By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The humiliation of Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has written almost exactly what I was thinking regarding U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren and her exaggerated (and possibly non-existent) Cherokee heritage. So I recommend you read it. I have just a few additional thoughts.

I have to admit this is one of those stories that got by me. I didn’t think it would amount to much after the Boston Herald’s Hillary Chabot broke the story on April 27. Even though Harvard Law School had touted her as a diversity hire, there was no evidence (and there still isn’t) that she had ever sought to claim minority status for career advancement. And when the Boston Globe reported that she was, in fact, 1/32 Cherokee, that seemed to be the end of it. After all, the current tribal chief is only 1/32 Cherokee.

But things got a lot worse for Warren last week, when the Globe published a correction stating that there was no real evidence of Warren’s Cherokee background. Apparently this is nothing more than one of those family legends that may or may not have some basis in fact.

Like Douthat, and like millions of other Americans, I grew up thinking I might have some Native American heritage. My mother’s family was named Shaw; we had a cottage in Onset when I was growing up with a sign out front that said “Shawnee,” a tribute to that supposed heritage. My mother didn’t think there was anything to it, but who knows? As far as I know, no one in my family has traced our ancestral roots. We do go back to the early days of Plymouth Colony, so anything is possible.

I’ve heard it said that Warren should have been able to put all this behind her rather easily, but I don’t think it’s that simple. At root, I think she harbored a romantic vision of herself, which is why she listed herself as a Native American in law directories and contributed recipes to a cookbook by Native Americans. I suspect she’s deeply embarrassed that her fantasies have been exposed and mocked.

Can Warren overcome this politically? We’ll see. I’ve thought from the beginning that Warren’s Republican opponent, Sen. Scott Brown, was a tough candidate with first-rate political instincts. As I recently wrote in the Huffington Post, I thought the only reason that Warren had a chance was the large Democratic turnout that could be expected given that she’ll be on the same ballot as President Obama. Otherwise, Brown would be a shoo-in.

Let’s just say that the events of the past few weeks won’t help Warren.

U.S. Treasury Department photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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Hypocrites with their hands out


Update: McGrory won’t have to reveal source


  1. Bill Toscano

    This “story” is so over.

    It’s worse than Mitt’s dog.

    An intelligent person (and most Democrats are) will ignore this.

  2. Tony Schinella

    Nice post, as always. I too thought this would blow over pretty quickly but it’s clear that it’s not going to. And this might be a good thing for the overall conversation – not about Eliz Warren – but the lack of need for these set asides in a time when so many Americans are “ethnic mutts” (my terminology for myself and others who are a mix) especially with the best and the brightest (in Warren’s case?) gaming the system.
    Dan, you talk about your own culture and thinking that you may have had some Native American heritage in your past but you didn’t know. Question: Would you have marked your forms differently if you knew? I seriously doubt it. You would have lived exactly as you have and succeeded as you have regardless of the checked box.
    For me, it’s kinda the same. I’ve been able to trace back some of my own heritage, going back as far as the 18th Century in northern Italy. I also have Irish heritage on two sides and French on one. But I don’t know 25 percent of my heritage due to illegitimacy.
    Imagine, for a moment, if all of that 25 percent was, in fact, pure Native American. Impossible, but let’s pretend, and I started checking off the boxes that way. Would anyone in their right mind believe that someone with a name like mine, skin tone, and other characteristics, etc., were a Native American? No, of course not. It would be assumed that I was cheating to get ahead even though it was true. What is shocking is that Warren has been able to have her checked box taken seriously, to the point of even being listed as a Native American attorney … at 1/32nd? Please!
    On my wife’s side, there is known Native American heritage. Our children have twice as much heritage than Warren’s pretend. But are we checking off boxes? No, they aren’t Indians, period! They are ethnic mutts. Instead of checking off boxes, we will instill in our children the values of hard work, never giving up no matter what, and responsibility for their own successes and failures, and hope for the best, without any set asides, without any excuses.
    And that’s kinda why this conversation is needed – everyone should be doing the same thing and not gaming government or checked boxes to cheat. As well, employers should be allowed to hire the best potential employees for the job regardless of their ethnicity; universities should grab the best students; etc.
    I should, based on my Naderite tendencies, be completely drawn to a Warren candidacy. And when I first started hearing that she was thinking about a run, I thought it would be an interesting opportunity. But the more I looked the less I liked. She has no understanding of what is going on. You can look right at the pullquote from one of her earlier speeches about corporations using roads to bring goods to market and using police and fire for protection and therefore corporations need to pay more in federal taxes, paraphrasing. This quote alone shows that all the education she has received has not kept her from being a dingbat on the understanding the difference between localism and federalism.
    The 2012 Senate campaign though will be based on whether or not Scott Brown has been a good Senator. Most of Warren’s supporters aren’t going to vote for him anyway. So he will win or lose on being himself. And that seems to suit him.
    There is also another Democrat running – Marisa DeFranco – a just as seemingly qualified and capable individual to be a Senator as Warren. She will be on the ballot, has worked very hard at campaigning while working (not easy, believe me), and who might even be a better choice to face off against Scott Brown.

  3. Paul Bass

    What interests me about this post and the Huffington Post article is Dan going out on a limb and challenging the conventional wisdom about the dynamics of the race itself. Nice job!

  4. Steve Rhode

    The story at this link captures my thoughts on this NON-STORY.

    The Boston Herald is on a witch hunt. Wendy Murphy went on NECN last week and called for Warren to take a DNA test. She promised that the Herald would continue to run this story “every day” until she does.

    The rest of the Boston media has gone along for the ride, apparently it takes the perspective from far away Kansas City to see how “absurd” the locals are being.

  5. Neil Sagan

    Is Dan a journalist? A journalist would ask the person making the insinuation or the claim for their evidence.

    As far as I can tell no journalist has asked Scott Brown to make the case citing evidence. Instead, Scott Brown issues press releases with insinuations and the press dutifully publishes them.

    Dan concedes, “there was no evidence (and there still isn’t) that she had ever sought to claim minority status for career advancement.” and

    “family legends that may or may not have some basis in fact.”

    In other words, there is no evidence to substantiate Scott Brown’s claims that Warren lied about her heritage. Lying implies knowledge to the contrary, so Dan must agree Warren did not lie.

    I’ve never heard anyone call someone’s heritage based on oral history “legend” but whatever.

    I can’t prove my family heritage. The great fire of Baltimore destroyed family birth records. Are my claims based on family oral history fairly subject to insinuation because I have no proof that I am NOT lying? That’s an absurd standard.

    What’s left when there’s no case for Warren lying and no case for affirmative action abuse. Mockery.

    That a journalism professor does not recognize how the media is working (or not working) this issue on rationalistic principles tells me he’s not paying attention to journalism, he’s playing pundit.

    “I think she harbored a romantic vision of herself.” Oy.

    I think she believed her parents and it is part of who she is.

  6. Aaron Read

    I grew up thinking my ancestor, John Read, was President of Harvard University. I knew there was a house on campus named after him. But it wasn’t until I was in my early 20’s that I actually visited the house (perhaps ironically, it’s where Harvard’s Native American Program offices were for many, many years) and learned that he wasn’t president, merely served on the Board of Overseers in 1895. No mean feat, but not quite President, either.

    Lord knows where I got the idea in my head…probably as a little kid I misheard things and the idea stuck. There is a lot of history in my family; things are well-traced at least as far back as the Civil War. But I also have a vague memory of hearing that my family stretches back to the Mayflower…which isn’t true, none of the names on the Mayflower’s manifest match those in the “four families” that make up my Dad’s side of things. But then again, I’ve heard anecdotally that 20 to 25% of all New England residents can claim connection to the Mayflower if you include all marriages. So who knows?

    I do find this all utterly fascinating that Brown’s sordid past can include being a male model posing nude (or close to nude) in a party of supposed ultra-purity that’s all about regulating the sexytime of everyone…but Warren makes what’s almost certainly an honest mistake on something so trivial and it’s a nail in her political coffin.

    Strikes me that Warren either needs to go more on the attack against Brown and force everyone to realize that “digging in the past” is mutually assured destruction…or she needs to embrace this “controversy” and take a similar tack to what Douthat ultimately says: Harvard claiming Warren as a “minority candidate” was silly at best, disingenuous at worst, and she should smack them for it. And then immediately move on to how she’s trying to help make sure everyone still has a chance to afford college because it’s a necessary part of getting ahead in these tough economic times.

    The longer she backpedals, the longer this stays in the media spotlight.

  7. For me, the most egregious thing about this whole affair is the way the press has been covering it. Do most of us consider the Boston Herald to be biased- I believe there’s a quote about the paper being in love with him during his campaign- and possibly one notch above the National Enquirer? Yes. But the Boston Globe has really suffered in my eyes because of this. There has been significantly more coverage about this than Brown’s daughter’s health insurance and his relationship with JP Morgan Chase. I don’t see how someone’s heritage is more of an issue that will affect the lives of the voters more than health insurance and financial regulation.

    It is possible to report on this as part of the coverage than to see everything through its lens. Note the difference between this story from the Globe and this story from the Times Big difference.

  8. Mike Benedict

    This is silly. The far-more maligned (and Republican hated) Hillary Clinton won over the highly partisan (and red) upstate New York simply by working her tail off. Warren can do the same in highly blue Massachusetts. It’s just a matter of putting in the time. The press should spend more time discussing what she is, not what she isn’t. (I’m not counting the Herald in that mix; tabloids aren’t really press.)

  9. L.K. Collins

    The Warren flap seems to be self-inflicted. Had she ‘fessed up early, she could easily have skated past this.

    But she chose to dissemble. Not once; but a number of times.

    It’s now blown itself up to be something a little more concerning for Warren in that the Herald is alleging that she plagiarized the recipes she used in the now-famous cookbook.

    Is this the behavior of a successful politician? Is this the behavior of a noted lawyer? Is this the behavior of a tenured professor at a prestigious law school?

    Sadly, the answer is yes.

    Her actions speak volumes as to what sort of Senator she might make.

  10. Sean Griffin

    What Warren needs to do is have a sit down with Henry Louis Gates Jr. on his terrific “Finding Your Roots” program on PBS (loved by Liberals and Conservatives alike– see Linda Chavez and Cal Thomas’s recent columns on the show).

  11. L.K. Collins

    Correction. It appears that the Herald report was false. My error for not catching the correction.

    The questions still remain however. Warren’s response to the problem was the typical shuck-and-jive, duck-and-weave.

  12. Dan Kennedy

    @Deb: Brown insured his daughter under RomneyCare, which he voted in favor of. Where’s the hypocrisy?

  13. @Dan, it is my understanding that Brown is insured through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, a federal program. To my knowledge, that is not RomneyCare, which was only MA. Yes, there are many similarities between it and the Affordable Care Act, but it’s under the latter that Brown is able to insure his daughter. And while he did vote in favor of the MA program, he voted against the federal one.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Deb: I think you’re right. I was relying on this story from ABC News, which is confusing as hell.

  14. Oh… yeah!

  15. Mike Rice

    “A lie is just a great story that someone ruined with the truth” – Barney Stinson

  16. … but what about JP Morgan Chase? And what about the level of the Globe’s coverage?

  17. Bob Nelson

    She needs to put it behind her and admit she thought she was an Indian but turns out she isn’t. Was she taking advantage of this or not, even if it was “I wanted to meet people like me”? Ward Churchill also claimed Indian blood. I don’t use the term Native American except to describe people like myself, who were born in the United States of America. I am a proud Native American. And for those paranoid about Brown, he has voted GOP only about 54 per cent of the time. In most states he could be a Democrat. (He uses terms like moderate and independent). How about how Harvard or some school claimed she was a person of color? Oh yeah. Clearly…

  18. Rick Peterson

    If someone accidentally takes a handicapped parking space, should they not leave it when they discover that they have assumed an advantage to which they were not entitled? Or failing to leave it, are they not trivializing that protected class? Prof. Warren could have apologized and turned this into a 2 day story. Then again, when the US Senate is your first run for office, self-effacement would not appear to be her strong suit.

  19. Mike Benedict

    “self-effacement would not appear to be her strong suit.”

    @Rick, you could say the same (but didn’t) about about Gov. Romney.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Self-effacement is not a typical attribute of anyone who runs for office. But let’s get real. Warren served at the highest levels of government in recent years. Should she now run for the Cambridge City Council?

  20. Stephen Stein

    I find this story tough to take. I would really like to defend Warren, who seems to have done nothing wrong except follow a family storyline that turned out to be false. As far as I know, she has not “dissembled” about it (memo to LK Collins – please provide examples if this is not the case).

    It’s not an issue of much substance regarding her qualifications to serve as Senator. It’s obscuring almost ALL the substantive issues in the campaign.

    Yet it’s impossible to defend her if she won’t defend herself. The fact that she’s not addressing this issue *is* a substantive issue in the campaign, and one that does not speak well of her. Color me disappointed.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Stephen: I agree with you 100 percent. And though I find Warren’s behavior weirdly disturbing, it seems there are plenty of people trying to push this beyond the known facts. Here, for instance, is the second sentence of a commentary published by my friends at the Guardian the other day:

      As it is understood now, Warren claimed to be a Native American on her University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University law school professor applications, but it turns out that Warren probably has no American Indian ancestry.

      On her applications? No. As much as her detractors would like to make it seem that she was the beneficiary of affirmative-action policies, there has been zero evidence on that front. Probably no American Indian ancestry? Says who? Probably no documented evidence. But would we really be surprised if someone whose roots go back in the former Indian Territory turned out to be part Native American?

      That said, Warren’s behavior is that of someone who is afraid worse is going to come out.

  21. Stephen Stein

    Warren’s conduct aside, Dan Wasserman expresses almost exactly what I’m thinking about this affair. I recommend you read it.

  22. Stephen Stein

    @Dan: if you step beyond the genteel (ha!) boundaries of The Guardian, you’ll find a lot worse. This is a nimble piece of locution from The Blaze:

    However, it’s not the fact that she says she’s kinda-sorta Cherokee Indian that has people crying foul. It’s the fact many believe she used these claims to advance her career in academia…

    “It’s the fact that many believe” – something for which there is no evidence for. Wow.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Stephen: Remember that documentary about Fox News a few years ago? There’s a whole section on interviewers using “Some people say …”

  23. Rick Peterson

    @Mike: I also didn’t say the same about Jon Corzine or John Edwards. They’re not running against Brown either. (I have plenty of reasons to not support Romney but when you graduate from Harvard B and L Schools simultaneously and accomplish what he has personally and in the private sector, that’s not bragging, that’s fact. Time will tell which the electorate fears more, the creative destruction of right-wing capitalist Romney or the machine politics of left-wing populist Obama. Neither one of them can rely on “hope & change” this time, that’s for sure.)

  24. Sean Griffin

    I want to correct Bob Nelson’s assertion that Scott Brown only votes with his party 54% of the time. According to, he votes with his party 69.7% of the time:

    Ben Nelson, the most conservative Democrat, votes with his party 81% of the time:

    So this still makes Scott Brown more conservative than the most conservative Democrat in the Senate.

  25. Mike Benedict

    “Creative destruction” is to “corporate greed” as “gaming” is to “gambling”: A total whitewash.

  26. Mike Benedict

    And btw Rick, being a lawyer (as Warren and Edwards are) is kind of a good thing when it comes to running for things like the Senate. Senators aren’t there to run businesses; they are there to write laws.

  27. Rick Peterson

    @Mike:When you’re right, you’re right.

    And btw, I would never accuse Ms. Warren of bearing the slightest resemblance to either Corzine or Edwards. Her venial sins can’t compare to those dirtbags. If “being a lawyer (like) …Edwards is” is “kind of a good thing when running for…the Senate”, we are in more trouble than I thought. Moral turpitude should disqualify someone from membership in either the Senate or the Bar, regardless of party affiliation. The former VP candidate couldn’t carry her briefcase.

  28. C. E. Stead

    DK – maybe she SHOULD have run for Cambridge City Council.

    People who parachute into high profile races with no political experience do not make good candidates. Governmental experience is no substitute, because there is precious little need to explain or negotiate with the public when stipulating regulations, and the higher the level the worse the tendency toward fiat. This is a bi-partisan phenomenon – Charlie Baker is another good example of somebody who knows a lot about government and little about elections.

    Warren was wished upon the Mass. democrats by the national party, and now they have to live with her. It’s interesting that she isn’t even the nominee, technically, as not all of her primary opponents were cowed into bowing out.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @C.E.: There are as many counter-examples as there are examples, starting with Deval Patrick. You’re correct that the national Democratic Party talked Warren into running, but it was only because the people who announced were so uninspiring.

  29. Mike Rice

    For a story that is “so over” this one certainly has legs.

  30. L.K. Collins

    Likely, MR, because this is such a dumb error made by someone who is noted for her “brilliance”.

  31. C.E. Stead

    DK – I need to confess I feel badly for Warren. My 6′ tall son with the white-blond crew cut and blue eyes is, in fact, 1/32 Cherokee. My husband (Mr. 1/16th) DOES have documentary evidence about his great-grandmother, Chinquilla. But in Oklahoma, that and fifty cents will get you a cup of coffee. Half the state has some Native American blood but people the vintage of Warren and my husband didn’t grow up hearing it bragged about either – it was a quasi-secret, like the uncle in the attic.

    What is keeping this story alive isn’t the fact of it – it’s the ‘PowWow Chow’ cookbook with the plagerized receipes, and the exploitation of the nationality by allegedly liberal institutions. Most of all, it’s the way Warren has handled it – dismissive, evasive, dithering. Instead of saying, ‘LOTS of folks back home have some Indian blood, and we’ve come to be proud of it! Just like being a Revolutionary War descendent here! But that’s a side issue…’ Her handling of this doesn’t make people look forward to an explanation of a complex or unclear issue from her as a US Senator.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @C.E.: Warren has handled this in a manner befitting someone who is waiting for another large, as-yet-unspecified shoe to drop on her head. We’re all assuming she could have handled this a lot better than she has, but maybe we’ll soon understand why she hasn’t.

  32. Bob Nelson

    Sean: I got the 54 per cent number from a Globe article. A quick search turns up the following from Brown’s
    site (apparently getting the number from the same article): “The study from Congressional Quarterly, a publication that covers Capitol Hill, said Brown voted with his party 54 percent of the time and with President Obama’s stated positions 70 percent of the time.”. The page is titled
    “Boston Globe: New Study Says Scott Brown Is Second Most Bipartisan Senator”

    You say, “So this still makes Scott Brown more conservative than the most conservative Democrat in the Senate.” Scott is portraying himself as moderate and independent. As I’ve said many on the far right call him a “Republican in Name Only”; he seems to vote with the GOP a little over half of the time but note that number where he agrees with Obama’s
    positions. They may have a point (expecting him to vote with them more like 90 per cent or so.) (Note that radio ads in the original campaign said “What is Scott Brown, really? A Republican. Who will vote in lockstep with the Republican party.” Meanwhile Brown’s ads in the same campaign said he would not; it would depend on the issue and what would be best for
    the Commonwealth. (Also: anyone notice the Brown’s ads don’t say “Republican” and Warren’s don’t say “Democrat”…)

  33. Sean Griffin


    The Boston Globe also reports in a May 7, 2012 article that
    “In tight votes, Brown often loyal to party:

    There’s more:
    Votes with party 69%

    American Conservative Rating of 74 in 2010, 50 in 2011
    Ben Nelson: ACU rating of 48 in 2010, 25 in 2011:

    So, he’s basically a Bob Dole, not a Lowell Weicker.

  34. Sean Griffin

    You’re right, Dan.
    And according to two political scientists: Republicans are most conservative that they’ve been In 100 Years

    Another thing to consider is that Brown is only voting on the things that Republicans are allowing the Senate to vote on. He’s not voting 54 percent of the time with a Democratic supermajority.

  35. Mike Rice

    I take exception to Warren’s t.v. commercial that has been running lately in which a woman declares, “Her father was a janitor, my father was a janitor,” as if anyone who works with their hands is some kind of low-life. I’m wondering what the Warren campaign has to say about the 52 year-old man who has been working as a janitor at Columbia University for years and just graduated from that school with honors.

  36. Bob Nelson

    When you’ve lost the Boston Globe…

    The puns are flying (and she really hasn’t handled this well).
    PaleFacebook. The Totem Pol. Identity politics. Playing the victim. Did she use this to her advantage, or did the various schools? “Look, we have a minority on the faculty.” Now, a quote:
    “I think it is disrespectful to the Cherokee people. She continues to blame this on her opponent, failing to see that the people she stepped on and used to get where she is today want an answer too.”–Twila Barnes, a registered member of the Cherokee Nation

  37. Stephen Stein

    @Mike Rice said: “as if anyone who works with their hands is some kind of low-life”

    That interpretation is entirely your own creation.

  38. Mike Rice

    @Stephen Stein. As someone who has been self-employed in the trades for decades I found Warren’s ad to be demeaning, I don’t like the point made “was a janitor.” What is the purpose of that reference?

    At my morning coffee stop many of my friends who are also in the trades have shared with me their feelings of offense with respect to that commercial as well. In my mind and theirs it sends a condescending message.

  39. Stephen Stein

    *I* hear that statement as: “I understand the lives and problems of blue-collar workers.”

    What you read into a statement as a “purpose” comes as much from you as from the statement itself. Are you and your friends looking at this Senate race as undecideds? Or are you partisans for one candidate or another? I have a definite preference in this race, and I suspect you do too.

  40. Mike Rice

    @Stephen Stein:

    Warren’s t.v. ad just plain bugs me and frankly if the Senate race doesn’t go any further than a gridlocked fight over minority status, a janitor and a carpet salesman along with Brown’s barncoat and pickup truck thrown in again for the hell of it then I won’t waste the gas to go vote! I’ll leave it at that.

  41. C. E. Stead

    *I* hear that statement as: “I understand the lives and problems of blue-collar workers.”

    But you AREN’T a blue collar worker, are you? And it’s more important how it’s heard by those it’s aimed at, rather than those composing the message.

    I grew up in a working class enviornment, factory floor rather than offices. Married a tradesman, work with them professionally. And her tone reeks of condescension to many of them, the so-called Reagan Democrats. There’s a tone to that voice that you hear in a class/community that’s often on the receiving end of ‘help’ – a mixture of empathjetic pity and saccharine uplift. Too kind to SAY that you aren’t as intelligent as I am, out of politeness, of course, but you should take my word for it because I DO know best.

    Ernie Boch III of Blue Mass Group captured it when he said the Warren’s face and expression looks like what you’d see leaning over you when you open up your eyes in the hospice.

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