Warren’s wobbly week

Will DNA test rollout help or hurt?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN certainly was able to grab hold of a good chunk of the news cycle in recent days, something not easy to pull off in the era of near-constant chaos and outrageous pronouncements from the White House. Whether it will redound to her benefit is another matter.

Warren’s rollout of DNA test results that show distant Native American ancestry was an effort to put her controversial claims to rest in the runup to a widely expected 2020 run for president. The reviews of her effort have been less than glowing.

Under the breathless headline, “Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Disaster,” Gregory Smithers, a history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, writes in Politico that Native American tribal identity is based on culture and lived experience, not chromosome markers. “Warren’s touting of her DNA results will help foster this misinformation about how Native American communities define identity and citizenship,” he writes — even though Warren has clearly stated she is not claiming tribal identity or membership.

David Bernstein wrote earlier this week for WGBH that the episode revealed Warren’s “inauthentic, opportunistic political instincts.”

There was indeed something cringe-inducing about the slick campaign-style video that accompanied the rollout of the DNA results. One wonders how many takes Warren and Stanford genetic biologist Carlos Bustamante did of their cross-country phone conversation purporting to capture the moment all was revealed and Warren learned the test results. It felt like a cheesy episode of the PBS series, “Finding Your Roots,” where Henry Louis Gates Jr. tells Tina Fey she is distantly related to Benjamin Franklin.

And why did she think this would end the nasty “Pocahontas” attacks from President Trump?

“Did Warren really think Trump cared about her family’s heritage, anymore than he cared about Barack Obama’s birthplace?” asks former Globe columnist Eileen McNamara in a piece for WBUR. She says the DNA brouhaha “underscores just how incapable Democrats are of countering the Republican fog machine.”

Warren did little in a meeting this week with the Globe editorial board to burnish the image she seems to fancy of herself as the Democratic version of John McCain’s Straight Talk Express. When asked why she decided to do the DNA test now and release its results, Scot Lehigh says she wandered off for five minutes into talk of Medicare, infrastructure needs, and wealth inequality

When pressed to return to the question that was asked, she said, “I believe in transparency. This was just another part of that.”

Notwithstanding her meanderings, Lehigh says the substance of the whole ordeal boils down to two facts, established by the DNA test and an exhaustively reported Globe story last month: The family lore Warren has referenced as the source of her belief she has Native American ancestry appears to be supported by scientific testing, while there is no evidence that her claims to this background played any role in her rise through academic legal circles.

Why, however, she listed herself on several occasions in her teaching career at universities as Native American remains a curious part of her past, even if not consequential to her career advancement. Warren seemed to hint in her meeting at the Globe that it had been a mistake to do so.

As McNamara points out, there’s no reason to think any of this will change Trump’s attacks on her. And Warren has come in for blistering attacks as well from some Native American leaders, who accuse her of exploiting the ancestry issue.

Warren nonetheless was following a fairly accepted political playbook for those ramping up a possible run for higher office. “Her plan is to take out the trash, or, for the Monty Python fans, ‘bring out your dead,’” writes Annie Linskey in Friday’s Globe.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

The idea is to anticipate issues that might be used against you, roll them out early on your own, and hope that doing so lets you move past them when the campaign spotlight starts shining more brightly. That’s the idea, at least.

“So the real question around the effect of her DNA tests,” writes Linskey, “is this: Did she take out the trash? Or just dump it on the front lawn?”