What Kamala Harriss memoir reveals about her politics and personality

Senator Kamala Harris mentions Joe Biden only once in her memoir, The Truths We Hold, and she does so in passing. “I was sworn in on 3 January 2017, by vice president Joe Biden during his final month in office.” That’s it.

But if Harris had been somehow gaming out her own veep prospects under a potential Biden nomination when her book was published in 2019, she could have done no better. In her book, Harris praises Biden’s eldest son, the late Beau Biden – who served as Delaware’s attorney general while Harris held that post in California – as “an incredible friend … a man of principle and courage”. They worked together during the great recession, she recalls, investigating banks involved in the foreclosure crisis and seeking more money for struggling homeowners. “Beau and I talked every day,” she writes. “We had each other’s backs.” When Harris and Joe Biden made their first public appearance as running mates, they both invoked the memory of Beau in bringing them together.

The Truths We Hold, published in advance of Harris’s failed run at the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, is a conventional political memoir – a mix of biography, reflections and policy prescriptions. Even its title and subtitle are a generic combo of American civics and political speak. Its most memorable moments are those personal touches: Harris’s recollections of family, friendships and, above all, of her late mother, an Indian immigrant and cancer researcher who raised Harris and her younger sister.

But the book also illuminates Harris’s philosophy and aspirations, and the qualities she brings to a national presidential campaign. In these pages, Harris emerges as something between a feel-your-pain Democrat and a policy wonk, though not fully either. She takes pride in her record as a district attorney and attorney general, yet she acknowledges the pitfalls of the criminal justice system in which she laboured and thrived. Harris constantly dismisses as “false choices” the dilemmas that politicians encounter in policy debates. She wants to be a “joyful warrior in the battle to come,” and whether joy or war prevails may be the story of her campaign.

Harris’s record as a prosecutor – long considered an asset for Democrats hoping to project a tough, no-nonsense image as they pursued higher office – is a potential liability now that the excesses of law enforcement and mass incarceration have prompted movements for social, cultural and legal change. Harris acknowledges the nation’s “deep and dark history” of prosecutorial power wielded as an instrument of injustice, and she admits that critics have questioned “how I, as a black woman, could countenance being part of ‘the machine’ putting more young men of colour behind bars”.

Yet even as she decries mass incarceration as “a living monument to lost potential” and criticises sentencing guidelines that are “harsh to the point of being inhumane,” Harris believes that serious crimes deserve serious consequences. “We cannot overlook or ignore that mother’s pain, that child’s death, that murderer who still walks the streets,” she writes.

Harris attempts to square these positions with the idea of a “progressive prosecutor,” one who holds serious offenders accountable but understands that preventing crime, not just punishing it, helps create safe communities. “The job of a progressive prosecutor is to look out for the overlooked, to speak up for those whose voices aren’t being heard, to see and address the causes of crime, not just their consequences, and to shine a light on the inequality and unfairness that lead to injustice,” she writes. “It is to recognise that not everyone needs punishment, that what many need, quite plainly, is help.”

Harris’s Back on Track initiative, a re-entry program for former prisoners that she developed as San Francisco district attorney, featuring high school equivalency courses, job training, community service and drug testing, became a national model. But when she brought another policy she developed in that position, to reduce truancy among schoolchildren, to the state level as attorney general, some California parents faced jail time as a result. In her book, Harris laments that critics did not appreciate her good intentions. “They assume that my motivation was to lock up parents,” she writes, “when of course that was never the goal.” Except policies aren’t judged solely by intentions but also by outcomes, intended or otherwise.

Harris spearheaded a scheme to rehabilitate prisoners as San Francisco district attorney (AP)

Harris doesn’t like being forced into absolutes. She offers solidarity with those protesting systemic racism and police brutality, but also believes that “most police officers deserve to be proud of their public service and commended for the way they do their jobs.” (In her 2009 book, Smart on Crime, Harris branded as “myth” the notion that low-income residents don’t want police in their communities.) “It is a false choice to suggest that you must either be for the police or for police accountability,” she writes in her latest book. “I am for both.”

During the campaign, Harris will no doubt be pushed to clarify and detail her positions, some of which may have shifted – or “evolved”, in politicians’ preferred nomenclature – since her memoir’s publication. (In the book, she expresses unequivocal support for Medicare for all. Remember all that?) Yet The Truths We Hold suggests that Harris hews to positions that seem fairly centrist for today’s Democratic Party. Her selection as Biden’s running mate has been hailed as historic and groundbreaking, in part given her personal background as the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants and the first woman of colour on a major presidential ticket, but Harris is notable in part for her decidedly non-revolutionary politics.

Growing up between Oakland and Berkeley in California in the 1960s and 1970s, Harris was “surrounded by adults shouting and marching and demanding justice from the outside,” she writes. “But I also knew there was an important role on the inside, sitting at the table where the decisions were being made.” At each step, Harris pursues that insider role. At Howard University and then the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, Harris was more careerist than activist, winning competitive internships and joining academic societies. And as district attorney, state attorney general, US senator and now vice-presidential candidate, Harris has continued scaling the heights of institutionalism.

But she wants to bring change to institutions, she asserts. “When activists came marching and banging on doors, I wanted to be on the other side to let them in.” The vice presidency would afford her a wider door to swing open.

Like every proud legislator, Harris cites the many bills she has introduced during her time in the Senate – proposals to reform bail systems, place body cameras on immigration agents, provide relief to renters, protect critical election infrastructure, invest in quantum computing – as if legislative proposals were accomplishments in themselves, regardless of whether they become law. The bar for achievement is higher in the White House.

Harris mixes in chapters on various policy debates – health care, marriage equality, housing, national security – in ways that feel a bit dutiful, with some cringy political boilerplate on the side. (“If not for ourselves, shouldn’t we at least do this work for our children and grandchildren?” is a sentence that actually appears in this book.) But she concludes with some principles for leadership and management, which are instructive for anyone trying to imagine her as vice president.Other experiences, such as winning a close vote for attorney general in 2010 even after her opponent was prematurely declared the victor, may come in handy if election night 2020 proves contentious and uncertain. Harris’s understanding of the immigrant experience, one she witnessed in her home state and in her own family, watching her mother’s struggles and indignities, also provides an essential vantage point. Even there, she resists dichotomies. When a constituent at a Sacramento town hall complained that Harris cared more about undocumented immigrants than American citizens, the distinction was just another “false choice,” she writes. “I cared deeply about them both.”

“Test the hypothesis” is one, meaning that lasting innovations come from trial and error, not from imposing big plans right away. “Go to the scene” is another, with Harris urging politicians to look closely at the conditions they want to fix and the communities they mean to help. In her final principle, Harris recalls her mother reminding her to bring others along with her as she moves ahead: “You may be the first. Don’t be the last.”

Harris is cognizant of the criticism and scrutiny that come with attempting to be a new first. “When you break through a glass ceiling, you’re going to get cut,” she writes. But this “joyful warrior” seems prepared for it, even if it means setting emotion aside to wage the battles and endure the verdict issued by future generations. “I don’t want us to just tell them how we felt,” she writes in her final sentences. “I want us to tell them what we did.”

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