in ways unrelated to the racial aspect. Anyone who grew up in Boston knows that this is bigger than a mere gaffe, he said, and he was right. This was something deeper, something more tragic, and it had everything to do with Harvard. The Harvard campus, that Puritan sanctuary overlooking working-class Boston across the Charles River, was besmirched. Warren and Harvard, and the dim feelings people in Massachusetts have about each, would henceforth be inextricably linked. And the April 27 front page of the Boston Herald, its beautiful tabloid imagery reminiscent of the British press, would always remain in people's minds: a photograph of Warren's desperate face pasted over the Harvard campus skyline with the headline, "HARVARD (F)LAW."
THE SCANDAL UNDERSCORED just how prominent, inevitable even, Warren's electoral chances had become, before people in Massachusetts really knew anything about her. What kind of person was she? Perhaps they knew that she grew up in Oklahoma and that she's married to fellow Harvard professor Bruce Mann. But what about her first husband and the father of her two children? The man described on her Wikipedia page as her "high-school boyfriend"?
The Northwest Classen High School (Oklahoma City, OK) yearbook of 1964 features "Jim Warren" as a short young man with thick glasses and straight A's in math. His future wife Elizabeth Herring, class of '66, was two years behind him. They married in 1967 and had two children, Amelia (1971) and Alexander (1976). Jim was a computer engineer who started his career in New Jersey and then moved to Houston, where his wife, by then "Elizabeth Warren," divorced him in 1978.
According to a recent profile of Warren in the friendly Boston Globe, the couple clashed over her career ambitions and Jim moved out first. With Jim Warren now dead (and no obituary or documented evidence of his existence seemingly available, aside from the yearbook photos), it's hard to verify whether or not the Globe's account of the split is accurate. But even the Globe acknowledges that by the time the divorce was finalized, Elizabeth Warren had already begun a relationship with Bruce Mann, an ambitious visiting professor at the University of Houston Law Center, where Warren was teaching part-time. Warren and Mann married in 1980 and her children quickly started calling Mann "Dad." As Mann told the Globe, it's always better to be a second husband "because you will look great in comparison."
By the time Mann met Warren, he already had three advanced degrees from Yale and his prospects in legal academia were soaring. Warren, a mere graduate of Rutgers School of Law-Newark, first identified herself as a Native American in the American Association of Law Schools Directory in 1984, presumably to keep up.
When Mann was hired as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law in 1987, Warren -- then still a research associate at the University of Texas -- was also added to the Penn Law faculty. By that time, she had only published two full-length academic works: a "published grant application" with two co-authors entitled "Funded Proposal #8310193" and a popular-market teachers manual published by Little, Brown, and Co.
That was all it took to get her a minority slot. Warren and Mann both later moved to Harvard.
Warren's children grew up leading a charmed life. Her daughter Amelia married Brown University classmate Sushil Tyagi, an Indian-born film producer and businessman who has made a number of movies in Iran, including one, Barefoot to Herat, which depicted the "plight" of refugees in a Taliban camp following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The Tyagis currently live in a mansion in Pacific Palisades, California.
Warren-Tyagi is now the founder of Demos, the left-wing New York City think tank that successfully sued the state of Massachusetts this year to send voter registration forms to all of the state's welfare recipients -- a ploy that cost Massachusetts taxpayers $276,000. (After Demos' participation in Massachusetts politics became public knowledge, the think tank changed the mission statement on its website, erasing its stated goal of "rethinking American capitalism" and replacing it with Warren-friendly terms like "strengthen the middle class.")
And it was Warren-Tyagi who first boosted her mother's nascent political career, inviting Warren to speak at Demos events and introducing the Harvard professor to the left-wing political establishment. Warren became a frequent Rachel Maddow guest, a one-off Vogue model, a self-proclaimed godmother to the Occupy movement, and, of course, the architect of President Obama's disastrous Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The Dodd-Frank agency's creation was so plagued by Warren's battles with Capitol Hill Republicans that Rep. Patrick McHenry accused her of lying in sworn testimony and blasted her "sense of entitlement."
When Warren was finally persuaded to challenge Scott Brown for Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat, she was handed all the keys to the tightly-knit progressive fundraising infrastructure established in 2004 to defeat George W. Bush. She was funded by George Soros, endorsed by Harry Belafonte, and backed by national astroturf groups like ProgressNow, which pledged millions of dollars to setting up rapid-response messaging groups in Massachusetts targeting Brown. David Brock's "gaffe-catching" video operation American Bridge 21st Century placed a target on her Republican opponent. The progressive movement, God damn it, was going to put one of its own in the Senate.
The only thing standing in its way: those obnoxious Massachusetts people.
When Warren showed up to the annual St. Patrick's Day Breakfast/roast in South Boston in March, the Boston Democrats seated her far away from the Table of Honor. Brown, meanwhile, sat front and center next to the podium. In a piece entitled "Old-School Dems Have Their Guy: Scott Brown," Globe columnist Joan Vennochi described how Brown killed with his dirty jokes while Warren was frequently mocked by the politicos, who wondered aloud how people in the "foreign land" of Southie would react to seeing Warren on their doorstep. When it was her turn to deliver a routine, Warren instead gave a stump speech: "One day Scott Brown is a centerfold for Cosmo, the next day he's the poster boy for Goldman Sachs." No one laughed.
IT WAS IN THE aftermath of the Indian scandal that Scott Brown proved himself a political genius. Realizing that the campaign had become not just sensational but almost like some kind of fable, he launched his summer "Provincetown to Pittsfield Tour" of Massachusetts small businesses, with a map on his website charting his path and new videos from every stop. On Day Two he addressed viewers before setting off from South Station in Boston, rolled-up newspaper literally in hand. "We'll see you out and about," he said as if to go along with that day's "city" theme.
In Taunton, at a roadside hot-dog stand, he had his iconic truck with him and a bag of potato chips. "Somebody getting out on a hot day, making a difference, paying the bills, and providing a service," he said of the stand owner. In West Roxbury, he wore a West Roxbury jersey and asked the crowd behind him, "Let's have a West Roxbury cheer." It went on like that from stop to stop, with a new aesthetic and a new local theme.
It was the kind of gimmick that makes Brown's detractors in the national media so angry, the kind that inspires the Huffington Posts and the Washington Posts to write dismissively about the "likeability factor" in local politics, as though the only reason the parents and businesspeople of Massachusetts prefer Brown over Warren is because he's a nice guy and less intellectually intimidating than his opponent. But close observers of his "Provincetown to Pittsfield Tour" understood just exactly what he was doing.
Shaunna O'Connell, the state representative for Taunton, told me on Day 2 of Brown's tour why his visit to the General Dynamics facility in Taunton was such a success. "There were about 300 employees there and everyone wanted to thank him for his work on stopping the reprogramming of funding for the WIN-T program," O'Connell told me. The WIN-T program is the U.S. Army communications network. General Dynamics is a prime contractor for the program. Brown's work in the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C. directly impacted the lives of 300 workers in Taunton, Massachusetts. At each stop on his tour, sources told me, there were similar cases of people thanking Brown for specific votes, for specific legislative accomplishments he had made that benefited small handfuls of people in his home state.
For all of the talk in this race about "Southie" voters (by national media types who have seen The Departed), the working-class Boston city vote has actually spread out over the state in the past several generations. Most of them no longer talk like Mark Wahlberg characters, but have actually graduated to suburban, middle-class status. Brown himself is a National Guard member, the father of a country singer, and a former state senator for people in western Mass. more inclined to follow the Patriots in Foxborough than the Celtics in Boston.
"Brown is from one of those towns," legendary political handicapper Michael Barone told me months ago. "He does very well along Route 9. The I-91 corridor going north from Boston."
So well, in fact, that on Election Day 2010 the traffic in Brown strongholds Andover and North Andover was backed up for a half-mile around the polling places. Experts on the ground predict a similar scenario this time out.
IT WAS AT the second debate, at the Tsongas Center in Lowell, that we saw so clearly what this race really means for the future of American politics. Asked whether failing Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine should be fired, Warren laughed and dismissed the question with a smirk. "I'm still just in wounded mode on that." It was reminiscent of a Democratic primary debate close to a year ago when she couldn't answer what years the Red Sox won the World Series and so she smugly turned the question into an audience-participation game.
Scott Brown responded as though he'd just been asked about Soviet arms in Cuba. "I remember in the beginning of the season Professor Warren said the Red Sox were going to win ninety games, and obviously that hasn't happened. And it's been very, very disappointing. I'll leave it up to the Red Sox management but clearly they need to do better next year."
Warren smiled at first, astonished that Brown was actually answering the question with a straight face, and then her expression darkened when she realized the crowd was taking it seriously as well. Maybe she realized that it's the kind of issue she may well lose tomorrow's race on, but not for the shallow reasons her friends at Huffington and the Washington Post will be able to recognize.
Elizabeth Warren doesn't know which years the Red Sox won the World Series because that's what people in smalltown Massachusetts talk about when they greet each other to do business. That's what people in smalltown Massachusetts talk about before they sit down to discuss the WIN-T program at the General Dynamics facility in Taunton.
Elizabeth Warren may be the darling of the national Democratic Party and possibly the next junior senator from the state of Massachusetts. But she doesn't love politics.