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Book Review

‘A Fighting Chance’ by Elizabeth Warren

There is a one-note quality to Elizabeth Warren’s new autobiography, “A Fighting Chance.”

That’s because her rise to political prominence grew so directly from a long career already focused on the same issues she is championing in the public square, backstopped by an Oklahoma upbringing that seeded her preoccupation with a fraying middle class.

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Warren spoke repeatedly during her 2012 Senate campaign about growing up on “the ragged edge of the middle class.” In her book, she writes that her father, a maintenance worker who once lost a car to the repo man, avoided talk of the family’s plight at all costs, while she became consumed with it.

A Fighting Chance

Author:
Elizabeth Warren
Publisher:
Metropolitan
Number of pages:
365 pp.
Book price:
$28

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“My daddy stayed away from big sores that hurt,” she writes. “I poked at them.”

That poking has fueled Warren’s singular academic and political passion: a belief that the economic playing field has become “rigged’’ in favor of big-money interests at the expense of a tattered middle class, which is beset by growing insecurity and a sadly well-placed loss of faith in the American dream.

The rigging, she writes, is owing to actions, starting in the early 1980s, that deregulated many aspects of the country’s financial system. It ultimately crashed the economy when the string ran out on reckless mortgage lending by banks that bundled risky loans into securities they offloaded to unsuspecting investors.

In her book, Warren starts with her childhood and touches on her failed first marriage and early days as a law professor. But the heart of the narrative is on her work over the past two decades in Washington.

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“A Fighting Chance” connects well the stories of the public battles she’s taken on, starting with her work in the mid-1990s while a Harvard law professor on a national commission reviewing bankruptcy laws.

It moves on to her role chairing the oversight panel charged with monitoring the $700 billion bank bailout after the 2008 crash and helping set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that was her brainchild.

She mixes policy points with rich behind-the-scenes anecdotes, several centered on the tensions between her bank-bashing populism and the more Wall Street-friendly ways of Timothy Geithner, President Obama’s first Treasury secretary, and former Harvard president Larry Summers, a key White House economic adviser.

Her national star rose quickly during that time, setting in motion her Senate run, where she reclaimed for Democrats the seat Scott Brown barely had a chance to warm.

Warren was tagged relentlessly as an Ivy League elitist by Brown during their Senate showdown and by her many detractors on the right. But Warren’s guiding sensibilities here seem much more heartland than Harvard.

She evinces a homespun disdain for the fine print (“legal mumbo jumbo” ) that accompanies many financial dealings. Banking lobbyists insist it is necessary nuance; she says it’s often just part of the elaborate hoodwinking of consumers.

Warren can get carried away with Okie argot. “Heck” appears more than a half-dozen times, usually as its own exclamatory clause at the start of a sentence. But her storytelling is well-paced and engaging.

What’s more, Warren’s ability to translate complicated finance issues into plain English and parables that appeal to a basic sense of fair play is what’s helped rocket her to national prominence, complete with speculation about White House ambitions that her book contract only heightened.

Warren’s is an example of a new brand of political memoir, carefully calibrated in the thick of a rising career, not published after it’s over. Governor Deval Patrick and Brown both have had their say; Hillary Rodham Clinton’s offering is due later this year. Such books tend to be particularly prone to glossing over inconvenient chapters that might cloud the story line. Warren’s book is no exception.

Though she is the national avatar of a new full-throated Democratic liberalism, Warren was a registered Republican until the mid-1990s. That’s not youthful zeal of the kind Clinton exhibited as a “Goldwater girl” in high school.

Warren was a tenured law professor in her 40s — focused on issues at the core of political identity — when she apparently lost faith in unbridled market systems. It’s easy to imagine a confluence between Warren’s earlier awakenings to the depredations of “crony capitalism” and the anger of today’s Tea Party types. It would be fascinating to learn how that conversion unfolded, but it won’t be here.

Warren walks a fine line in unspooling her story of a rigged system. Though the deck may be stacked, she says it’s still possible for the little guy to win, pointing to the new consumer protection agency as one such victory.

The book’s title refers to a time she says is now gone, when even families of modest means who worked hard and played by the rules had at a fair shot at the American dream.

The unfinished chapter, of course, is the one tracking how Warren fares in a gridlocked Washington at advancing initiatives that restore that faith.

Michael Jonas is executive editor of CommonWealth magazine. Follow him on Twitter @bostonjonas.

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