Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Persist sent me digging for some old tape, from the February 2019 annual gathering of the National Action Network, a major civil rights organization. Most of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates gave their stump speeches an early test-drive that day.
Warren told the story of being a single mother and law school professor in Houston, struggling to do her job and take care of two small children. One day, her Aunt Bee in Oklahoma calls and asks how it’s going. Young Elizabeth tries to stay strong — and then bursts into tears.
If you ever heard this stump speech, you know the punchline: Aunt Bee hears her niece’s desperation for child care and responds, “I can’t come tomorrow, but I can come Thursday”… after which, Aunt Bee moves to Houston for 16 years.
You can hear on the tape what happened when Warren delivered that line: The crowd (and, more pointedly, it sounds like it was mainly the women in the crowd) whooped with joy.
Every semi-successful presidential candidate has the Speech Thing they do well. Bernie Sanders pumped up his crowds, shouting to the point of hoarseness with indignation at economic inequality. President Biden did the opposite — bringing his voice low, forcing folks (“folks!”) to quiet down as he sermonized on what he saw as the grave problems with Donald Trump’s presidency.
Warren was (and is) a storyteller. Her campaign speeches were a series of one-two punches: stories that got people right in their feels — and then policy prescriptions to make sure no one else ever had to, for example, rely on an Aunt Bee.
This is precisely what Persist is. It’s a series of stories, then plans. It’s campaign-trail Warren, in book form.
A woman from Warren’s bankruptcy research quits her teaching job to raise kids and has her life upended by her children’s medical bills — and then divorce. The upshot for Warren is the gendered, economic inequality baked into America’s families.
Candidate Warren takes an ill-fated DNA test to show her Native American roots. The point in telling this: She’s contrite, she knows it was a dumb mistake — but she also parlays it into a broader point about the importance of white people trying to learn more about race in America.
In the campaign photo line, an Indiana woman tells Warren about the agony of finding an abortion for her 14-year-old, who was raped by her coach. Warren uses this to explain why she believes in making abortion accessible.
Another way to put all this is that Warren lays out a case, over and over. She’s good at it, as you might expect from a law professor.
However, her storytelling — so electrifying in person — is flattened on the page. For those who don’t subscribe to her progressive politics, Persist will almost certainly be too didactic. Though it just might delight those who revel in her unique mix of down-to-earth-ness and policy expertise.
Unless, that is, those fans want score-settling. Persist is not primarily a 2020 campaign recap. The alleged comment from Bernie Sanders that a woman couldn’t defeat Trump? She mentions it and then drops it, without delving into the controversy it stirred up.
Mayor Pete’s wine-cave dinner? Again, a passing mention.
The attacks on Warren for not initially having a plan to pay for “Medicare for All”? That’s there. The fact that she weathered far more criticism for it than Sanders (who penned the plan, without himself releasing detailed pay-fors until later)? Not really.
Lingering, gnawing bitterness at the fact that progressives lost the nomination to the centrist-running Biden? Nope.
In this way, Persist is very much a book of the 2021 Democratic Party — still factionalizing between liberal and moderate but working like hell to remain unified and get things done. The only fellow Democratic candidate she has many unkind words for is Mike Bloomberg. In Persist, as in debates, Warren unleashes blistering assaults upon him. She strikes both at what she sees as his entitlement — at coming into the race four primary contests late with mountains of self-funding — as well as his reported treatment of women throughout his career.
She does get at the sexism she herself faced and vowed to address the day she ended her campaign. Much of it comes in her final chapter, in what one assumes is a deliberate choice to put personal grievances last.
And there is an indignation here, a sense of a dam breaking as she pours out a lifetime of putting up with sexist BS. Warren folds together her own #MeToo story — of literally running away from a fellow professor named Gene, the head of the tenure committee at the University of Houston law school, when he tried to corner her in his office — with other gender-based indignities, like headlines about her “likability.”
Warren can’t tell a story just to tell it; she mixes all of this in with others’ stories and, along the way, makes points about the need for Social Security reform and caregiving support, in the name of gender justice.
But in her hurry to make those bigger societal points, Warren can move jarringly past her own personal stories — like her feelings about that episode of the law professor who nearly attacked her. She explains that, like so many women, she decided to go along to get along. She takes his calls as her career progresses and eventually becomes a close enough acquaintance that he asks her to speak at his funeral. Not only that, but he wants her to tell that story — the story of how he terrified her by chasing her around his desk.
And she does, to great comedic effect.
It’s at this point that the reader may want to put the book down and go on a nice rage-walk outside.
It’s the reckoning that might leave a reader wondering. Warren says that after #MeToo, she rethought that incident and started telling that story to other women as a way to help them. The story of Gene also fueled her attacks on Bloomberg for his treatment of women — she does have a broader political point in telling this.
But we don’t hear much about the content of her personal rethinking: How does she feel now, post-MeToo, about telling that story as a joke? Did she ever really think it was funny? Did MeToo make it stop being funny?
It’s not that Warren owes us her innermost turmoil. Rather, it’s that this is the rare story that culminates with big questions still left dangling.
Whatever questions her book leaves unanswered, perhaps the most insistent one that Persist as a whole poses — because it is a politician’s book — is: “What are you trying to sell me?”
And maybe — maybe? — it’s a very early campaign book. Warren is 71, meaning that a 2024 or 2028 presidential run is not entirely out of the question (Joe Biden is a new president at 78, after all), but also not necessarily likely.
And Persist isn’t ego-free; Warren makes it very clear that she’s a fighter who is staying in the fight because making America fairer is a fight and it’s a fight that only fighters like her can win.
But then, she spends a lot more time selling her policies. She’s still the woman with a Plan For That.
So it may be the book of a candidate still aiming for a higher office. And — or — it also just might be that Warren simply sees herself a public servant, trying to get her plans passed.