Media Hype

05.26.12

Michael Tomasky on the Media’s Foolish Elizabeth Warren Witch Hunt

The press is obsessed with Elizabeth Warren’s Cherokee heritage. Too bad it’s the biggest media-manufactured story since the Lewinsky scandal nearly brought down a president.

So now Elizabeth Warren has to prove that she’s 1/32nd Cherokee? The temperature on the story is rising. There was a huge article in the Boston Globe on Friday written to raise a number of questions and suggest that Warren used the minority designation to get her job, or get ahead—exactly at the same time that a poll was released (PDF) showing that 69 percent of Bay State voters don’t consider her heritage to be a “significant” story. It reminds me of nothing so much as Monica Lewinsky, and of the media’s need sometimes to get a grip.

Why Lewinsky? The situations are in fact almost precisely the same. You had then a press pack that had decided that whether Bill Clinton was telling the truth about Monica was a question on which the fate of the republic hinged. The press became self-righteously consumed with its search for The Truth. Meanwhile, outside the Beltway, and outside of Wingnuttia (it existed then, just at about half of its current GDP), nobody cared what the truth was. The media kept producing revelations; surely, now, swore Maureen Dowd and Michael Kelly, America will see this man for the reprobate he is! America looked, yawned, told the press to start acting like grownups, and continued to approve of the job Clinton was doing as president at rates near 70 percent and to oppose impeachment at similar levels.

The appearance Thursday morning of this Suffolk University poll (linked to above) made me think: Well, this story line is about to wrap up. If more than two-thirds of voters don’t care, then that’s that. But no—still going strong! And now it’s not the loopy, right-wing, and pro-Brown Herald, which pushed the story first, but the Globe trying to play catch up. Yes, yes, it’s all in the public interest. What, you say, the public says it isn’t interested? Well, we’ll teach them what’s in their interest!

This is close to embarrassing. True, Warren’s story is a little cheesy. No let’s back up even further. It’s hard to see why someone who is 1/32nd anything can be called that thing. But those are the Cherokees’ rules, and the United States of America for all moral and legal purposes accepts them as the rules. As you may have read when this story broke, the current head of the Cherokee nation, Bill John Baker, is also just 1/32nd Cherokee. He is also, by appearance, completely white. You could mistake him for a Tea-Party Congressman.

So if Warren’s mother told her there was Cherokee blood, and if one little rivulet of Cherokee blood going back generations makes one a Cherokee, which legally it does, then she’s Cherokee, at least as far she knows. Now she has to prove this? You have to go back five generations to get to 1/32nd. It’s entirely possible that such a thing can’t even be proven.

As it happens, I just recently underwent a slightly jarring heritage-related experience myself. I grew up being told I was Serbian on my father’s side. Croatians, naturally, were the fiendish enemy, second only to the Turks. But lo and behold, said my uncle at a dinner last year, it seems that my father’s father, who died before my bouncing arrival on the orb, might have been Croatian. Historically speaking, I’d guess I’d rather be a Serb, although Milosevic’s service to mankind has rendered that a far closer call than it would have been before he hit the scene. At the end of the day, I don’t care much one way or the other. But my point is: Proving it? I wouldn’t have the slightest idea where to start.

What does this matter anyway? It’s a “character” issue? Oh please. Elizabeth Warren’s character is pretty well established. She was the daughter of an Oklahoma janitor, for God’s sakes, who started working as a pre-teenager when her father had a heart attack. She has children and grandchildren and has taught Sunday school. She’s served on a number of prestigious boards. She got her law degree from Rutgers—a very good school, but the outpost of someone scratching her way up the mountain on her own, without legacy or connections.

She became a professor at Harvard Law. No one doubts that she earned that, whether as a Cherokee or a whitey or anything else. She is one of America’s leading experts in her field. She chaired congressional oversight of TARP. She came up with the idea for a new agency, the most important consumer-protection agency created in this country in decades (note: she first espoused this idea in the journal I edit, but she did so before I worked there, so I don’t really know her; I interviewed her once, last year). She has simultaneously fended off Tim Geithner, who hated her diligence on the TARP question, and Republicans, who went banshee about her precisely because she was effective and unassailable. They never laid a glove on her (and boy, they tried). If doing all that after growing up poor in the Dust Bowl doesn’t convey character about someone, then nothing does.

This is a “character” issue? Please. Warren’s the daughter of an Oklahoma janitor who became a prof at Harvard Law. She has children and grandchildren and has taught Sunday school.

The people of Massachusetts have perspective on this. (As does Boston Mayor Tom Menino, who hasn’t endorsed Warren but who stated on Friday that the issue is “not relevant at all” to the campaign. Right.) She may or may not win. The poll had her and Scott Brown tied. It’s hard to beat an incumbent, and Brown has positioned himself pretty shrewdly. She’ll have to swim through this muck largely under her own steam. She will have to, as they say, “put this behind her.” I’ll grant that this is a character issue to the extent that she has to have the character to put this in its proper context and change the story in the crucible of a hard-fought race. That’s within the rules of politics, and they certainly apply to her no less than to anyone, and she hasn’t managed to do that at all so far.

But this is a media story as much as it’s a Warren story. We’re sticklers about getting the little things right in our business. But the big things—how important Lewinsky was, whether George Bush’s case for war in Iraq was honest—we (well, not me) almost always get wrong. Count it among the many lessons in life that will never be learned.