Kamala Harris Is Who She Is
Target of reporters, Democrats and Republicans, Harris does business her way, and that’s just fine
On Sunday night, Oct. 29, “60 Minutes” featured a story about Vice President Kamala Harris. She came off, as she usually does, as calm, cool, informed and professional. There were photos of her with President Biden, mention of the world leaders she’s met and of the college tour she’s undertaken.
All in all, it was a welcome antidote to the story line that has plagued her for months, but which has picked up in intensity recently.
Let’s officially declare it open season on Vice President Kamala Harris. There has been a steady stream of criticism before, but not like this.
She’s the subject of not one, but two highly critical profile-length pieces. Last week, the New York Times Magazine gave us the cover story, “The Search for Kamala Harris.” In case you missed the point, the subhed is: “After nearly three years the vice president is still struggling to make a case for herself — and feels she shouldn’t have to.”
The November issue of the Atlantic chipped in with “The Kamala Harris Problem: Few People Think She’s Ready to be President. Why?”
Her high crime, to the best I can determine, is that she isn’t what the political reporting class thinks she should be. Think of the stories like reviews of movies or books in which the reviewer criticizes the film for not being the film the critic thinks it should have been, rather than looking at what’s actually on the screen.
Meeting Expectations — Or Not
Harris should give flowery speeches and bend the knee to the power of the elite political press. She should make herself more of a political figure by working on her image, making nice to journalists. When she doesn’t do what’s expected of her, the reporters feel disrespected, and take it out in snippy comments that would be more at home in a movie review while criticizing her for what she’s not doing. As a side effect, any story about her is in line for the same treatment.
In what could be considered a high point of her term in office, Harris on short notice went down to Florida, not to debate Ron DeSantis on the merits of slavery, but to argue in no uncertain terms that slavery had no merits. It was a bold, emphatic action.
Yet in Astead W. Herndon’s Times piece of about 9,000 words, we don’t learn about the Florida trip until approximately 8,000 words in. Even then, he devotes fewer than 200 words to the event, fewer words than he used to write about the irrelevant Tulsi Gabbard’s criticism of Harris from the 2020 presidential debate. This comes after Herndon tells us he spent eight months and conducted 75 interviews for his story.
Reporting on a speech Harris gave in February at the Munich Security Conference, an important world gathering, he criticized her “stilted delivery of her speech caused the international audience to miss certain applause lines.” Personally, I would call her delivery sober and deliberate, appropriate to the topic and setting, not a place for a rousing oration.
Herndon’s piece also showed, perhaps, that Harris doesn’t suffer fools gladly. At one point, he reported, in Chicago he asked her directly: “When someone asks, ‘What does Vice President Kamala Harris bring to the ticket?’ what is that clear answer?” as Harris’ team “made clear it would be my final question.” He records this exchange:
“’Were you in this room of 2,000 people?” she asked. I nodded.
‘Did you see them cheering and standing?’
‘That’s what I say.’
She stood up and walked out of the room.”
It was the end of the interview after all, but not on his terms, and only those appear to count.
The Atlantic piece was more nuanced, but it never overcame the existential contradiction that author Elaina Plott Calabro posed. On one hand, Harris has struggled to define herself, her work and her job.
“For the first time in her career, Harris holds a job devoid of any clear benchmarks of success,” Calabro notes. At the same time, Calabro wrote, “But after nearly three years in office, the symbolic fact of Harris’s position has proved more resonant than anything she has actually done with it.”
That’s the point, isn’t it? The job of vice president is as the president defines it. If the president gives the vp an assignment, the vp takes it. The vp isn’t there to make her own political identity; she exists in the background of the president. It’s been that way for many years. It was Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice president, John Nance Garner, who notably described his office as “not worth a bucket of warm piss” (later cleaned up to be spit in retellings.) That Harris doesn’t measure up to the ideals projected for her influences what’s reported about her.
The lack of respect for Harris and for her office has been unpleasantly present since she took office. A week after the inauguration, Harris went to West Virginia to do interviews pumping up Biden’s American Recovery Plan legislation. It’s something vice presidents and other officials do all the time. But it ruffled the feathers of the most sensitive Senator, Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia, who had been spending his time trying to gut the legislation that would help people suffering as a result of the Covid pandemic, many of those in his home state.
He was aghast that he hadn’t been given advance notice of Harris’ appearance in the state, as if the vice president needed his permission. It would perhaps have been nice if the Administration had given a heads-up to the senator holding up a crucial piece of legislation, but certainly wasn’t worth the fuss Manchin made, which turned into a national story.
The Atlantic used the opportunity to take this shot: “Biden invited Manchin to the Oval Office to discuss the stimulus package; Harris was there initially, but after pleasantries was sent on her way. Biden had once said that Harris’s would be ‘the last voice in the room’ during important conversations. Not this time.” Maybe not that time, but maybe in hundreds of other meetings? We don’t know.
The Original Sin
The original sin of Harris’ tenure was her June 8, 2021 interview with Lester Holt, which took place in Guatemala, where she was traveling as part of her examination of the refugee crisis. Holt, echoing GOP attacks, asked when she planned to visit the border. Harris replied, “We’ve been to the border,” and noted she hasn’t been to Europe either. It didn’t matter that she was in a Central American country that’s an integral part of the issue, Republicans wanted her at the border and reporters, as they often do, regurgitated the GOP talking points.
She caught flak from almost everywhere without much discussion of the issue. A couple of points to remember. First, Harris was right that she had been to the border, although not as vice president. She went in 2014 when she was attorney general of California as part of a mission to increase cooperation with Mexican authorities over drug smuggling. It wasn’t to the Texas border, but to a hot spot on the California border.
Second, as Harris certainly knows, a dignitary going someplace disrupts the natural flow of business. A photo-op for the vice president takes border patrol agents and other officials away from their regular jobs to set up something like this. A short visit might provide good visuals for TV news, but isn’t worth much else as a matter of substance, particularly for an administration that had been in office for only a few months. Inevitably, such a visit would only incur attacks that she hadn’t spent enough time there.
The latest flap is whether she has the backing of Biden and other Democrats. Bill Whittaker brought it up in his 60 Minutes piece that some “Democratic donors” don’t want her on the ticket. Those “Democratic donors” should STFU. In late September, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) whether Harris should run with Biden. He said she would be an “excellent running mate.” There followed a ridiculous exchange when Tapper wanted a yes-or-no answer, and Raskin, one of the smartest people in Congress, clearly thought his answer sufficed. However, the “Raskin dodges Harris question” dominated the news for a week.
Ageism and Racism — The Bottom Line
While the earlier attacks on Harris may simply have been an evil brew of politics, racism and misogyny, this new round has the added element of ageism, specifically Biden’s age, 80. Polls consistently ask whether Biden is too old to be president (ignoring that Donald Trump is only three years younger), which plants the idea of age in the voters’ minds, which then leads to stories about voters being concerned about Biden’s age. It’s a vicious chain.
Biden has been to two active war zones, in Kyiv and in Jerusalem. Trump declined to attend a ceremony at a U.S. military cemetery in France because it was raining. That should be enough to settle the argument, but it’s not. Biden’s policies are working, he’s traveling around the world and the country and has things well in hand, polls be damned. The country is in a sour mood, and nothing is polling that well, much less the job satisfaction for the vice president.
While the front page of the Sept. 24 Washington Post had yet another poll story that included Biden’s age, the proper response was back in the Book World section: “At 91, Gay Talese has a lot more to say.” Talese, one of America’s finest writers, published a 320-page book, and he’s got a decade on Biden.
Just recently, the Rolling Stones put out one of their most well-received albums, “Hackney Diamonds.” The Stones were led by Mick Jagger (80), Keith Richards (79) and Ron Wood (76) with help from their buddy Paul McCartney (81). Has anyone listened to Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi lately? She’s 83 and sharper than anyone in the entire GOP House crew, like Rep. Matt Gaetz (41), Lauren Boebert (36) or Marjorie Taylor Green (49). Yet some people want Pelosi to step down because of her age.
The not-so-hidden argument from Republicans is that if anything happened to Biden, then, God forbid, Harris would be president. So they need to knock her down as a way of taking Biden down as well. This argument combines the racism, misogyny and ageism all in one package.
Let’s turn back the clock a few months. Remember when we had a president who was in his 70s, overweight bordering on obese, existing on a diet of red meat and junk food who never exercised? Remember when that president got so sick with Covid he got emergency treatments not available to the public?
Do you remember how many stories there were about whether Mike Pence was qualified to be president? I don’t recall any. Pence was a political non-entity, a right-wing back-bencher in the House, a mediocre governor in Indiana largely seen as on his way out. Was he qualified to be president if Trump died? The question wasn’t asked. The stories of the time dealt with process, which political reporters love, not his qualifications, if any.
But for Harris, the first woman and first woman of color to be elected on a national ticket, the question has been asked from the moment she arrived, and will continue to be asked again and again, despite her obvious experience and intelligence. She was asked about it on 60 Minutes, and by the Atlantic, which gave this account:
“I asked Harris herself: Had she and Biden discussed how to address questions about her readiness to step in as president, should circumstances ever require it? ‘No,’ she said. And that was the end of the conversation.”
As it should have been.