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The Dr. Phil Years

Before she became a political phenomenon, Elizabeth Warren grew beyond academia to take her message to the public
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  January 25, 2012


The pundits and politicos have had a tough time analyzing Elizabeth Warren as a candidate in the coming race for US Senate with Republican incumbent Scott Brown. They look at her bureaucratic roles in post-economic-collapse Washington, and her tenure as a Harvard Law School professor, and wonder how such a résumé can translate into popular appeal.

They may be missing the most important part of her preparation for this moment — the transition that took her from obscure academic to establishing the Consumer Bankruptcy Protection Bureau.

You might call them her Dr. Phil years.

Between 2003 and 2005, Warren was the go-to dispenser of financial straight talk for TV's daytime-talk-show host. Appearing on episodes with titles like "Going for Broke," "Money Makeovers," and "A Family in Crisis," Warren comes across much as she does as a Senate candidate today. Dressed in bright-colored pants-and-jacket suits, she flashes her bright, toothy smile, then leans forward and gestures forcefully to deliver the blunt, terrible economic truth as she sees it.

It was part of a deliberate decision Warren made 10 years ago, when she was already over 50, with a prestigious quarter-century academic career, to seek out a broader audience — not only on Dr. Phil, but by writing and promoting books for a mass audience, and by building relationships with political figures.

Her new direction quickly earned her fame and money. Her books from that period became bestsellers, and they continue to generate over $100,000 a year in royalties. Her mass-appeal popularity opened doors to national policy makers, and behind-the-scenes movers and shakers.

She may never have played such a large role in Washington, and might not be considered the likely next US senator from Massachusetts, had she not taken that path, with the help of her old friend and fellow Oklahoman, "Dr. Phil" McGraw. She almost certainly would not have developed the kind of appeal that has made her something of a national populist hero, who already has raised more than $10 million for her first political campaign.

At the time, she says, not all of her colleagues in the hallowed halls of academia were quite so impressed with her new direction. Many looked down their noses at her TV exploits. Some economists (Megan McArdle of the Atlantic, for one) publicly disputed her key arguments. Her name even vanished from the New York Times for five years, last appearing a month before her first Dr. Phil appearance, and not showing up again until Congress appointed her to a bank-bailout oversight commission in December 2008, according to an archive search.

And you don't have to be a Harvard fellow to find something mockable in her work from the time, which combines motivational-style cheerleading, tough-love lectures, and checklist-oriented advice.

One can imagine the professorial eyes rolling as Warren walks Dr. Phil subjects "Wendy and Matt" through a "financial fire drill," or promises "Dawn and Trent" that they can be debt-free in two years. And few people within the ivied walls produce books with lines like: "Are you ready to start on your path to a lifetime of riches?"

"I didn't care if anybody thought it was silly for a fancy professor to be on Dr. Phil," says Warren, in an interview with the Phoenix. "I wanted to draw attention to what was going on, because real changes were needed. Running for office is a way of carrying on that fight."

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  Topics: Talking Politics , Politics, Boston politics, US Senate,  More more >
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