Cornell professor William A. Jacobson has been covering and analyzing the Warren kerfluffle ever since she claimed credit for inspiring Occupy Wall Street. I highly recommend his blog, Legal Insurrection, but here’s a quick summary for time’s sake:
- Warren claimed to be part Native American, descended from a Cherokee g-g-great-grandmother. Her proof for her claim was a single marriage record, family tradition, and her own assertions, including her own submissions to a “Native American”
cookbook, “Pow Wow Chow“–more on those in a moment.
- Warren used her supposed Native American heritage for personal gain. Her employers, first the University of Pennsylvania and then Harvard University, the latter of whom pointed to her ethnicity as “proof” of their commitment to diversity (no word about their commitment to diversity of thought, considering 80 – 90% of their political donations go to the Democrats).
- When Warren first began her campaign against incumbent Senator Scott Brown, she didn’t speak of her ancestry, but had to address it when the Boston Herald reported on it this past April. She claimed that she publicized her heritage merely for social reasons, to meet others like her, but Shelly Lowe, executive director of Harvard University’s Native American Program responded that Warren had never participated in her program’s events, beyond possibly being an audience member.
- Two main sources of Warren’s claim, the marriage record and the cookbook submission, have been debunked–rather humorously in the latter case.
- The marriage record was referenced in a 2006 family newsletter, according to NEHGS (New England Historical and Genealogical Society) genealogist Chris Child, but the record itself apparently doesn’t exist. As a genealogist myself (not professionally, but I have been researching my family history and studying the field for the past 10 years), let me explain why this distinction is important: a family newsletter is, at best, a secondary source. It was probably oral history published for the family’s benefit. For a claim to be established beyond reasonable doubt, primary sources are necessary, as many as can be found. For a Native American, they can be vital records certificates (i.e. birth, marriage, death), census records, official lists kept by the federal government–anything official that references the race of the individual in question. Family stories provide a good starting point for research, but they by themselves are not enough to constitute proof.
- The 1984 cookbook, “Pow Wow Chow,” contains recipes submitted by Elizabeth Warren herself. In other words, this “proof” was nothing more than her own assertions. Furthermore, the editor of this book was none other than Warren’s own cousin. Comically, it turned out that the recipes she submitted not only were not authentically Cherokee in any way, but were actually plagiarized from a French chef:
At least two (and maybe three) of the five Warren recipes appear to have been flat-out plagiarized from Pierre Franey, the chef at Le Pavillon restaurant in Manhattan. The New York Times News Service published Franey’s “Cold Omelets with Crab Meat” and “Crab with Tomato Mayonnaise Dressing” in 1979. Warren’s recipes are virtually the same, word for word. So, either Warren’s recipes were lifted from Chef Franey, or he stole them from some old Cherokee woman somewhere and served them up as his own at Le Pavillon.
Now, a reasonable person would, at this point, just give up and admit that the only proof they had for their ethnic claim was family tradition, acknowledging that, perhaps, someone in her past was mistaken. Such things happen all the time. For example, one of my family stories has been that my g-g-great grandfather perished in the Johnstown Flood of 1889, a story I debunked when I found his death certificate and obituary, both dated 1903. Perhaps it had been a relative, or even a close friend, who had died–oral histories have the tendency to become muddled over time due to fading memories, minor mistakes that go uncorrected and eventually are taken as truth, etc. It is for this reason that family tradition is not enough if one wishes to establish an official claim (for another example, read about the entrance requirements for the Daughters of the American Revolution, a society for the descendants of participants in the Revolutionary War).
Like I said, a reasonable person–not Elizabeth Warren. No, she has responded to repeated queries about her background in the typical FPA manner: by getting offended. As her heritage, it is sacrosanct, and not to be questioned, not even by her Cherokee brethren.
The big question is, why is this even important? Some of her supporters claim that this is nothing more than a distraction, a means to bring down a woman who had been leading Scott Brown in the polls shortly before this story erupted (note the polls for April). However, it’s the bigger picture that should be troubling to Massachusetts voters, a now-established pattern of lies and exaggerations and obfuscation designed to avoid personal responsibility while campaigning for a greater share of public responsibility. And it’s not just Warren, there are others culpable for such such behavior, as well. As Alana Goodman of Commentary Magazine puts it:
Politicians are politicians because they self-promote and puff up their accomplishments shamelessly. Al Gore’s infamous claim that he created the Internet is one extreme example, and the same goes for most of the assertions that come out of Joe Biden’s mouth. The problem is when they cross the line into downright lies, like Richard Blumenthal’s false claim that he served in Vietnam. Was Warren’s assertion a lie, an exaggeration, or was she simply mistaken? We don’t know, and the issue is so minor and obscure that it’s probably not even worth investigating.
If the Cherokee controversy didn’t hurt Warren in the polls, it’s possible the nursing mother story won’t have an impact either. In fact, the nursing mother story probably wouldn’t even be an issue if not for the ancestry claims. On its face, Warren’s comments seem to be silly but harmless self-congratulation, and that’s how a lot of voters will probably see it. But it does speak to a pattern of exaggerating and stretching biographical details. It’s not just the substance of Warren’s claims that’s troubling, but the habit.