by Darrell Delamaide)
When Elizabeth Warren's role as overseer for the government's bank bailout program thrust her into the media spotlight back in 2009, the Harvard law professor was not prepared for the glare.
Her criticism of the big banks' role in fomenting the financial crisis landed her an invitation to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the faux-news program on Comedy Central that has become a cult show for those who want to know what's really going on.
In her new memoir, A Fighting Chance, out this week, Warren relates that she was so nervous she was ill in the little bathroom offstage. After she was led to the set and pointed to an opening onto the stage, "I stepped out into the lights feeling like an astronaut who had just left the space capsule — except that I hadn't practiced this maneuver back on my home planet."
It is a flash of the wit that threads through the new book, which many see as a campaign autobiography by the Massachusetts senator despite Warren's repeated insistence that she is not running for 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
After she floundered through the interview with Stewart, the host offered her a chance to take some extra time to really get her message across. Warren recounts what her message was: "This crisis didn't have to happen," she said. After a cycle of financial booms and busts culminated in the Great Depression, "the country put tough rules in place that gave us fifty years without a financial crisis. But in the 1980s, we started pulling the threads out of the regulatory fabric, and we found ourselves back in the boom-and-bust cycle."
What Warren, who had already written extensively about the financial squeeze of the middle class, could not understand when she arrived in Washington was why there was so little concern about how financial stress from this cycle affects normal people.
Although her clashes as chairman of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program with former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are well-known, Warren is generally kind in her remarks about him in the book.
However, she relates her dismay when she asked at a meeting at the Treasury Department about the widespread abuses by the big banks in massive waves of foreclosures. In response to her concern that actions by the administration were insufficient, Geithner explained that they were designed to "foam the runway" for the banks.
"Millions of people were getting tossed out on the street," Warren recounts, "but the secretary of the Treasury believed that government's most important job was to provide a soft landing for the tender fannies of the banks. Oh Lord. What do you say to such a thing?"
In the book, Warren recounts her fight to get a new regulatory agency to police providers of consumer credit and counter Washington's bank-centric view. Against all odds, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created, even though President Obama told Warren he couldn't make her the director of the new agency because she made the banks "very nervous."
Warren went on to campaign against Republican Scott Brown for his Senate seat, and reclaimed it for the Democrats. She got herself on the Banking Committee, where she continues to make the banks and the agencies that are supposed to regulate them "very nervous."
Warren relates that when she was helping to set up the CFPB and spending some time in the Treasury Department, staffers there would stop her in the hall with various versions of this comment: "You don't know me, but I was working in the XX section during the financial crisis. When we talked about what we should do, someone always seemed to ask, 'What will Elizabeth Warren say when she finds out about this?'"
That's a question people are still asking in Washington. As senator, Warren continues to take on the banks, grilling regulators at Senate hearings, introducing legislation to restore the Glass-Steagall Act separating commercial and investment banking and in many other ways.
But she is not just fighting yesterday's battles, the problems exposed by the financial crisis. She is taking on new issues, such as the brewing crisis in student loans.
One of the purposes of this very personal memoir clearly is to show the human toll exacted by the calamitous policy mistakes made in Washington.
There is perhaps no more heart-wrenching story in the book than the one she tells about a shy, tired man she met as she was campaigning for the Senate in Massachusetts. When she stepped aside to speak with him, he told her about his son who had graduated from college two years earlier with a lot of debt. Despite the young man's best efforts, he couldn't find a job, even as the debt continued to grow.
After a pause, the man told her, "My son killed himself last month."
Oh Lord, what do you say to such a thing? Elizabeth Warren may or may not be running for president, but it's a good thing that there is somebody in Washington who is making bankers feel very nervous.
Darrell Delamaide has reported on business and economics from New York, Paris, Berlin and Washington for Dow Jones news service, Barron's, Institutional Investor and Bloomberg News service, among others. He is the author of four books, including the financial thriller Gold.