The XX Factor

Elizabeth Warren’s Family History May Be a Lie. Have You Checked Yours?

Elizabeth Warren at the Democratic National Convention

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Young Elizabeth Warren, musing about her political future, presumably did not imagine that her tendency to strongly identify with one of her 32 great-great-great grandmothers would prove her biggest political liability. And yet here she is, six weeks from Election Day, compelled to devote an entire campaign ad to the subject:

As a kid I never asked my mom for documentation when she talked about her Native American heritage. What kid would? But I knew my father’s family didn’t like that she was part Cherokee and part Delaware. So my parents had to elope. Let me be clear. I never asked for, never got any benefit because of my heritage. The people who hired me have all said they didn’t even know about it. Scott Brown can continue attacking my family, but I’m going to keep fighting for yours.

That ad is in response to this one, a highlight reel of reporters asking questions about Warren’s background in which Megyn Kelly of Fox News is looking especially reproachful.* And that ad is in response to Warren’s unfortunate boxing-themed spot, which was the first negative ad of the campaign. The moment Warren stopped being polite (and started getting real), Brown’s team went all-in on the Cherokee theme; one imagines Brown HQ with a dream catcher hanging from the ceiling and a cigar-store Indian out front. It took him 31 seconds, by my count, to say the words “Native American” in Thursday’s debate.

As far as I can tell, which isn’t very far, there is no evidence that Warren has any Cherokee blood and also no evidence that she benefited from her claims to have such blood. There was documentation that one of her great-great-great grandmothers was Cherokee, and then there was not. We know that someone at Harvard was impressed enough with Warren’s claims to use her as evidence of a racially heterogeneous faculty. The most plausible hit against Warren is that she, as Brown’s campaign manager has said, “allowed Harvard to hold her up as an example of their commitment to diversity in the hiring of historically disadvantaged communities,” which is potentially “an insult to all Americans who have suffered real discrimination and mistreatment.”

At some point Warren clearly latched on to the idea that she was Native American. She spoke of her grandfather’s “high cheekbones,” contributed not one but five recipes to the delicious-sounding Pow Wow Chow cookbook, and listed herself as Native American in the Association of American Law Schools Directory for years. When asked about the AALS box-checking, she said she did so to “meet others like me.” This is embarrassing, perhaps, but in a way that will be sympathetic to many Americans, maybe even uncomfortably familiar.

Family history shades quickly into legend, and it’s tempting to believe that the act of one ancestor among many somehow reflects well upon the people we are. A while back, the Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta pointed out that it isn’t unusual for people who go into public life to discover that they’re not the people they thought they were. Marco Rubio’s parents were not exactly fleeing Fidel, though it’s easy to see how that story got started and might have persisted for generations down the line.

All family stories are told at the exclusion of others. During the Democratic and Republican conventions, every candidate decided to talk about their one upstanding grandparent who worked in a mine. If you’re running for office, the national ancestors you choose to identify with are always “The Founders,” which is a heroic act of selectivity. Warren is guilty of a self-aggrandizing act of imagination. I have no idea whether she is Native American, but her aspirational belief in a cherry-picked ancestral story is American to the core.

Correction, Sept. 25, 2012: This post originally misspelled Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s first name.