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I Was There When Elizabeth Warren Learned to Hate the Press

I may even be the reason

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I’ve always rolled my eyes at the notion that journalists are eyewitnesses to history. Yes, I was there for Barack Obama’s 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention. So were 20,000 other people. But with the recent publication of Elizabeth Warren’s new book, A Fighting Chance, I’ve realized that, for the first time in my career, I actually had enjoyed a front-row seat to something historical: The moment that turned Warren from someone who loved the press to someone who loathed it. 

It was October 12, 2011, to be exact, and I was in Quincy, Massachusetts, along with Sam Jacobs of The Daily Beast. The two of us were writing magazine profiles of Warren, who’d just launched her bid for the U.S. Senate, and we were there to watch her stump for votes at a local diner. We both trailed the candidate as she went table-to-table, trying to stand far enough away so as not to make her artificial conversations even more artificial but close enough so that we could eavesdrop on them. The highlight undoubtedly came when Warren fed some pancakes to a baby and made her pitch to his grandparents. After she’d made her rounds, Warren’s press secretary, Kyle Sullivan, told Jacobs that he could sit down with her at the diner for his one-on-one interview. Sullivan informed me that my one-on-one time with Warren would come at the end of the day at a bar back in Boston.

Both interviews would wind up causing Warren some headaches. In her conversation with me, Warren—whose unmatched eloquence as a law professor explaining the financial collapse accounted for her then-nascent political career and once famously prompted Jon Stewart to proclaim that he wanted to “make out” with her—struggled to formulate a cogent argument against her opponent, Scott Brown. In my story, I wrote:

When I recently asked her to make the case against Brown, the sure-footedness she’s displayed on so many occasions suddenly deserted her. “This race is about America’s future, it’s about a choice,” she began confidently, before settling into a long, uncomfortable pause. She eventually continued, “Uh, uh, gosh, I know candidates are always supposed to have the great ten-second clip on how this works. Kyle”—she said, referring to her spokesman, Kyle Sullivan, who was sitting in on the interview—“is probably gnashing his teeth right at this moment. But”—she paused again—“it’s about whose side you stand on. Scott Brown is one of Wall Street’s favorite senators. Um, that’s not what I—I want to go to Washington—let me say it differently. Scott Brown’s one of Wall Street’s favorite senators. I want to go to the United States—I want to go to Washington to be the middle class’s favorite senator. Or the favorite senator of the middle class. Maybe that’s easier without the possessive.”

Slate’s Dave Weigel subsequently noted: “Had Zengerle put it all on camera, it might have had the same corrosive, viral impact on Warren that Herman Cain's bumbling chat with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel had on him.” 

The fallout from Warren’s interview with Jacobs, however, was far worse. In a Daily Beast article headlined “Warren Takes Credit for Occupy Wall Street,” Jacobs wrote: 

Elizabeth Warren is running for office in the most high-profile race in the country not involving Barack Obama. It’s a position that calls for some tact. So what does she think about the Occupy Wall Street protests that are roiling the country?

“I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do,” she says. “I support what they do.” 

It wasn’t long before Karl Rove’s Crossroads group was blanketing the Massachusetts airwaves with an attack ad against Warren over the remarks, and she was on the defensive for many months.

In her new book, we learn just how much of a toll this took on her. Although Warren doesn’t mention my story, she dwells at length on the Daily Beast’s, and how it made her change her view of—and behavior toward—reporters. She writes:

I learned a painful lesson from that interview. The old way of talking with the press — long conversations and lively discussions — was gone. There was a huge difference between being an “expert” and being a “candidate.” The game had changed. . . . I had to learn not to step on my own tongue. . . .

When I first started talking about running for office, a lot of people said to me, “Don’t let the consultants change you,” and I’d always assured them that I wouldn’t allow it to happen. But like it or not, I had to change. Not because of a consultant, but because I started to understand the cost of a stupid mistake. I wasn’t going to change who I was or what I was fighting for, but I was in a different boxing ring now. I needed to learn the new rules, and I needed to learn them fast. 

Warren has learned the new rules—too well, in fact. As the Boston Globe’s Noah Bierman and Matt Viser have pointed out, she has distinguished herself as the Senate’s most press-averse member, routinely ignoring or dodging questions from reporters in Capitol hallways. When journalists do get her to speak with them, she numblingly repeats talking points.

It’s all quite a contrast to the Warren of old, and not just the one who (almost literally) charmed the pants off of Jon Stewart. What I remember most about my time following Warren around in Massachusetts, even more than her stumbles in trying to answer my questions, is just how accessible she was. Part of this was because it was early in the campaign—more than a year before the election—and there weren’t that many reporters trailing her around. (Although in the few days I spent with her, the Daily Beast’s Jacobs and Rebecca Traister, then of the New York Times Magazine, were also there, which attested to just what a star she already was.) But there have been enough times when I was the only reporter with a politician to know that they can be just as guarded and inaccessible in those instances as when they’re being pursued by a media mob. There have been way too many times in my interviews with politicians, when I could tell they were on auto-pilot, that I’ve had a hard time feigning interest. Or worse. 

My favorite account of the latter comes from The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson who, in a profile of Ted Cruz, recalls the misery of being trapped in the backseat of a car with the Texas Senator as he repeats, verbatim, portions of his stump speech in response to Ferguson’s questions:

I made a quick calculation of how many vertebrae I would damage if I slipped the lock, opened the door, and did a tuck and roll onto the passing pavement. The answer was: too many. So I contented myself with looking out the window at the Houston exurbs until the speech wound down and I could ask another question, after which the speech resumed and I watched the endless series of tire stores and taco stands and Jiffy Lubes roll by. 

With Warren back in 2011, there were no such moments. She listened to my questions and gave me good, thoughtful answers. They were more conversations than interviews. There was no question—whether it was about her thoughts on Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein to her opinions of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—that she wouldn’t try to answer or, at the very least, candidly try to dodge. And it was clear she thought about her answers. Once, she approached me a day after our interview to tell me that she’d woken up in the middle of the night unsatisfied with one of her answers and wanted a second chance. She hadn’t committed a gaffe. There was no need for her to take another stab. She just thought she hadn’t done a sufficiently good job the first time around and could explain things better with another try.

And I ended up penalizing her for that—by including that moment, and other messy ones, in my story.  I still think, in the end, it was worth quoting her in full, since there was something interesting and revealing about her difficulties in making the transition from academic political/media celebrity to politician. But I also wonder if, by doing that, I didn’t hasten that transition. Reporters often complain that politicians are too politic. If we’re being honest, we need to admit that we’re the ones who make them that way.