WASHINGTON – Summoned to the White House in September 2010, Elizabeth Warren met President Obama in the Oval Office and he escorted her outside to a garden patio. Obama described it to Warren as a hidden retreat. But Warren, writing in a new political memoir, says the weather was hot, and the patio, confined between hedges, “felt like a green version of Hell.”
Obama had already told Warren during a previous visit that he would not name her to lead the agency that was her brainchild – the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—because of objections from Senate Republicans and bankers. “You make them very nervous,” he told her in that previous conversation, which Warren says ended with “a perfunctory hug.”
Now, Obama wanted her to perform the hard work of setting up the agency, even without the promise of the ultimate leadership role. What’s more, she would have to work with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, one of her rivals who had opposed her nomination to direct the bureau. Warren, as she recounts in “A Fighting Chance,” at first rejected the president’s request.
“You’re jamming me, Elizabeth,” Obama said, in a tense conversation that lasted for an hour and was twice interrupted by an assistant reminding Obama of his next meeting.
“He urged me not to overplay my hand,” Warren writes. “Got it.”
“Sometimes you have to trust the president,’’ Obama implored, according to Warren’s retelling. “Let me work this out.”
“All right,” she replied. “I’ll trust you on this.”
The White House scene is one of the more revealing inside tales Warren relays in “A Fighting Chance.’’ Obtained by the Globe in advance of next week’s release date, the campaign-style book undoubtedly will stoke more calls for the Democratic Massachusetts senator, who won her Senate seat in 2012, to mount a 2016 presidential campaign. Warren has insisted she will not run for president in the next election, but even so the book and her heavy promotional tour will keep her in the national spotlight.
Unlike the former Harvard law professor’s previous books, which focused heavily on policy prescriptions and economic studies, this one is penned in a folksy style and contains extensive biographical sections and family photos, along with colorful stories from her battles over financial regulations in Washington.
“It’s not the book that would have been on the syllabus for her Harvard Law School class,” said Chris Lehane, a San Francisco-based Democratic consultant. If she runs, he said, ``it will be on the syllabus of every reporter covering the presidential election in 2016.”
Throughout the book, Warren casts herself as the dutiful outsider, persistently fighting the corruption and excess of Wall Street and battling to do the right thing in a capital filled with self-dealers and well-connected insiders. She also interweaves personal details, writing how she engaged in national policy debates while having nightly conversations with her pregnant daughter, or of running a high-profile campaign while dealing with the emotional toll of her ailing dog, Otis.
Warren is planning a six-week book tour that, in addition to Cambridge, Boston, Worcester, and Springfield, will take her to large venues in New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon.
The book is being published by Metropolitan Books, a division of Henry Holt and Co. The original working title was “Rigged,” to describe how the Wall Street economy is stacked against average Americans, but was changed to the more optimistic “A Fighting Chance.”
Neither the publisher nor Warren’s office would reveal the size of her advance, although some industry sources have estimated it likely topped $1 million.
The book spans the compelling biographical arc that is familiar to many Massachusetts voters by may be new to her national following—the Oklahoma upbringing, her law degree and populist advocacy, Harvard Law, Washington battles, and finally her 2012 Senate race.
She writes about growing up in a struggling middle class family, her drive to shape her career, and how it contributed to her first marriage falling apart. She spends several pages describing the family connections that have led her to assert a partial Native American heritage, for which she was criticized by Republicans in her 2012 Senate campaign.
But most of the book is about her travails in Washington, including early work on bankruptcy issues with the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy (Warren still has a voice mail from Kennedy on her phone, which she listened to during her 2012 campaign). In the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, after making peach cobbler and iced tea, she gets a call out of the blue from Harry Reid.
“Who?” Warren asked.
“Um, Harry Reid,” he replied. “Majority leader, US Senate.”
He asked her to lead a congressional oversight panel that was set up as part of the bank bailouts, a springboard that helped Warren emerge as a key figure in Washington debates and champion her cause of creating a new agency to protect consumers from predatory lending practices.
In April 2009, she writes, she received an invitation from Larry Summers, her former Harvard colleague who was one of the new president’s top economic advisers. He wanted to have dinner at the Bombay Club, an expensive restaurant just steps from the White House. Summers ordered Diet Cokes and they spoke for several hours. Eventually, Summers leaned back in his chair and gave Warren some advice.
“He teed it up this way: I had a choice. I could be an insider, or I could be an outsider,” Warren writes. Outsiders could say what they want, but people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders get more access to push their ideas to powerful people.
“But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders,” Summers told Warren, she writes. “I had been warned.”
Summers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Later, her relationship with Summers would turn frosty. And after legislation creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Summers and other Obama advisers reportedly opposed nominating Warren to run it.
Warren recounted that one of Obama’s advisers – whom she doesn’t name—suggested that someone else be named director, while Warren could serve as “cheerleader” for the new agency.
“I assume that was meant as a metaphor, but I had to wonder: Cheerleader?” Warren writes. “Would the same suggestion have been made to a man in my position? I did not rush out to buy pom-poms.”
After she agreed to help set up the agency, she recounts being with Geithner and Obama, about to go to the Rose Garden for a press conference. Obama said they would all go out together.
“Well, not all at once,” he said. “This isn’t a Three Stooges routine.”
The three of them laughed, and then launched into a round of Three Stooges gags.
“By any objective measure, I’m sure we were all pretty lame, but I was impressed,” Warren writes. “The president and the secretary knew a lot of Moe, Larry, and Curly routines. Surely the country was in good hands.”
On her first day on the job, Geithner took her out to lunch. When she showed up at his office, he presented her with a present: a cop’s hat.
Then they got into the back seat of an SUV that was driven by a security detail. Warren put her seatbelt on; Geithner didn’t.
“Like a bossy third-grade teacher, I looked at him and said, ‘Put on your seat belt, Mr. Secretary,’” Warren writes. “Like a naughty kid, he looked back and said, ‘I don’t have to.’”
They continued arguing the point, and Warren thinks she raised her voice.
“He didn’t put on his seat belt all the way to the restaurant,” she writes. On the way back, after debating the role of government in the financial markets, he did put on his seat belt.
Once Obama nominated someone else to run the bureau, Warren packed her bags and—after a trip to Legoland with her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews—began considering running for US Senate in Massachusetts.
Scott Brown, she says, had tons of positives – including that he was “the kind of guy who might be played by Tom Cruise in the movie version of his life.” She casts herself as a reluctant political novice who stood little chance.
“Don’t do it,” her son, Alex, told her. “It’ll ruin your life.”
But after getting in the race, Warren writes of being suddenly recognized by people while waiting for the next MBTA train, about the challenges of running as a woman (“anyone want to offer a witty comment about my glasses or my hair?”), or about losing weight on the campaign trail (she began hitching her pants in back with a big safety pin).
Warren also devotes several pages to the sensitive subject of her partial Native American heritage.
“As a kid, I had learned about my Native American background the same way every kid learns about who they are: from family,” she writes. “I never questioned my family’s stories or asked my parents for proof or documentation. What kid would?”
Her ancestry became a major issue during the campaign, and Warren says she was stunned by the attacks – and that she couldn’t provide documentation because her family hadn’t registered any tribal affiliation.
“In Oklahoma, that was pretty common,” she writes. “But knowing who you are is one thing, and proving who you are is another.”
She reiterated that she did not use her background to gain special treatment. “I never asked for special treatment when I applied to college, to law school, or for jobs,” she writes.
By election day, Warren was leading in many polls. That night, inside the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel, she practiced a victory speech and a concession speech. Then, she stood alone in a room and thought about her mother.
“She showed me what it meant to grow up, to be responsible, to do what needed to be done,” Warren writes. “And now the daughter of a telephone operator and a maintenance man might be going to the United States Senate.”