Two thousand people yipped and howled as Elizabeth Warren bounced onto the stage like it was a stairmaster and she was a gym rat.
Sold out. Maximum capacity. Whole place writhing, all 30,000 square feet, with tight rows of folding chairs like checkers on the dancefloor big as a Walgreens.
Photo by Sean Ryan
Under the disco ball that hung from the dark blue ceiling, the crowd screamed like Warren was Led Zeppelin and the year was 1970, when really she was a 70-year-old senator and this was a fundraiser called Wing Ding, in Clear Lake, Iowa, at the Surf Ballroom, where Buddy Holly spent the last few cold hours of his life.
Photo by Sean Ryan
Warren did not stand behind the podium like Biden or Bernie Sanders.
She was a yoga grandma! A rapping pastor! A beat-boxing cop! An energetic manager! A cat who thinks it's a puppy!
It was like she needed to move around the stage and wave her arms and fire up the congregation or else the floor would belch into lava.
Photo by Sean Ryan
Iowa would work its magic on Warren. By the end of the weekend, she emerged as a top contender, a position she'd maintain with alacrity, then build on.
In her turquoise blazer and her shoes-that-meant-business, she strolled out to the edge of the stage and gave her speech like a natural-born specialist of hootenanny.
Only thing missing was The Who's "Teenage Wasteland," or, better yet, that "Sail away, sail away, sail away" song by Enya.
Warren was a car commercial, the kind directed at Millennials, with plastic indie rock and a phony "who gives a s**t" vibe. She was expensive cheese from right around the corner. She was Nancy Sinatra, but without Lee Hazelwood.
Voice like a stack of hay catching fire, she made promises. She riled the crowd. And it was an odd sight, the way these meek folks attempted to get rowdy. The way they grimaced and writhed, it was like seeing the reclusive kid volunteer to be the mascot.
It was like they were trying to match the intensity of Trump rallies. No politician has been able to do that so far. The man fills arenas, for God's sake. And his supporters wait for hours outside hoping to get inside. Then he makes them wait. Lets the place get feverish.
Photo by Sean Ryan
Until people are so psyched that they literally cannot remain seated, and they stand there eagerly for 30 minutes, gasping every time a song ends with the hope it means he has arrived.
The Wing Dingers — God bless them — just didn't have that dragon energy, that ravenous devotion. Have you ever seen that show "Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job"? The people in the ballroom were hyperventilating and spazzing like characters from "Tim & Eric." The whole occasion would have been a pickpocket's dream.
Variously, they bulged and shuffled and freestyled to themselves. Who gave the kids sugar cookies at the Baptist youth sleepover? You know they can't handle it, you know they get twitchy, so manic it's almost violent.
And that fed Warren, revved her manic engines.
Full speech: Elizabeth Warren speaks at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding youtu.be
If this had been the 1980s, I would have suspected everyone there had spent all day railing cocaine. And Warren would be the Sly Stone of the event, guarding the vault full of drugs.
If only she could have pulled out a guitar and played AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" or performed a duet with a cat on a keyboard.
My dad and I had arrived late, and both of us struggled to relax our eyebrows because this scene was unbelievable. It must have been especially odd for my father, who emigrated from Ireland at 33.
And right now he was frowning because it was so loud in there.
As Warren shouted into a handheld mic, my dad turned to me, almost upset, "Who is she?" he asked, but before I could answer, he said, "I do not like that woman."
When Warren was 12 years old, her father suffered a debilitating heart attack.
He didn't die, but he wouldn't be able to work for years.
The medical bills got so bad that Warren's family nearly lost their home. The car was repossessed. Those were gritty, emaciating days.
Her older brothers joined the military. Her mother got a minimum wage job at Sears. And, at 13, Warren started waiting tables.
She grew up in Oklahoma, where I myself was raised, so I can tell you that it is the Cinderella of States. My personal favorite. At night, the stars croon down over you like they are checking on their infant in its crib and you are that infant. Much like Iowans, people from Oklahoma tend to be kind, and patient, and wild like Americans ought to be.
But her worldview has evolved over the past few decades.
Photo by Sean Ryan
As a girl, she had seen the effects of bankruptcy firsthand. But her early conclusions led her to personal responsibility. After all, she had taken a job at 13 to help pay her dad's medical bills.
One of Warren's former students told reporters, "What changed [Warren's ideology] was the stories of ordinary people filing for bankruptcy. That speaks really well of her that she was presented with information contrary to her worldview and adopted it."
Before that, she leaned right, politically. Or, in the words of one of her best friends growing up, "Liz was a diehard conservative in those days."
Another friend called her an "ice-cold Republican."
A colleague at the University of Texas in Austin, where she worked in the early 1980s, said, "Liz was sometimes surprisingly anti-consumer in her attitude."
Another colleague said, "I remember the first time I became aware of her as a political person and heard her speak, I almost fell off my chair. She's definitely changed. It's absolutely clear that something happened."
Until 1996, when she was 47 years old, Warren was a registered Republican.
And I do not mean this in a snarky way. Opposite. It's admirable when people undergo personal change. We have to. It's a matter of survival. A person who never evolves is blinded by hubris and destined to fail.
Longtime Warren collaborator Jay Westbrook has told reporters, "It drives me crazy when she's described as a radical left-winger. She moved from being moderately conservative to being moderately liberal. When you look at consumer debt and what happens to consumers in America, you begin to think the capitalist machine is out of line."
At some point she got pregnant for the first time, setting in motion a series of events that may have involved discrimination, or may have been a fabrication she has since used in stump speeches as a heart-tugging anecdote.
As far as controversies go, it's as goofy and PG-rated as her onstage persona.
Who cares if she lied for the sake of a story and the benefit of victimhood? Trump lies constantly. Politicians lie constantly. It's part of the reason public trust in government has sunk lower than ever before.
No, it's not morally acceptable that politicians are habitually dishonest. But the outrage aimed at Warren isn't actually about that, is it?
Warren won state debate champion in high school. Shortly after graduating, at 19, she married Jim Warren, a mathematician who worked for IBM, then NASA.
The two dated when Elizabeth was 13 and Jim was 17. Warren chose marriage over a full-ride to the prestigious George Washington University.
Three years later, she gave birth to her first daughter. You can find the picture of her in the hospital bed, surrounded by white sheets, her eyes an oceanic blue, glowing as she holds her baby for the first time, a technicolor sash around her left shoulder.
She focused on being a mom for two years, then put herself through law school at Rutgers. At her graduation, she was eight months pregnant. Most airlines won't allow women so close to their due date.
After 10 years of marriage and two children, her husband divorced her.
Photo by Kevin Ryan
Warren hadn't expected it. One night, she asked her husband, "Do you want a divorce" and he said yes, even though she'd been asking in that, "Something's wrong but surely things aren't so bad" kind of way.
Imagine the enormity and disbelief she must have felt as her husband said he'd be leaving her. The kind of moment that gives a person vertigo.
Warren tried to revive the marriage, but her husband had given up. Before long he moved out, quit smoking, got super into dancing, then remarried.
Politicians tend to mention tragedies only as evidence for a policy stance. Or occasionally these stories will appear in a candidate profile. Or you can read the ice-cold Encyclopedia version.
I always wonder about the desperation people suffered in those moments that must have seemed so long, the quiet after bitter words or desperate outbursts. The enormity they must have felt.
In moments of trauma, we become intensely aware of the noises and smells and colors and mementos around us. What was the first object Warren noticed after hearing her husband say, "Yes"?
She has since said that she and Jim never really fought. That she didn't blame him for leaving. But that they just didn't work out.
"I can't imagine anybody putting up with me over long periods. It's why I can never be cranky about Jim. I get it."
Still, a marriage has to be fairly bad for a couple with young children to divorce. But even an amicable divorce is devastating. It marks the death of a love that had once been good enough and deep enough for two people to bind themselves together, if only by law.
Now, Warren was a single mother. Surely, at times, that was lonesome. She must have felt moments of intense waywardness.
There must have been anxious nights, lonely mornings, swarming with memories about life as it was, all those plans for the future that must feel so naive in hindsight.
Warren's quirkiness has made her an easy piñata for her rivals.
But I just think about her, alone in a room, folding clothes or staring off, blinking and slouching there alone, and I feel disgust for politics as a bloodsport.
What do rancor or invective get us in the end? A winner who trounced a loser? What is the human cost? Not just for the people being targeted, but for the world as we'd like it.
Photo by Sean Ryan
Why isn't it enough to disagree with an opponent? Why does there have to be humiliation?
And if it's wrong from one politician, it's wrong from them all.
A person can't decry the abuse that President Trump faces — which is daunting in intensity and volume — then cheer him on when he's doing the same exact thing.
Somebody is going to have to take a slap or two to the face and not react, but it would accomplish far more than a vitriolic comeback.
At this point, three years into Trump's presidency, there was no way to tell who started it and who was just reacting, so everyone involved in the fight was guilty.
In other words, people could no longer blame Trump for how the selfsame persona they had taken in response.
To quote Morrisey, "It's so easy to laugh, it's so easy to hate. It takes strength to be gentle and kind."
When the ram charges straight for you, all you have to do is take a step to the left or the right and off the angry bastard goes, headfirst into the ground. Do that a few times and you'll get more support than you might expect.
Which, I'm not saying to never fight. Conflict is healthy. Passivism can be worse than violence. To fight is to live honorably. But only if justice is the reason for fighting.
If the ram is coming at you because it wants to silence or control you, grit your teeth, chalk up your horns, lower your head, and go to battle. Courage and morality are vastly different than bravado and self-righteousness.
As Tolstoy wrote in his novel "War and Peace": "If everyone fought for their own convictions, there would be no war."
Two years later, Warren married Bruce Mann, a law professor. They've been married ever since.
For nearly three decades, she taught law, mostly at Harvard.
Then, she shifted to politics. In 2008, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) appointed her to a congressional panel. Two years later, she became a special adviser to Barack Obama, who had selected her as special adviser to the Treasury secretary, but stopped short of nominating her as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Shortly after, she resigned. A month later, she announced her congressional bid, which gained momentum after her speech at that year's Democratic National Convention.
In 2013, she was elected senator of Massachusetts after beating Republican incumbent Scott Brown with 53 percent of the vote. She would go on to win a second term in 2018, this time with 60 percent.
Every candidate has a stain. Warren's happens to have led to mockery. For years, she claimed Native American heritage. For many of the right, it was yet another example of the left's allegiance to identity politics.
The left was more concerned with the way the issue came to attention to begin with, after remarks President Trump made during an event honoring Navajo code talkers. As has become the norm, many of the country's leading news outlets ran scathing anti-Trump op-eds that they labeled as hard news.
Opinion was being packaged as fact. In other words, propaganda. Like the passive-aggressive tone of this Washington Post article.
Photo by Sean Ryan
Which is certainly not the right way to handle injustice. And is certainly not journalistically sound.
Once again, the media's blatant disdain of Trump only served to further empower him. Gave him more proof of fake news. And allowed him to justify, in the eyes of his followers, the repeated use of Warren's nickname.
Worst of all, it widened the distance between the news media and the portion of the American public they'd long ago lost access to.
Likewise, conservative news outlets pounced with an air of "See? I knew it all along." And responded with a different version of the same aggression used by the media. Outlets like Fox News played up their masterful victim narrative, the idea that the mainstream media have a stranglehold on America, despite the fact that Fox News has long been the dominant news source of the mainstream media they claim to be a victim of.
This feedback loop played out until Elizabeth Warren's genetics became a national conversation.
Last year, Warren released a DNA test that revealed her to be only between 1/64th and 1/1,024th Native America. Fellow Democratic candidate Corey Booker — a senator from New Jersey — has more Native American DNA than Warren. And unfortunately for Warren, the nickname that President Trump gave her gained more power.
During an interview on MSNBC, Warren said, "It is deeply unfortunate that the president of the United States cannot even make it through a ceremony honoring these heroes without having to throw out a racial slur. Donald Trump does this over and over thinking somehow he is going to shut me up with it. It hasn't worked in the past, it isn't going to work out in the future."
In a bizarre twist, Warren's ex-husband was a pioneer in the field of genetics and helped make the technology accessible to the public when he co-founded FamilyTreeDNA, which sells genetic testing kits.
Across the street from the Surf Ballroom, 300 yards from the entrance, a Trump 2020 sign the size of a front door glared out, impossible to avoid.
It's a power play in line with Trump's own combat style — which, again, there's nothing wrong with a good fight, even if there is some dirty fighting, but why did it have to be all of the time? And why had everyone joined in on it?
Warren began her presidential campaign on Feb. 8 with a rally in Lawrence, Massachusetts, at the site of the 1912 Bread and Roses textile strike, a two-month-long standoff that led to 296 arrests.
Three people died, an Italian immigrant, who was shot in the chest. A Lithuanian immigrant who was beaten to death for wearing a pro-labor lapel pin. And a Syrian boy who was bayoneted in the spine.
The strike takes its name from a James Oppenheim poem.
"As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men, For they are women's children, and we mother them again."
As Warren drove her speech to a close, Kamala Harris paced down the long ramp by the side of the stage, then walked through a curtain that divided the hallway from backstage, then into the crowded ballroom, immediately surrounded by cameras, lights, hands, selfies.
Ten feet behind the curtain, Joe Biden shifted at the side of the stage, chatting with several people in brand-new Biden 2020 shirts, and waiting to go on.
Each candidate had 10 minutes or so, which Biden, like most of the other candidates, would use to insult Trump and fumbled through his "President's words matter" speech, two days after his "poor kids are just as talented as white kids" comment, and I wondered if everyone else found the irony as hilarious as I did.
Now Warren was pounding her fist.
The already hysterical crowd became even more incensed with each of her words. It was the first moment I realized that Warren actually had a shot at winning the nomination.
Of all the towns we visited while in Iowa, Clear Lake was the most puzzling. It didn't feel like the rest of what we'd seen. It didn't resemble any other town in the country, far as I can say. Just a general ideal for "lovely American town."
Maybe Clint Eastwood's Carmel, California, or the wealthy part of Charlotte, North Carolina, or the gorgeous shaded Rice Village neighborhood of Houston, Texas.
Warren shuffled offstage and shook hands with Biden.
Photo by Sean Ryan
Then cue the Bruce Springsteen song. And somebody hurry up and push the button that activates Biden's facelift.
"The words that presidents speak matter," Biden said. And some of the crowd were hearing him say it for the first time.
Warren gabbed with a lady in a floral dress backstage. They held hands like sisters. After a minute or so, she vanished backstage.
Then the whole gig was finished. Closing time had come.
Andrew Yang hung out in the lobby after all the other candidates left. He took selfies. Talked policy. Behind him, young people in Yang 2020 shirts and hats that said "MATH" handed out Yang money.
He hugged. He laughed.
People puttered out of the Surf Ballroom in no sort of hurry, giddy in their candidate T-shirts, ready to effect change, to dethrone Trump.
The air had a gentle sway, tilted by a northern cold that felt winter-like, especially for August.
Right as the last big group of Wing Dingers walked out of the Surf Ballroom, a small car drove by, windows down, packed with young men who kept shouting, "Vote for Trump, baby!"
Then, stalled at a stop sign, the driver revved the engine and spun the tires, and as it sped off, one of the guys in the back seat shouted, "Trump 2020, bitches."
New installments of this series on the 2020 elections come out every Monday and Thursday. Check out my Twitter. Email me at email@example.com