If Elizabeth Warren offers you a cup of tea, don’t accept. I’ve been known to pinch a penny myself, but when President Obama’s choice to run the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau pulls a rumpled gray object with a tail out of her desk drawer, even I blanch. It looks more like a dead mouse than a used tea bag.
“I know,” she says, laughing, when I express surprise. “But I just can’t stand the waste of throwing out a tea bag after one use. It’s like a knife in the gut for me.”
If you happen to be the CEO of a bank that took federal bailout money or used what she’s called “a trick” or “trap” to charge 30 percent interest for a late credit-card payment, Elizabeth Warren, a petite 61-year-old grandmother with big blue eyes, soft blonde hair, and the honeyed accent of the Oklahoma plains, is herself something of a knife in the gut. With the passage of the historic Dodd-Frank financial-reform bill creating a new agency to regulate the credit industry, that knife finally got a sharp point.
Consumer advocates tend to be somewhat glum and shaggy—think Ralph Nader in his shiny suits—but after her breakout role as chair of the oversight committee investigating the TARP bailout, Warren has emerged as an unlikely star in the Washington firmament. Her odyssey began two years ago, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called her at home out of the blue with the request that changed her life. “There was no short list; I had no idea it was coming,” says Warren, who was hosting a barbecue for her students from Harvard Law School at the time. Within the university, Warren was a beloved but slightly feared teacher. “She changed my life,” says Katie Porter, now a professor at the University of Iowa, who can still remember the first time Warren called on her in class. “When I didn’t get the answer right,” says Porter, “she didn’t simply move on. She said, ‘Come on, Miss Porter, think! Think!’ It was enormously empowering. As she likes to say, her classes are like a contact sport. You’re going to get bruised, but you’re going to have fun.”
Until Senator Reid’s phone call, Warren’s national profile stemmed mainly from the two books she had coauthored with her daughter, a former McKinsey consultant who now runs an employment business in Los Angeles. Both books drew heavily on Warren’s academic work about the underlying causes of personal bankruptcy and were best-sellers that landed her on the Dr. Phil show, but Reid’s offer changed the stage altogether. “I’d always been on the outside, shouting warnings,” she explains. “So when Senator Reid said, ‘Come inside and tell us what you think,’ I didn’t hesitate for a minute.” Her family, on the other hand, was shocked. “I don’t think anyone saw it coming,” says her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi. “Growing up, I never saw an appetite for politics. Even now, I don’t think she really likes Washington or politics. She’s just there to do this one thing.”Typically, an appointment to an oversight committee means sitting behind a microphone, asking polite questions, then generating a brick of a report that nobody reads. Warren did not play by those rules. Instead of making nice, she challenged the Secretary of the Treasury to explain exactly where the $700 billion in bailout money went and why the U.S. government had to pay 100 cents on the dollar for all those bad AIG investments. Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, those testy exchanges landed on the Internet, where every American pissed off over the bailout could delight in watching Timothy Geithner squirm.
Now technically Warren’s boss, Geithner has publicly praised Warren and even gave her a police hat the day she assumed her new role, but in Washington it was widely rumored that he preferred someone else for the job. Some enmity seems to linger—not long after her appointment, a series of blind items quoting Treasury sources landed on the Web site Politico, accusing her of being more concerned with decorating her office and media appearances than with substantive work. On the charge of overfriendliness to the media, Warren pleads guilty. “Talking to the American people is part of the job. The best way to do that is to go on television. It’s not about me; it’s about the opportunity to let Americans hear about important work.”
Her own aides worried that her aggressive questioning might have meant career suicide in Washington, but Warren hit a chord with the public precisely because she wasn’t concerned with getting ahead. “Elizabeth has never been a calculating person,” says her husband, fellow Harvard Law professor Bruce Mann. “She came to Washington late in life from the very secure position of being tenured at Harvard. She’s not running for anything. I do feel sorry about the videos of her questioning Geithner, but she was just doing her job. She doesn’t personalize things. After it’s over, she’s friendly and she means it.”
Warren herself finds it hard to believe that people are so taken aback by the way she speaks. Sitting in her sparsely decorated new office, where the tags are still on the Aeron chairs, she rejects the idea that her mode of discourse is anything special. “I am glad to be useful, but I don’t think I have anything that remarkable to say. Maybe it’s just the nakedness that comes from clarity that is frightening, but if you are going to do work in the public interest”—she pauses as she searches for the right words. “Just the idea that you talk as long as you can and say as little as possible. . . .” She makes a dismissive gesture, then brings the conversation to the heart of her work, which is about the struggling middle class.
“I think it’s about having a moral compass,” she concludes. “I get how deeply wrong so much of what has happened is. I don’t do library research; I talk to families who have worked hard and just slammed into a wall. Sometimes it’s from bad decisions, but sometimes it’s from medical problems, job losses, death. Bankruptcy is about trying to scramble your way back. Maybe you won’t ride so high in the water, but you can stop those 25 calls from collection agencies every night.”
As she speaks, her eyes suddenly tear up—a reminder that her own childhood, in a small Oklahoma town where her father worked as a janitor and nobody in her immediate family graduated from college, was fraught with financial hardship. A bright student who excelled in debate, Warren was thirteen when her father had a heart attack that drastically altered the family’s financial stability. When he recovered, his new job paid half of what he once earned. The family kept their house but lost the car, and life became a juggling act. In order to pay application fees to college, Warren used baby-sitting earnings. Years later, tragedy would strike again when her older brother’s wife died of breast cancer shortly after he lost his business and their home. “She didn’t smoke; she wasn’t overweight. You know what her biggest risk factor was?” Warren asks, her voice thick with emotion. “She didn’t have health insurance. She didn’t have regular screenings, and she didn’t go to a doctor early. And I know how many times my brother has wondered whether his business failing was part of that, and I know that story repeats all over America today with its own variations.”
Those experiences created a deep determination to make a difference. “She knew people who really struggled when she was growing up,” says her daughter. “She had a profound compassion for them.” In fact, that early adversity may be the very thing that hardened her resolve. “You either develop coping strategies or you wallow,” says her husband. “Elizabeth has never wallowed in anything.” Katie Porter thinks the most effective strategy she learned was how to move on. “Look, she’s human,” Porter says. “She’s on her second marriage. She went through a lot of assistants before she found the right one, but she doesn’t brood. She’s able to refocus on the big picture.”
Warren married her high school sweetheart at nineteen, moved to New Jersey with her then husband, an engineer who worked at NASA, and had two children. The expectation for women back then was to stay home and take care of the kids, but Warren knew she’d never be happy doing that. “I love children, but I needed a job,” she says. “Otherwise, I would have driven my kids crazy. I just had too much energy.”
Last fall, I accompanied Warren to a party given in her honor by Americans for Financial Reform, an umbrella group of progressive organizations that worked to pass the Dodd-Frank bill. Looking around the room, I felt as if I’d been transported from Washington, D.C., to some left-leaning village where the men all wear tweed jackets and the women favor Merrells over Manolos. These are the kind of people who have been so disappointed in Barack Obama for not ending the war in Afghanistan or providing universal health care, but on the issue of consumer finance, American progressives are pinching themselves over their good fortune in having Warren on their side. “Anything other than incremental change is incredibly hard in Washington,” says Ed Mierzwinski, another consumer advocate. “We have been working on this a long time, but she was able to close the sale.”
The credit-card industry is not quite so happy. “Some bank lobbyists say terrible things about me,” she acknowledges, telling a story of one who actually stuck his tongue out at her after the bankruptcy bill she fought against was passed. (“Ah,” one bank lawyer said to me, “Elizabeth Warren—our demon.”) If they could tar her personally they would, but there’s not much you can pin on a frugal former Sunday school teacher who has now been married to the same man for 30 years and spends her holidays visiting the grandchildren. Though she is adored by liberals, for the majority of her life she has voted Republican. “I believe in markets,” she says. “The appropriate role of government is to support markets so they can function, but the consumer-credit market is broken.” Her unpopularity with the business community kept her from being appointed the official head of the new agency. After looking at the number of votes they could count on in a Senate confirmation, both the president and Warren concluded a vote would have ended in defeat. Instead, Obama gave her the job without the title, a move The Wall Street Journal called “chutzpah to behold.”
Becoming a public figure with a 24/7 portfolio has its ups and downs. Once she got the call from the president last September, she left Cambridge and basically hasn’t been back. “It’s almost like she died,” says Katie Porter. “I miss her. I think her husband, her kids, and her grandkids miss her. Elizabeth has always been a hard worker, but her life was not all about work.” In the past, she and her husband enjoyed traveling, and she once raised African violets as a hobby—an anonymous admirer had sent her one the day I visited her office. Now her life is pretty much all work, all the time. Not that she’s complaining. “Saturday is the worst day for me,” she says, “because I wake up and think, Why aren’t we working on this?”
Being a media darling means having to pay more attention to ordinary concerns like how one looks. Porter says Warren chose her hairdresser because she was the first not to yell at her for typing on her laptop while getting her hair cut, but Warren does care about her appearance and even follows some fashion designers. When we run into Isaac Mizrahi backstage at The View, I am surprised to see her squeal like a teenager. “I love your clothes!” she gushes. “I am not against spending money on clothes,” she says. “As long as you are straight on your fixed expenses and you have put aside 20 percent in savings, go ahead and buy those $400 shoes. That doesn’t make you a bad person. I want to live my life with color. People who can’t enjoy their money are missing the colors in life.”
Nevertheless, clothes are a source of constant struggle. “This is the one area where I really envy men,” she says. “And yet, I simply cannot dress like a man. It would mean losing who I am.” She can’t bear to watch herself on TV but will occasionally TiVo a performance so she can later watch (on mute) to see whether an outfit looked OK. “Some days I feel just right. Other times, I’ll be sitting in a meeting and I’ll look down at some frilly collar and think, Oh, Lord, what was I thinking?”
She shouldn’t worry so much. On television, she exudes an intense, winning sincerity with a dash of humor, which may explain Jon Stewart’s crush on her. “When you say it like that, when you look at me like that,” the comedian once murmured, following one of her impassioned pleas for government reform, “and I know your husband is backstage—but I still want to make out with you.” Her husband, who was indeed backstage, says the comment made him fall out of his chair laughing. “How could I be mad at him?” Mann asks. “When I listen to her, I have the same response.”