Elizabeth Warren: The Cherokee Fable That Won't Go Away

On the same day last week Yahoo! CEO Scott Thompson had to resign for embellishing his resume, the Globe corrected a “reporting error” by acknowledging it had not seen evidence purporting to prove Elizabeth Warren’s great-great-great grandmother was Cherokee.  The symbolism of the coincidence is profound.

Warren still hasn’t provided acceptable proof that she is a descendant of the Cherokees. And she has yet to apologize for — or explain in any way, really — the use of Cherokee ancestry to describe her as a “minority” law professor. Her campaign is reeling.

Like Thompson, Warren casts blame on others — including Scott Brown — rather than recognizing the buck stops with her. Unlike Thompson, however, she continues down the rabbit hole of the campaign trail as if nothing happened. She’s apparently hoping the issue will just go away if she ignores it long enough. So far, that strategy isn’t exactly working.  

Creative resumes have doomed people in all walks of life — like Thompson — from holding high-profile jobs. Notre Dame fans, for instance, remember George O’Leary, hired by the Irish as its football coach and forced to resign five days later because he lied on his resume about playing football at UNH and receiving a degree from NYU. In politics, Wes Cooley, a one-term congressman from Oregon, had to withdraw from a campaign in the mid-1990’s and was ultimately convicted for lying about his military record. More recently, the New York Times reported that then-U.S. Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal exaggerated his military service during Vietnam. The story hurt Blumenthal at first, his lead over a Republican rival shrinking by 10 points within days. But Blumenthal addressed the issue head-on — acknowledging and explaining his “misstatements” soon after the Times piece — and Connecticut voters bought it.

Warren’s refusal to confront the issue has opened her up to being accused of cynically abusing the concept of affirmative action — in spirit at the very least — that was spawned to assist members of groups that historically had been victims of prejudice by enabling them to develop role models and attain positions that had been previously denied to them.

It was a creation of the same liberal establishment and social engineers Warren claims to embody. Isn’t it likely that some members of that liberal class are finally wondering about the source of the dubious claim of Warren’s Native American ancestry? If Warren were actually the source, is that the type of cynical bean-counting advocates of affirmative action had in mind? Or would it be, possibly, the exploitation of a system to give a job candidate a leg up in a very competitive hiring process?

The results of a recent Rasmussen poll have been portrayed (and then parroted) as showing that the Cherokee affair hasn’t yet had an impact on Warren because she remains tied with Brown at 45 percent. This doesn’t tell the whole story, of course, since it leaves out the critical fact that Warren had just embarked on a major, very expensive media buy featuring none other than the President himself. By showing her Obama cards so early, Warren must have hoped for a boost in the polls, perhaps trying to put 5-7 points of daylight between her and Brown. Instead, she’s spent a lot of campaign cash but remains in a dead heat. And the Cherokee affair lives on. This has to trouble her supporters.

Warren needs to either produce evidence that really documents Cherokee ancestry, or address its misplaced use. Claims that she wasn’t aware of the classification on law school websites, however, smack of “da ni na gv” (I believe that’s ‘b.s.’ in phonetic Cherokee … ) — she’s a Harvard Law Professor after all.

If Warren doesn’t somehow own up, this mess, and not just her recipes in Pow Wow Chow, may leave a bad taste in voters’ mouths in November … if she makes it that far. It is on the verge of becoming part of how voters internalize her persona, like when Martha Coakley called Curt Schilling a Yankee fan. It showed that Coakley was clueless and a bit of a detached elitist. That’s what is now at stake for Warren.