Warren Couldn't See This Controversy Coming, Now She Can't Make It Go Away

Friday, June 1, 2012

Should Elizabeth Warren’s handlers have foreseen the controversy that has overshadowed her campaign for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts? Of course. 

And the folks in Western Massachusetts should have anticipated the tornadoes that ripped through their towns one year ago today.

There are just some things in life that are so weird and improbable that you can’t imagine their happening, never mind anticipate or avert them.

The I’m-part-Cherokee-but-can’t-prove-it story certainly falls into this category.

Who thought that, when this story first broke some five weeks ago, Elizabeth Warren would still be struggling today to put it behind her?  Nobody I know.

Outside Scott Brown’s campaign team and the editorial staff of the Boston Herald, most people have been saying that the questions about Warren’s Indian heritage really have nothing to do with her ability to serve in the Senate and will not sway their vote one way or the other in November.

But you have to wonder, If Warren is unable to end this controversy soon with a short explanation and the natural application of her personality, will people turn decisively against her because she hasn’t handled herself well on the hot seat?  Will they judge her “unsenatorial” due to a lack of judgment and finesse?

In other words, will the way she reacted to the story prove more important than the story itself?

Yesterday, I was thinking, Why doesn’t Warren just invite a big-time reporter in for a quiet, one-on-one conversation, and say something simple and succinct, like:

“I always believed I had American Indian blood in me because my parents told me I did.  There was no reason to doubt them.  But if that is not the case, it is a mistake that has no bearing on this campaign.  It was an honest mistake.  No one hired me to be a law professor because I, in good faith, indicated that I had Indians in my family tree.  I apologize to anyone who may have been offended by that, and I apologize to the voters for the way this controversy has drawn attention away from the meaningful issues of this campaign.  Now let’s talk about those issues.”

Then this morning, I saw on the front page of the Boston Globe an article about Warren by Brian McGrory, a certifiable journalistic heavyweight, an article headlined, ‘I won’t deny who I am,’ and I thought maybe this will be good for her because she’s taking the controversy head on.  There’ll be no hiding from McGrory.  The headline, however, should have told me she was digging in on the not-yet-substantiated assertion of Indian ancestry, which I wasn’t thinking was the best thing for her to do at this point in time.

Sure enough, McGrory quoted her as saying, “In the 1930s, when my parents got married, these were hard issues.  My father’s family so objected to my mother’s Native American heritage that my mother told me they had to elope.  As kids, my brothers and I knew about that.  We knew about the difference between our two families.  And we knew how important my mother’s heritage was to her.  This was real in my life.  I can’t deny my heritage.  I can’t and I won’t.  That would be denying who my mother was, who my family was, how we lived, and I won’t do it.”

Later this morning, I saw posted on the State House News Service a press release from the “Elizabeth Warren for Massachusetts” campaign in which she blasted Scott Brown for having suggested that her parents may have been mistaken about her mother’s heritage.  The release was based on a press conference Brown had with reporters in Somerville yesterday.  It said, in part:

“…Republican Scott Brown was asked about Elizabeth Warren’s family history that had been passed down to her by her mother and father.  He responded with an attack on their integrity, implying that her parents lied to Elizabeth and her brothers.

“Said Brown, ‘My mom and dad have told me a lot of things too, but they’re not always true.’

“Warren responded with the following statement:

“ ‘Scott Brown’s comments about my parents are totally out of line.  I resent him questioning their honesty.  My mother and father are not here to defend themselves and should be off limits.  Don and Pauline Herring are not fair game and Scott Brown should apologize.’ “

Of course, she’s right.  Her dead parents should be off limits.  But hasn’t she herself brought them within those ill-defined limits by offering their statements as both the reason she’s convinced of, and the proof of, her Native American heritage?

Doubling down does not seem the best bet for putting this story behind her, which is not to say this controversy will be fatal to Warren’s campaign.  It has to run out of steam eventually and collapse of its own nothingness.

The election is five months away.  Warren’s still tied with Brown in the polls.  And one can never rule out a weird and improbable event hitting the Brown campaign.

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