Genealogy has become a popular American pastime, but it’s not one that Elizabeth Warren seems to be enjoying. The law professor turned Democratic Senate candidate has discovered to her displeasure that more attention is being paid to her somewhat tenuous claim to Native American ancestry and the use her academic employers made of this fiction than her attempt to defeat Massachusetts incumbent Scott Brown. The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta has compiled all the available evidence on the matter and found some facts that will comfort Warren and others that her critics will promote. But even after we have gotten to the bottom of this — and Franke-Ruta appears to have done so — that won’t solve her problem. Warren’s dilemma is more pressing than merely the irony of a “progressive” hoisted on the petard fashioned by the left.
Warren is vulnerable on this score not just because it is amusing to see a liberal squirm after being called out for masquerading as a minority. Rather it is the fact that she’s a relative newcomer to politics and this controversy is helping to define her. Though she’s right that this is a distraction from the issues, having entered the public imagination as the object of popular scorn in this fashion, it’s going to be difficult for her to shake this image of faux Indian in the next six months.
A fraudulent item in a biography can be a devastating blow to a political career, but it doesn’t have to be fatal, as one prominent example shows.
Just two years ago, a U.S. Senate race in neighboring Connecticut might well have been defined by such an issue. Democratic nominee Richard Blumenthal was caught on something far worse than Warren’s belief that she was 1/32 Cherokee based on family lore and her grandfather’s high cheekbones. Blumenthal was caught on tape lying about having served in Vietnam. That’s more than just fibbing on a resume or treating family myths as fact. It’s about as low as you can get. Yet Blumenthal still breezed to victory and today sits in the U.S. Senate alongside a few members who actually did serve in Vietnam and does so without blushing.
Blumenthal was lucky to run in a blue state like Connecticut and he was even more fortunate that his opponent, pro wrestling mogul Linda McMahon (who is having another crack at the Senate this year as she seeks to replace the retiring Joe Lieberman) was widely seen as disreputable. But even with those favorable circumstances, the lie might have ended Blumenthal’s hopes but for one factor: he was a familiar and well-liked figure in the state. Having spent the previous 20 years running for and winning state-wide office as the longtime attorney general, it was easy for him to ask forgiveness from those who had already gotten to know and respect him. As a political novice, Warren can’t fall back on that same sense of trust.
As Franke-Ruta writes, there’s no evidence she used her fake Indian ancestry to gain entrance to schools or to win professorial posts. But her foolish determination to stick to her claim about having Native American heritage — even after, as Franke-Ruta also determines — it became clear there is virtually no likelihood of it being true has given the story legs. And because the story solidified her public identity as the product of the academy rather than as an activist, it has helped turn this election into a town versus gown affair that is very much to her disadvantage.
Entering the public consciousness as a fraud, even a penny-ante fraud such as her mythical Cherokee forebears, may be a far greater burden for a politician to carry than even the revelation of a lie that is a case of moral turpitude as was true of Blumenthal. Unless Warren can fundamentally redefine the way voters think about her in the coming months, it appears the Democrats’ hope of retaking Ted Kennedy’s old seat was lost on the “Trail of Tears,” and not in Massachusetts.