Sen. Elizabeth Warren: From Professor To Pugilist | KERA News

Sen. Elizabeth Warren: From Professor To Pugilist

Jun 27, 2016
Originally published on June 27, 2016 6:22 pm

It was April 15, 2009, in the depths of the financial crisis. Elizabeth Warren was backstage at The Daily Show, about to make her national TV debut, but her head was not in the clouds.

It was in the toilet. She was throwing up.

"I had stage fright — gut-wrenching, stomach-turning, bile-filled stage fright," she would later write.

Warren was a nobody on the American political scene at the time. A Harvard Law School bankruptcy professor, she had been tapped by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to head up a committee overseeing the disbursement and repayment of bank bailout funds.

As she described that Daily Show night in her book, Warren checked her face in the mirror to make sure she was vomit-free — and then she threw up again.

"For the zillionth time, I asked myself why on God's green earth I had agreed to sit down with Jon Stewart," she wrote. "For the zillionth time, I gave myself the same answer: Because The Daily Show gave me one more way to draw people in, to talk about what had gone wrong and what we should do about it."

Pretty soon she was on the set, sitting just inches from Stewart.

All did not go well.

(Watch the moment below, starting at about 3:55)

As she talked, she was so far in the weeds of the congressional oversight panel's work that only a mutant accountant would have known what she was talking about. And then she said that some of the money went to P-PIP.

"Is that an acronym? " Stewart asked, incredulous.

"Yeah, uh huh," she replied.

"What does it stand for?" he pressed, to which she replied, "I don't remember."

In her book A Fighting Chance, Warren said at that point she knew: "My work in Washington was over. I'll call Senator Reid tomorrow and resign," she wrote. "Maybe they can get someone to run this panel who isn't an idiot."

The agony went on for more than six minutes, an eternity in TV time, before the show broke for a commercial and the end of her segment. But Stewart wouldn't let her go, telling her that if she had an important message for people, she hadn't gotten to it.

They were almost out of time, and the director was urging Stewart to bail, but the host pulled rank.

And when the lights came on, Warren was a different person.

(Watch the moment below, starting at about 1:55)

"So, what you're asking is if we can get this bus pulled out of the ditch — the economy," she chirped.

This crisis didn't have to happen, she told Stewart. Beginning in President George Washington's time, the country's economy was marked by periodic economic panics.

"Every 10 to 15 years, there is financial panic in our history — you just look at it," she continued. "And there's a big collapse, big trouble, people lose their farms, wiped out, until we hit the Great Depression."

That's when the country enacted federal guarantees on bank deposits, restrictions on bank investments, and some stock market regulations.

But 50 years later, she said, we started to get cocky.

"Then what happens is, we say, 'Regulation, oh, that's a pain, it's expensive, we don't need it.' So we start pulling the threads out of the regulatory fabric."

The first thing that happens is the savings and loan crisis in the 1980s and the failure of 700 banks, she observed. Ten years later, there is another major collapse, and by the early 2000s, there is Enron, which shows that books that look fine can in fact be dirty.

We have two choices, she concluded:

"We're going to decide basically, 'Hey, we don't need regulation. You know, it's fine. Boom and bust, boom and bust. And good luck with your 401(k).' Or, alternatively," she pivoted, "we're going to put in some smart regulation, and what we're going to have going forward is, we're going to have some stability and some real prosperity for ordinary folks."

And that, interrupted Stewart gleefully, "is socialism."

The audience roared with laughter, but Stewart added wistfully that Warren made him feel better.

"I don't know what it is that you did just there," he said, "but for a second, that was like financial chicken soup for me."

Apparently, she had that effect on a lot of other people too.

Love her or hate her — and lots of people do each — it was clear she knew how to talk to people, to offer solutions. She was no longer the puking, petrified professor in the backstage bathroom. A star was born.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Senator Elizabeth Warren is campaigning today with Hillary Clinton. They're together in Ohio. Now there was a time when some Democrats wished that Elizabeth Warren would run for president herself. She's considered a rock star within the party, even though a few years ago she was little known. So this morning we go back in time to the moment that changed everything for Warren. NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: It was April of 2009, the depths of the financial crisis. Elizabeth Warren was backstage at "The Daily Show" about to make her national TV debut. But her head was not in the clouds. It was in the toilet. She was throwing up.

ELIZABETH WARREN: I had stage fright - gut-wrenching, stomach-turning, bile-filled stage fright.

TOTENBERG: As she described that night in her book, she checked her face in the mirror to make sure she was vomit free. And then she threw up again.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "A FIGHTING CHANCE")

WARREN: (Reading) For the zillionth time, I ask myself why on God's green earth I had agreed to sit down with Jon Stewart. For the zillionth time, I gave myself the same answer - because "The Daily Show" gave me one more way to draw people in, to give them a framework for understanding what had gone wrong and what we should do about it.

TOTENBERG: Pretty soon a "Daily Show" staffer was pulling her through narrow hallways and onto the set.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

JON STEWART: Please welcome to the show Elizabeth Warren.

(APPLAUSE)

TOTENBERG: All did not go well. As she talked, she was so far in the weeds of the Congressional Oversight Panel's work that only a mutant accountant would have known what she was talking about. And then, she said, some of the money went to PPIP.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

STEWART: Is that an acronym?

WARREN: Yeah.

STEWART: Peep it?

WARREN: Pee-pip (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: OK. I'm not even going to try on this one. What does pee-pid (ph) stand for?

WARREN: I don't remember.

(LAUGHTER)

TOTENBERG: In her book, Warren said that at that point, she knew she'd blown it.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "A FIGHTING CHANCE")

WARREN: (Reading) No need to stress now - my work in Washington was over. I'll call Senator Reid tomorrow and resign. Maybe they can get someone to run this panel who isn't an idiot.

TOTENBERG: The agony went on for more than six minutes, an eternity of TV time, before the show broke for a commercial and the end of her segment. But Stewart wouldn't let her go, telling her that if she had an important message for people, she hadn't gotten to it. They were almost out of time, and the director was telling Stewart he had to bail. But the host pulled rank. And when the lights came back on, Warren was a different person.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

WARREN: OK. So what you're asking is if we can get this bus pulled out of the ditch...

STEWART: Yes.

WARREN: ...The economy.

TOTENBERG: This crisis didn't have to happen, she told Stewart. Beginning in President George Washington's time, the country's economy was marked by periodic economic panics.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

WARREN: Every 10 to 15 years, there's a financial panic in our history. You just look at it. And there's a big collapse, big trouble, people lose their farms, wiped out - until we hit the Great Depression.

TOTENBERG: That's when the country enacted federal guarantees on bank deposits, restrictions on bank investments and some stock market regulations. But 50 years later, she said, we started to get cocky.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

WARREN: Because then what happens is we say, regulation - it's a pain. It's expensive. We don't need it. So we start pulling the threads out of the regulatory fabric.

TOTENBERG: The first result is the savings and loan crisis in the 1980s and the failure of 700 banks. Ten years later, there's another major collapse. And by the early 2000s, there's Enron, which shows that books that look fine can, in fact, be dirty. We have two choices, she concluded.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

WARREN: We're going to decide, basically - hey, we don't need regulation. You know, it's fine. Boom-and-bust, boom-and-bust - and good luck with your 401(k). Or alternatively, we're going to put in some smart regulation. And what we're going to have going forward is we're going to have some stability and some real prosperity for ordinary folks.

STEWART: And that's socialism.

(APPLAUSE, LAUGHTER)

TOTENBERG: But, he added wistfully, that Warren made him feel better.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

STEWART: Something - I don't know what it is that you just did right there. But for a second, that was like financial chicken soup for me. That was...

(APPLAUSE)

STEWART: Thank you.

TOTENBERG: Apparently, she had that effect on a lot of other people, too. Love her or hate her - and lots of people do each - it was clear that she knew how to talk to people, to offer solutions. She was no longer the vomiting, terrified professor in the backstage bathroom. A star was born. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.