Author Interviews
5:50 am
Fri April 18, 2014

Sen. Elizabeth Warren Writes Of A Worldview Shaped In Youth

Originally published on Fri April 18, 2014 10:10 am

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren became an unlikely media star following the 2008 financial crisis.

She was a plainspoken law professor from Harvard who advocated on behalf of families and consumers affected by the Wall Street meltdown.

Warren was brought to Washington to help monitor the multibillion-dollar bank bailout package.

As part of that work, Warren helped to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — a watchdog agency that oversees and enforces consumer finance laws.

Republican opposition kept Warren from being nominated as the bureau's director. Instead, President Obama and others urged her to run for the U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts that was held by Sen. Scott Brown. She won the seat in 2012.

Now Warren is out with a memoir, fueling speculation she might be considering a presidential run in 2016. It's not her first book. But unlike the others, A Fighting Chance is deeply personal.


Interview Highlights

When she was a 12-year-old girl growing up in Oklahoma, Warren's father had a heart attack and could no longer work. Money was tight, and the family lost their station wagon. Her parents were terrified of losing their home.

On how that experience shaped her

I still remember the day. Going up to my mother's bedroom, and she had pulled her best dress out of the closet. She was crying and struggling to get into that dress. She was determined we were not going to lose our house. And I remember watching her as she walked out the door, and walked over to the Sears and got a minimum-wage job. But in those days, that was enough to save our home.

On going into bankruptcy law

I've always been afraid of financial collapse. You watch something happen in your own family, and you realize that people can be good people — work hard, play by all the rules — and still just get a smack in the head. Understanding that and why it happens and what we should do about that as a country has always been something that's been powerfully important to me.

Most people who file for bankruptcy were hard-working, play-by-the-rules, middle-class folks. But they had been hit hard by serious medical problems, by a long-term job loss or by a family breakup — either a divorce or a death in the family.

On what she sees as the mission of the CFPB

The job of any regulatory agency should be to represent the people, not the industry that it regulates — that they're not out there cheating people. And that was the job of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to make sure that didn't happen.

And that is exactly what that little bureau has done. It has already returned more than $3 billion to consumers who got cheated by big financial institutions that tricked them and have had to give the money back because they got caught. I think the thing is working.

On speculation she'll run for president in 2016

I am not running for president. You could ask the question lots of different ways, but it's not going to change the fundamental point behind this book: We've got to make our voices heard here. We can't let Washington be run by big corporations and billionaires. There's too much at stake here.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren never thought she'd go into politics. As a girl growing up in Oklahoma, her family wasn't planning for her to go to college. Money was tight and when Warren was 12 years old, her father had a heart attack and couldn't go back to work. The family lost their station wagon.

SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: I still remember the day. Going up to my mother's bedroom, and she had pulled out her best dress out of the closet. She was crying and struggling to get into that dress. She was determined we were not going to lose our house. And I remember watching her as she walked out the door and walked over to the Sears and got a minimum-wage job. But in those days that was enough to save our home.

GREENE: Inspired by her mom's fight, Warren found a way to get herself into college. She went on to earn a law degree. She eventually began teaching at Harvard, specializing in bankruptcy law. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the Obama administration asked Warren to help oversee the multi-billion dollar bank bailout.

In her new memoir, "A Fighting Chance," Warren recounts how she helped create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; it's a watchdog agency working on behalf of individual borrowers. The first term Democratic senator told us that her passion for financial security goes back to that childhood memory of her mom.

WARREN: I've always been afraid of financial collapse. You watch something happen in your own family and you realize that people can be good people, work hard, play by all the rules, and still just get a smack in the head. Understanding that and why it happens and what we should do about it as a country has always been something that's been powerfully important to me.

GREENE: You write a lot about the families who have to declare bankruptcy. In your mind not all of the blame should be on them. I mean it's a systemic problem. There are some who have a different point of view and feel like if someone reaches that point, it is in some ways their fault. I mean they haven't managed their money well. They made mistakes. Explain to me where you come from.

WARREN: Well, I did the research and asked families to explain why they'd filed for bankruptcy. One of the things our research showed was that most people who file for bankruptcy were hard-working, play-by-the-rules, middle-class folks. But they had been hit hard by serious medical problems, by a long-term job loss or by a family breakup - either a divorce or a death in the family.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Those three things accounted for about 90 percent of all the bankruptcies that occurred in America.

GREENE: In more recent times, after the housing bubble burst, after the financial crisis, you helped hatch this new agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And you seemed like the natural choice to head this new agency. And President Obama had several private meetings with you. And it sounds like he was pretty straightforward about why he couldn't nominate you. Take me into that room.

WARREN: Well, he was. You know, the banks fought the consumer agency. Literally, they made it their number one goal to kill the agency. And they got help from all of the Republicans who voted against it. When we got the agency through and passed into law, they sure as heck didn't want me to be in there heading the agency. And the president was looking for the best way to get the agency off the ground.

GREENE: You talk in the book that an agency like this should almost be like a police force and that a police force represents the people. Isn't the implication there that banks are like criminals?

WARREN: No. Not at all. But it's that the job of any regulatory agency should be to represent the people, not the industry that it regulates, that they're not out there cheating people. And that was the job of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to make sure that didn't happen. And by the way, that is exactly what that little Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has done.

And it has already returned more than $3 billion to consumers who got cheated by big financial institutions that tricked them and have had to give the money back because they got caught by this Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. I think the thing is working.

GREENE: Despite your many years of experience now in battles in Washington, you have always regarded yourself and written about yourself as an outsider. You're a U.S. senator now. You've spent this time fighting these battles in Washington. What's changed now that you're on the inside?

WARREN: I'm still an outsider. I'll always be an outsider.

GREENE: But you did write - you said, you know, people say don't let campaigning change you, but you said like it or not I had to change. What did you have to change?

WARREN: I had to learn more about doing interviews.

(LAUGHTER)

WARREN: No, it's true. You remember the line. You've read the book.

GREENE: Yeah. You were making some mistakes and flub-ups in interviews that you weren't happy about.

WARREN: That's right. I realized that once I became a candidate for office, things had shifted and that every word gets measured.

GREENE: Well, speaking of just that, when you ran for Senate in 2012, one campaign stop got a lot of attention because it ended up on YouTube. You were in a small gathering in Andover, Massachusetts and you said there's nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You build a factory out there, good for you, but I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for.

And you were making a lot of hand motions. It almost sounded like you were being tough and angry and directing this message at people who had built businesses.

WARREN: Oh, no. The point of the message was to say, look, we all make these investments together and that's what makes us richer together.

GREENE: Just looking at the calendar, your Senate term goes through 2018. Have you explored the possibility in any way of a presidential run?

MCEVERS: I am not running for president.

GREENE: Can you blame people for speculating about your plans?

WARREN: You could ask the question lots of different ways, but it's not going to change the fundamental point behind this book. We've got to make our voices heard here. We can't let Washington be run by big corporations and billionaires. There's too much at stake here. It's about the future for our kids.

GREENE: Senator Warren, a pleasure talking to you. I really appreciate the time.

WARREN: It's good to talk to you too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Senator Elizabeth Warren. Her new book is called "A Fighting Chance." You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

MCEVERS: And I'm Kelly McEvers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.