It was an all-ages crowd at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury that Sunday. As I arrived with my ten-year-old son, I encountered a dad escorting three six-to-eight year-old girls inside to hear Elizabeth Warren speak. The older woman sitting in front of us had worked for Ted Kennedy and the late Paul Tsongas, the much-loved moderate Democrat whose Senate seat is now held by John Kerry, and whose Congressional district his widow now represents. She spoke quite a bit to my son, clearly pleased to see a new generation getting an early start in political involvement.
There was time enough for a short lesson in the relationship of the House and Senate to the President, and how each state had many Representatives depending on how many people lived there; but that every state from Rhode Island to California had just two Senators. Elizabeth Warren wants to be one of the Senators from Massachusetts, and that it was possible that my son was now witnessing history.
Before long, Elizabeth Warren took the stage to a standing ovation.
Warren shared with the audience some aspects of her personal life that began far from Harvard. Choosing marriage and motherhood at a young age, she began her career as a special educator in a public school. She pursued a law degree, graduated from Rutgers, and practiced law out of her home before returning to teaching, now at the college level.
Most Americans were introduced to Warren when she became chair of the congressional oversight panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), then as the creator of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She is also the author (with her daughter) of the much-discussed book, The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke, which illuminates the high cost of today’s middle class requirements of quality education usually through college, adequate and responsive health care, and residence in a safe and active community. A fully employed worker today, say the authors, earns less inflation-adjusted income than a fully employed worker did 30 years ago, making it much harder to get by and creating a cycle which has ensnared the current generation and threatens to impoverish the next.
What impressed me about Elizabeth Warren, even before her Senate run, was her willingness to go head to head with major media figures. Her ability to explain complex, economic concepts to a TV audience, and to demystify confusing, often deliberately deceptive business practices without condescension – the mark of a great teacher.
That Sunday, she told us, “I grew up in an America that was still investing in kids like me,” explaining that she got her degree with help from the NDEA program designed to support the education of those studying the sciences, math, foreign languages, and special education with up to 15 percent of loan forgiveness. Back then, “we made the decision to build a middle class.” Of course much has changed since then. The middle class is getting squeezed and the building blocks of a secure society have been systematically eroded. If you can’t afford it, you’re out of luck.
Will we, she prompted, continue to be a country that says, “‘I’ve got mine, you’re on your own?’ Or, can we again be a country that believes we can build a future?”
“It is not a question of economics. It is not a question of math. It is a question of values. What do we value?”
Warren called out the GOP Presidential candidates, whom she said, were each determined to overturn consumer-friendly financial reform in their early days in office, and she decried the tone of their politics in general. “They attack public school teachers, attack nurses, attack those who work in public service. That is wrong!”
Closing in full campaign mode, she reminded those assembled that history would judge this moment. “Did we decide to make America a place of opportunity again?”
“I believe that America is a place of opportunity; that anyone who works hard, and plays by the rules should have a chance to succeed.”
“Are you ready to answer history?”
In a moment like that, it’s hard not to believe in eventual victory. But Warren’s opponent is a well-financed incumbent who hasn’t even begun to campaign, the negative ads of his out-of-state supporters have just started to trickle out, and Massachusetts is a surprisingly difficult place for female politicians to succeed. Still, whether you are looking at the struggling economy and its effect on the national mood, the Occupy protests and the various attempts to define or contain them, or the results of this most recent election, there is a sense of answering history in the air, of choosing a path to define the nation going forward. Who will we be in five years? Who will we be when my son grows up?
After her speech, Warren stayed to greet supporters and talk with the media covering the event. I took the opportunity to introduce my son to her and she thanked him for getting involved. Spotting the camera in my hand, she asked if I’d like a photo, and of course, I said yes.
Later, as we walked back toward downtown Boston, my son asked me why the photo was such a big deal to me and why all the grownups thought it was so important for him to be there when he wasn’t old enough to vote.
I thought about the impact my parents’ discussions of politics (in the Nixon era) had had on me, and what it felt like to meet Ted Kennedy for the first time. I thought about that father at the entrance to the rally, and his hopes for his three little daughters. I talked to my son about the decisions we make as voters, and how it’s important to know as much as possible about what people say and what they mean.
The impact of adult decisions on the next generation is still a difficult concept for a ten-year old, but knowing the weight of this meeting, and indeed, the whole election, I told him “When you are a grown-up, you are going to remember this day, and you will understand how important it was, even though you were a kid.”