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The Rise of Kamala Harris
Peggy Noonan · Aug. 15, 2020
Kamala Harris is a sitting U.S. senator who was vetted during the primaries, the daughter of immigrants and the first black woman and Indian-American on a major-party ticket. She thus satisfies the basic requirements of a vice-presidential choice: First do no harm, and second pick up what you can.
Three salient points:
She rose far fast. She was sworn into the Senate in January 2017. She went national early and quickly, like Barack Obama, who’d also been in the Senate less than two years when he began running for president. (Her pre-Senate background includes more-impressive offices, notably California attorney general.)
She is a woman of the left who entered the law not as a defense attorney but as a prosecutor. This hurt her in the Democratic primaries, where she was called a cop, but will help her in the general election with centrists and moderates.
She is an excellent performer of politics. Like Bill Clinton she enjoys and has a talent for the necessary artifice. She takes obvious pleasure in campaigning — making speeches, waving, laughing, pressing the flesh. In committee hearings she cocks her brow in the closeup to show skepticism. Her glamour, and her consciousness of it, were vivid enough to be spoofed by Maya Rudolph on “Saturday Night Live.”
Reading her 2019 autobiography, “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” it occurs to you that what she’s really bringing Joe Biden is the things she doesn’t say and the stories she doesn’t tell on the trail.
She was born and raised in a climate of liberal activism in Oakland and Berkeley, Calif., in the 1960s and ‘70s. Her father, Donald Harris, born in Jamaica in 1938, was a student there and went on to be an economics professor at Stanford. Her mother, Shyamala, was born in southern India, graduated from the University of Delhi at 19, and earned a doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley. Shyamala, who died in 2009, was expected to return home for an arranged marriage; instead she met Donald. They married, had two children and divorced.
When Kamala Harris was a toddler, her parents brought her to civil-rights marches. “I have young memories of a sea of legs moving about,” she writes. Her mother liked to tell a story. Once Kamala was fussing in her stroller, and Mrs. Harris leaned down and asked, “What do you want?” “'Fweedom!’ I yelled back.”
The general atmosphere was ‘60s Berkeley — diverse, full of passion, consumed by identity politics and debates about liberation.
They took periodic trips to India. “My mother, grandparents, aunts, and uncle instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots… . We were raised with a strong awareness of and appreciation for Indian culture.” (India looks to be an increasingly important ally as America’s relationship with China deteriorates. If Biden-Harris wins and her background is helpful, good.)
She went to ballet class, sang in the choir in the 23rd Avenue Church of God, went to a black cultural center called Rainbow Sign on Thursdays. She saw Rep. Shirley Chisholm speak and was electrified.
By the time Ms. Harris graduated high school she wanted to become a lawyer like her heroes Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley. Also like her Uncle Sherman and a family friend named Henry. “Any time someone had a problem … the first thing you’d hear was, 'Call Henry, call Sherman. They’ll know what to do.’ … I wanted to be the one people called.”
For college she chose Justice Marshall’s alma mater, historically black Howard University in Washington, founded just after the Civil War and rich with legacy.
Her first day on campus she thought, “This is heaven.” She’d hang out with other students in the campus’s central lawn: “On any given day, you could stand in the middle of the Yard and see, on your right, young dancers practicing their steps or musicians playing instruments. Look to your left and there were briefcase-toting students strolling out of the business school, and medical students in their white coats, heading back to the lab… . That was the beauty of Howard. Every signal told students that we could do anything.”
She ran for student office, joined the debate team, pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha, the powerhouse sorority founded in 1908. Expect to see its colors, pink and green, at campaign events this year.
She was a tour guide at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Once she bumped into the great actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis waiting for a VIP tour. “They projected an aura … they made a special point of engaging me in conversation and telling me that it made them proud to see me as a young black woman working in public service.” She never got over how they made her feel.
Then on to San Francisco’s UC Hastings law school. She was mortified at failing the bar exam — you get the impression it was her first failure; she always aced the test. She passed on the second try, joined the local prosecutor’s office. She had to defend her choice to family and friends. She is tough and seems sincere in her writing on her early days up against sexual predators and other violent criminals.
She is extremely interesting when writing about real things. She talks about how hard it was to put grade-school victims on the stand to testify to their sexual abuse, and teenagers who’d been virtually abandoned into an inadequate foster-care system. She didn’t see prosecutors as oppressors: “I had found my calling.” There are plenty of cases in which prosecutors have used their office as “an instrument of injustice.” But “I knew the history of brave prosecutors who went after the Ku Klux Klan in the South” and “corrupt politicians and corporate polluters.” It was the attorney general who sent officials to protect the Freedom Riders in 1961. “I was going to be a prosecutor in my own image.”
“You can want the police to stop crime in your neighborhood and also want them to stop using excessive force,” she writes. “You can want them to hunt down a killer on your streets and also want them to stop using racial profiling. You can believe in … accountability, especially for serious criminals, and also oppose unjust incarceration.”
In the primaries we saw that when she changes her stands it tends to be politically convenient, slowly acknowledged and poorly explained. There are signals of seeing policy as an external thing, not an outgrowth of one’s own belief structure, and things can change.
In the book we get a sense of gusto. She admires toughness. She is a natural pol. She was bred to achieve in an aspirational immigrant environment. She loves to compete.
She is warm, humorous. Like most of the men around her in politics, she enjoys being important. She isn’t embarrassed by attention.
Again, she has risen far fast. She ran nationally for the first time this year, in the Democratic primary. It didn’t end well; she dropped out before the first vote.
She is running for the second time now. The tough learn a lot from defeat, but most politicians find it hard to change their moves.
This is going to be interesting.
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