Warren’s ancestry fumble sidetracks her campaign

Apparently, virtually everyone born in Oklahoma is part Native American. According to Oklahoman Sarah Burns, a writer for Politico,  “Most families that are at least three generations Okie are related to one tribe or another.” In fact, adds Burns, “the current chief of the Cherokee Tribe matches [Senate candidate Elizabeth] Warren — he also is 1/32 Cherokee.”

So, the “legs” that this story has is obviously not about the truth of Elizabeth Warren’s heritage but what we learn about the candidate from the way she has handled the revelation that she listed herself as Native American in a national directory of law professors. Apparently she did, and then she didn’t. Certainly that’s her prerogative. She said she did it to make contact with others who were like her. Maybe that didn’t pan out, because she stopped that listing when she came to Harvard Law School.

David Treuer, an Ojibwe Indian living on a reservation in Minnesota, writing in The Washington Post, suggests that those with Native American ancestry cover a full spectrum from people identifying as a tribal member to those for whom tales of ancestry are passed down from one generation to the next and the lore figures as nothing else in their lives. And he adds, “if someone with Indian blood, no matter how little, is a Harvard professor and stands a chance of being elected to the Senate, might that suggest that the American experiment is working and that we live in a meritocracy?”

The assertion that Warren got her position at Harvard due to her being Native American doesn’t seem to hold water, even though Harvard Law was being faulted for its lack of diversity. Ronald Reagan’s Solicitor General Charles Fried, who was part of the Harvard Law School hiring committee, says that talk of her being an affirmative action hire is “stupid.” As reported on MassLive.com, former  Harvard Law School Dean Robert Clark said she was hired because she was “a top-notch academic expert in debtor-creditor law,” and because of “her excellent scholarship in that field; and her fabulous success as a teacher.”

Certainly, her intelligence shines through her grasp of policies and concepts, and her leadership and values are clearly demonstrated by her role in creating the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But, after a successful campaign launch, she has fumbled her responses. My question is: why wasn’t she better prepared by her consultants to handle this issue? Why wasn’t she prepared to explain her ancestry? Why did she list herself in the directory and then remove her name after she got to Harvard? She seemed to imply that Republican Scott Brown was being sexist in feeding the brouhaha by questioning her credentials? I’m not sure that washes.

The motto on the license plates of Warren’s birth state proclaims “Native America.” Did Warren’s advisors fail to provide the full cultural context of what that means and symbolizes because they were afraid that, in doing so, they might be distancing her from an historically parochial Massachusetts electorate?

It’s still early in the campaign, and relatively few voters are paying attention. But episodes like this can become part of the enduring campaign narrative. How she and her staff handles things like this are often dissected for what it means about staff- candidate coordination and their ability to deal with more serious matters ahead. Surely, this must have come up in their internal vetting process.

This is the time to get her act in order, and get serious about identifying the questions, however apparently trivial, her opponent and his surrogates may raise in the coming months.

She needs to be clear, coherent and on message about the least important things if her campaign is not to be diverted from addressing issues of transcendent importance to Massachusetts and the nation.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

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