[Editor’s note: First published 18 February 2019, but of even greater interest as the Democratic nominee for the Vice Presidency.]
Eighty-nine weeks from the White House, front-running, formidable and fierce, yet publicly scorned as a “travesty” by her own father, Kamala Harris, hyper-ambitious presidential candidate and former unwilling Quebecker, paces the old stone cathedral.
We’re at South Church, founded in 1713 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on the Atlantic’s snow-flogged shore, but it could be anywhere in the 50 American states; anywhere that there are cameras and dollars and votes to be pocketed and rivals to be slandered and slain. Hundreds of New Englanders cram the prayer hall, the home of a Unitarian Universalist congregation that is based not on a single Saviour, but on “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.”
Like South Church, the campaign to confront Donald Trump in the 2020 election offers—at this ridiculously early but already fraught and frantic stage—a deity to suit every desire. At least two dozen Democrats already have, or soon will, enter the contest. In June, they will begin to debate each other on stages as wide as wheat farms. Next February—that’s still a year away!—the first intra-party primary elections and arcane county caucuses will begin to winnow the crop. So here we go.
Senators, congresswomen, mayors, governors, billionaires—Beto, Bernie, Bloomberg, Biden; Amy, Kirsten, Tulsi, Pocahontas; Hickenlooper, Inslee, Buttigieg, Bullock—all are in it now, or soon will be. Just as it was with the Republicans in 2016, she or he who talks loudest and most profanely is most likely to be heard above the Democratic din. At every whistle stop, in every city and hamlet, the raw odours of vanity and conceit assault the nose. But also, this time, there are coos of love and healing in the air.
Here’s another metaphor—imagine a round of pool with 25 multi-coloured balls on the baize and only one corner pocket. Charge the ablest players half a billion dollars to ante up. Estimate the trillions of permutations of rebound, ricochet, angle, scratch and spin. And then try to run the table while an orange-skinned shark—call him Fifth Avenue Fats—leans over the rail, licking his lips, chalking his cue, eager to eat the winner.
Back to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Kamala Harris, a first-term U.S. Senator and former San Francisco prosecutor and state attorney general—“the best-looking attorney general in the country,” Barack Obama once called her, a career-ending slur for anyone else in these touchy times—is on her first campaign visit to the Granite State, a sliver of bedrock, ski slopes, and escaped Bostonians whose “first in the nation” primary gives it a numinous status among this country’s peripatetic career politicos. (Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada also are in the early-state recipe, with Harris’s behemoth California to join them in February balloting for the first time in 2020. Advantage, Kamala?)
The senator’s stump speech, which she will give from 20 to 50 times a week for the next 21 months, should she last that long in the race, is heavy on her prosecutorial experience and her eagerness to take on a divisive, calamitous incumbent. Even at the pulpit, she never invokes the homilies of her multiple religious roots, or gives thanks for the support of her husband of four and a half years—a California attorney of the Jewish faith—or mentions his two college-age children by a previous marriage: a son named for John Coltrane, a daughter for Ella Fitzgerald. Domesticity, her culinary skills, the multi-cultural and bi-national aspects of her life—none is touched today. Eighty-nine weeks from the White House, the business of the campaign already is serious business.
“I plan on prosecuting the case against people who do not tell the truth,” she says to a roaring, whooping, left-leaning clientele that has been waiting in the fluffing snow for hours, snaking around Portsmouth’s preciously curated shops and its handy-crafty market-stalls, with the first balloting still a spring and a summer and an autumn and another winter away.
Then (on the need for a single-payer, government-run health care program):
“The system is immoral.”
And (on gun control):
“We should never bow down to those who have a love of money while people are dying in the streets.”
“We are looking at an America today where American values and American dreams are under attack.”
But there is much more about Kamala Harris to be said, and told, and learned. As with all of our lives, there are conflicts and complications, secrets and mysteries. But unlike all but two dozen of us on this planet, she yearns to be President of the United States, and she may well succeed.
“I am a proud daughter of Oakland, California,” Harris said in January, when she formally announced her candidacy at Howard University, her “historically black” alma mater in Washington, D.C. That she considers herself to be African-American is beyond dispute—“I was born black and I will die black,” she told a radio interviewer a few days ago. Crucial to her candidacy will be her defence of her record of filling the penitentiaries of the Golden State with legions of young African-American men. But the annals of American politics reveal that personality and personal history will triumph over policy every time. So it matters deeply to the voters of all the nation’s Portsmouths not only what Kamala Harris says, but who she is.
Again: “I was born black.” Yet Sen. Harris’s mother, née Shyamala Gopalan, was a Brahmin Hindu born in Chennai (Madras), the oceanside megalolopolis of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu; and her father, raised in Brown’s Town, educated in Port Antonio and at the University of the West Indies, is as Jamaican as the sun and the sea. (Dr. Shyamala Gopalan Harris died in 2009 at the age of 70.) Just as Barack Hussein Obama is the mixed-race descendent of tribal Kenya and sunflowery Kansas, Kamala Harris, potentially Obama’s successor’s successor, is every bit as not-really-a-real-American as her desperate opponents may choose to make her out to be. Will that matter?
(For a few days in January, an asinine and racist “birther” conspiracy against Sen. Harris circulated on the Internet’s extreme right wing—namely, that since her mother was from India and her father was from Jamaica and neither of them had lived in the United States for five full years before Kamala’s birth, she could not be a “natural-born citizen” as required of the president and vice-president by the U.S. Constitution. This was patently and crudely false—Harris’s birth in California swaddled her in American citizenship the instant she drew her first breath. President Trump often has ranted against “birthright citizenship” to enflame his base, but The Donald’s nativist ravings carry no weight in law; at least not yet.)
So far in the 2019-2020 campaign, there has not been much in the way of personal slander. None of the six or seven or eight sitting senators in the race has torn a colleague to shreds. (“That will come later,” Sen. Lindsey Graham coyly predicted to a Maclean’s reporter in Washington last week.) But when Sen. Harris sniggered on New York City radio program that, like the sky-high Honolulu stoner Obama, she had thoroughly enjoyed marijuana—and that, unlike Bill Clinton, she had inhaled—she explained her behaviour by saying, “Half my family’s from Jamaica! Are you kidding me?”
Her father exploded.
Donald Harris, 81, professor emeritus of economics at Stanford University, divorced from Shyamala Gopalan since 1972, offered this comment to the website Jamaica Global Online, whose editor, Ian Randle, shared it exclusively with Maclean’s:
My dear departed grandmothers, as well as my deceased parents, must be turning in their grave right now to see their family’s name, reputation and proud Jamaican identity being connected, in any way, jokingly or not with the fraudulent stereotype of a pot-smoking joy seeker and in the pursuit of identity politics. Speaking for myself and my immediate Jamaican family, we wish to categorically dissociate ourselves from this travesty.
This was not Harris’s first incursion into the ambitions of the elder of his two daughters. (His younger child, Maya Lakshmi Harris, a prominent liberal attorney, professor of law, senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and the wife of Obama’s associate attorney general, Tony West, is Kamala’s national campaign chair.) In a December article on Jamaica Global Online, the girls’ father took pains to enumerate Kamala’s Caribbean experiences and to reassert the depth of her island heritage. Yet in her new campaign manifesto, The Truths We Hold, Prof. Donald Harris disappears on Page 20 of 300, and never is mentioned again.
The early phase of interaction with my children came to an abrupt halt in 1972, Dr. Harris wrote, when, after a hard-fought custody battle in the family court of Oakland, California, the context of the relationship was placed within arbitrary limits imposed by a court-ordered divorce settlement based on the false assumption by the State of California that fathers cannot handle parenting (especially in the case of this father, “a neegroe from da eyelans” was the Yankee stereotype, who might just end up eating his children for breakfast!). Nevertheless, I persisted, never giving up on my love for my children or reneging on my responsibilities as their father.
In the United States Senate—and especially in her vehement shredding of Brett Kavanaugh (“I’m asking you a very direct question: yes or no”) during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing and Jeff Sessions (“I’m not able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous”) during the Russian-collusion investigations, Kamala Harris presented herself as anything but a pot-smoking joy-seeker. “There are flaws in the criminal-justice system and this system needs to be reformed,” she said at Howard U. “Instead of being soft on crime or tough on crime, we need to be smart on crime.”
Barack Obama’s father bolted back to Africa when his son was three years old. They met only once more before Obama, Sr.’s death. But Donald Harris is very much alive. “I have decided to stay out of all the political hullabaloo,” he told Ian Randle, the editor of the Jamaican website (Donald Harris declined to be interviewed for this story). But his vow already has been broken. How much more will we be hearing from him about his daughter’s histories?
And then there is the Canadian/Québécois chapter, another blank page in the candidate’s life.
Shyamala Gopalan of Chennai and Donald Harris of Brown’s Town met and married on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley amid the seething ferment and sexual electricity of a social and cultural revolution. Shyamala—the daughter of a man who had crusaded alongside Jawaharlal Nehru in the campaign for India’s independence from the British Raj—had graduated from the University of New Delhi. At 19 she was confronted with an existential choice—to weigh millennia of expectations and an arranged marriage against emigration and a new life of laboratory science and freedom to choose her own love.
Swept up in the Bay Area’s white-hot protests for equal rights for blacks, Shyamala chose the side of the oppressed minority, and weaned her girls on chanted slogans, justice marches and home-drawn picket signs.
“These were my mother’s people,” Kamala writes in The Truths We Hold. “In a country where she had no family, they were her family—and she was theirs. From almost the moment she arrived from India, she chose and was welcomed to and enveloped in the black community. It was the foundation of her new American life.”
Then, suddenly, Shyamala Harris—scientist and single mom—turned her back on the struggle and flew away. Again, from Kamala’s book:
When I was in middle school, we had to leave. My mother was offered a unique opportunity in Montreal, teaching at McGill University and conducting research at the Jewish General Hospital. It was an exciting step in advancing her career.
It was not, however, an exciting opportunity for me. I was twelve years old, and the thought of moving away from sunny California in February, in the middle of the school year, to a French-speaking foreign city covered in twelve feet of snow was distressing, to say the least. My mother tried to make it sound like an adventure, taking us to buy our first down jackets and mittens, as if we were going to be explorers of the great northern winter. But it was hard for me to see it that way. It was made worse when my mother told us that she wanted us to learn the language, so she was enrolling us in a neighborhood school for native French speakers, Notre-Dame-des-Neiges—Our Lady of the Snows.
It was a difficult transition, since the only French I knew was from my ballet classes, where Madame Bovie, my ballet teacher, would shout, ‘Demi–plié, and up!’ I used to joke that I felt like a duck, because all day long at our new school I’d be saying ‘Quoi? Quoi? Quoi?’
“By the time I got to high school, I had adjusted to our new surroundings,” she later concedes. And then not another word about Westmount High, about Montreal, about Quebec in the parlous hour of the first independence referendum, about her own coming-of-age.
“Let me begin with a simple statement: Indonesia is part of me,” Barack Obama said in the Bahasa language in Jakarta in 2010. (He lived there from age six to 10 with his mother and her Indonesian husband.) So Canadians may wonder, how much is Quebec part of Kamala Harris, if at all?
The morning after the whoop-fest at the old seacoast Universalist church, the junior senator from California speaks to a far more restrained gathering at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics on the campus of Saint Anselm College in Manchester, an hour inland. The affair is called “Politics & Eggs” and it has been attended by every presidential candidate since the days of the black-and-white photograph. Yes, even Donald Trump came here, and Donald Trump almost never speaks to the unfiltered public.
In Manchester, the phrases that brought down the temple in Portsmouth barely ripple the pond. Harris’s tripwire pledge of “Medicare For All” garners only silence; the words “Kavanaugh,” “Trump,” and “Green New Deal” are never even uttered. There are at least 20 other Democrats yet to hear from, and 50 weeks before the Granite State primary for all of them to be heard.
When the breakfast concludes, a Maclean’s reporter approaches the candidate and asks about Quebec in 1980, how—if—a high school student’s exposure to the crucible of ethnic, linguistic “identity politics”—the very words her own father abjures—affected her values and her views.
“It was certainly very significant,” she responds. “It was about people wanting to be recognized, wanting equal treatment for their culture.”
“Were you a Oui or a Non?” the candidate is asked.
“It was a very significant moment,” says Kamala Harris. “But I was too young to vote.”