The race for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts has taken a turn toward the absurd.
The contest pits two highly qualified candidates Scott Brown, the incumbent, who made history by snatching Ted Kennedys seat away from the Democrats, and challenger Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law professor and whiz-kid of the Obama administration who created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
If any election could be counted on to maintain a high-minded tone and stick to important issues, its this one.
Instead, Topic A is Warrens facial features or, to be more specific, whether there is any way this woman could have had Cherokee ancestors, as she once claimed. Are her cheekbones high enough? The controversy has even earned Warren the epithet Fauxcahontas.
The Boston Herald kicked things off in late April by questioning whether Warren had inaccurately claimed minority status when she was hired by Harvard Law School. She has listed herself in the past in a directory of law professors as a Native American.
Warren, the charge goes, is an affirmative action poser. Yet Harvard Law School denies any minority hiring preference in relation to Warren, as does University of Pennsylvania, where she has also taught.
Nevertheless, the press keeps dredging up new evidence to keep this scandal alive. The latest is a cookbook. Seriously. Warren reportedly contributed five recipes to Pow Wow Chow, a collection of family cooking lore compiled by her cousin and published in 1984 by the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, Okla. Under her byline, shes listed as Cherokee.
It seems that Warren may be guilty of a crime millions of Americans routinely commit: claiming, with no actual proof, that some ancestor back in the misty past was a Cherokee. Many families perpetuate these myths, perhaps to make their humdrum antecedents seem more exotic, perhaps just to share in the romance of all things Indian.
From a campaign standpoint, Warren hasnt done much to end this silly brouhaha. She ought to either offer documented proof of her lineage or fess up to indulging uncritically in family lore.
But thats not what this is really about. It never is when people imply that someone isnt really a true minority.
This is the cowards way of smearing Warren as unqualified. Her critics are insinuating that she couldnt possibly have been hired by Harvard on merit, and that calls into question her fitness to serve in the Senate.
Heres the thing with Warren, though: Her list of accomplishments is very, very long. She came to national prominence as the highly effective chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). She oversaw the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Time has listed her twice as among the 100 most influential people. Shes written nine books. She is one of the foremost research experts on the financial difficulties of the middle class a subject of some importance in these troubled times.
A November profile of Warren in Vanity Fair titled The Woman Who Knew Too Much details the way Warren managed to tick off politicians on both sides of the aisle. Financiers and heads of industry dont like how she called them to account for their part in the Washington influence game a system, she charges, in which politicians and plutocrats collude against the middle class for mutual benefit. Her zeal for reform makes career Democrats nervous, too, which is probably why the president declined to name her the head of the consumer board she birthed.
Shes still on the warpath. In the past few days, she has called for Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase to step down from the board of the New York Fed because of his banks recently revealed $2 billion losses on complex credit-default swap trades you know, the kind of gambling that tanked our economy to begin with.
I dont think its unfair to Scott Brown to say that Elizabeth Warren has done more to protect the citizens and the welfare of this country in the last four years than he will accomplish in his entire Senate career, however long the voters see fit to retain him.
And thats why Brown is calling for Warren to release her Harvard personnel records. As a candidate, hes outclassed. As a politician, hes got a chance, and this is it.