The families she counseled on Dr. Phil told similar stories. Those Dr. Phil appearances help explain why Warren has been so good so far on the campaign trail — particularly in two very impressive debates with other Democratic candidates (all but two of whom have since dropped out). Just as she did on television, Warren smoothly segued from addressing the moderator, to the other people on stage, and the audience. She delivered lines, some of which she has mouthed many times before, with an energy and emotion that made them seem genuine and spontaneous.
POSITIONED FOR THE COLLAPSE
Immediately after taping that first Dr. Phil episode, says Warren, she realized that millions of people had just heard her advice about the danger of second mortgages — and some of them might avoid financial catastrophe because of it. "My life was never the same," she says.
She became something of a Dr. Phil project; he not only kept bringing her back on the show, he also encouraged her to write a how-to book on avoiding money troubles; the resulting All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan was the object of a bidding war among publishers, and it hit the bestseller lists in 2007. Written in a rah-rah motivational tone, with checklists and folksy anecdotes, the book reads much like some popular diet books.
By the time that book came out, Warren was already learning to use her newfound popularity to make political connections. She was also finding more and more outlets for her commentary, from appearing in a documentary called Maxed Out, to blogging on the progressive Talking Points Memo Web site.
"Writing a popular-press book, and going on Dr. Phil, and hearing people's questions — it animated her interest in politics," says Katherine Porter, a professor at University of California-Irvine, who took Warren's classes as a law student and edited a book out this month containing a chapter by Warren. "It was: 'I like helping real people, how can I take this and move it more to the policy sphere?'?"
All of this meant that when the financial industry collapsed, in December 2008, Warren was perfectly positioned to become the key player she had long wanted to be— both in shaping the public debate and in implementing policy solutions.
Whether it has fully prepped her for the rigors of a tough Senate race remains to be seen. Scott Brown is a tougher foil than Dr. Phil. But the idea of this Harvard Law professor winning that battle seems a lot more plausible than it would have 10 years ago.
To read the Talking Politics blog, go to thePhoenix.com/talkingpolitics. David S. Bernstein can be reached at dbernstein[a]phx.com. Follow him on Twitter @dbernstein.