On the campaign trail with Elizabeth Warren

By | August 21, 2019

Julia Ioffe writes:

There is a story Warren has been telling lately, one that explains how she learned the words that have come to define her career—first as a law professor, and more recently as a politician: mortgage, foreclosure, bankruptcy. Long before she encountered them as cold legal terms, those words had a more powerful meaning as the ones whispered late at night by her parents in Oklahoma. This was after her father’s heart attack, when he’d spend long stretches out of work. The family had sold off the station wagon, but it wasn’t enough to keep the creditors at bay.

One spring day, 12-year-old Betsy found herself standing in her mother’s bedroom. “Laid out on the bed was the dress,” Warren nearly whispered to a crowd one scorching afternoon in Elkhart, Indiana. “Some of you in here know the dress,” she went on, scanning the predominantly silver-haired room. “It’s the one that only comes out for weddings, funerals, and graduations.” A faint and knowing “yeah” echoed where I sat. “And there’s my mom, and she’s in her slip and her stockinged feet, and she’s pacing and she’s crying. And she’s saying, ‘We will not lose this house. We will not lose this house. We will not lose this house.’ ” The audience was silent as she delivered the line, her voice crackling with tears.

Warren tells this story at each of her town halls, sometimes more than once a day, and every time she tells it, she is on the verge of crying. She doesn’t in the end, but people in the audience do. At every single event I attended, I saw people wiping away tears when she told the story. It was a masterful summoning of sentiment that calls to mind a method actor dredging up the same emotion in the same play, night after night, for a months-long run.

American voters demand authenticity of their candidates, despite the obvious and calculated performance of a political race. I wanted to know what happens in that moment—how does Warren manage to move a crowd to tears despite the repetition? I wanted to ask her if what I heard in her voice was real.

“Because I’m back in that room,” she told me, her eyes suddenly brimming. “I can describe the shade of the carpet to you and the bedspread, and I’m there with my mother. And I’m not only there as the little girl standing in the doorway, I’m there in my mother’s heart.” Her voice dropped to a whisper, her eyes blinked away the extra moisture. “She was so frightened,” Warren went on, reprising the story of how her mother—who, at 50, had never worked outside the home—walked to the local Sears, got a minimum-wage job, and saved the family from foreclosure. [Continue reading…]

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