AT FIRST GLANCE
Where personality meets politics
LET’S START WITH HER NAMES. Kamala Devi Harris is our current vice president. Kamala, though, is someone else, a celebrity of a particular type. What type?
Compare Kamala to Madonna, Beyoncé, or Rihanna, three of her fellow mononymites. Madonna enjoyed decades of superstardom without her fans ever feeling they knew her the way they might know a friend from work. Beyoncé’s super-fans likewise rarely suffer from delusions of intimacy. Who are you to think you know me? is the kind of regal dismissal Rihanna conveys with a quarter-lift of an eyebrow. These three women are paragons of the forbidding celebrity, icons who overawe the millions of fans they keep at arm’s length.
Kamala isn’t regal or forbidding. Her eyebrows could try-hard all day without managing a Rihannan dismissal. “Inviting” is a nice way to describe Harris’s spontaneous persona, the one that plunges into a crowd or goes off-script on a podcast. She deserves this label more often than detractors allow. “Ingratiating,” though, is not less accurate. And you don’t need to be a racist, a sexist, or a Republican to find her ingratiations unattractive. For the sake of my neutral analyst cred, I’ll try to avoid both judgmental poles, and call her relatable.
Relatable women want you to laugh with them, confide in them, and welcome their confidences. Unless asked, they don’t presume to offer you advice, just a sympathetic ear. Awe isn’t any part of the equation; even respect can wait.
For a relatable woman, public acclaim can be awkward, as it places her above her audience, where the Madonnas and Rihannas of the world belong. On the legacy talk shows hosted by Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers, Kamala enters their faux living rooms laughing and waving and ducking from the audience’s hot gust of applause as if she fears it might knock her over.
Kamala Harris, the vice president, has a second, less relatable mode. This is the modulated, decorous voice you hear in rehearsed speeches, Senate panel interrogations, applause lines at debates. Ambitious politicians in the US all have this gear and it’s usually a drag when they grind into it. You’ll appreciate the seamless tempered professionalism of Harris’s version, when you switch over to Pete Buttigieg or Cory Booker. She channels canned outrage into empty calls for action pretty well.
Trouble tends to arrive when she transitions from resolute to relatable, from Vice President Harris to Kamala, in a short period of time. This is how she ends up laughing at a New Hampshire voter’s use of the phrase “mentally retarded” to describe Donald Trump. Kamala later claimed she didn’t “process” the offensive phrase, though on video the timing of her laugh seems as clear as her response: “Well said.” Even the ladies on The View struggled with this one.
Her laughter draws our attention, but it isn’t the only sign of Harris struggling with a modal transition. Take her infamous ambush of Biden on an early debate stage. Her attack began with awkward presumption, as she reassured the front-runner—a former vice president extremely popular with Black voters—that she didn’t think he was racist. What followed was convoluted: ostensibly a confession of personal sorrow over Biden’s past decades of friendship with formerly segregationist senators, friendship made worse by his once-upon-a-time opposition to integrationist busing. Even on Harris’s own terms, it wasn’t clear what she wanted Biden to do about this in 2021.
The attack was also a rhetorical mess—roundabout, ambivalent, excessively emotional—and Harris appeared to sense this in real time. The lines that left her staff tearful in dress rehearsal weren’t landing on opening night. When Harris senses a flop, the drama in her face stops conveying the drama of her words, and starts registering the challenge of her performance. This would never be the case for Booker, Buttigieg, or Elizabeth Warren, who can bluster through any debacle.
At the time, her ambush of Biden hurt her in polls, and occasioned a great deal of horse-race analysis. These takes failed to catch what was happening to Harris on stage. She was anxiously toggling between a relatable mode of sorrow sharing and the loftier oratorical mode Democrats of a certain age adopt when invoking the solemn history of Black struggle. Such a balancing act requires Obama-level rhetorical skills that few others have.
Yet better rhetoric would have only made Kamala’s attack less embarrassing; it wouldn’t have made it succeed. With Biden seen by Democrats as a genial, paternal figure, ambushing him would be risky for any candidate. The ambush becomes Mission Impossible for a candidate with such a conventionally feminine, relatable persona. Why is she attacking Grandpa? There’s an instructive contrast between Harris’s halting emotive attack on Biden, which was widely criticized, and Warren’s full-throttle savaging of Michael Bloomberg, which was widely praised. The two incidents reveal the respective limits of relatable and forbidding personas Democrats tolerate in their women.
If you happen to watch seven consecutive hours of Kamala’s public appearances—I’m not recommending this—you’ll start to look forward to the most casual ones. She does best in Fallon’s comfy chair, or before the unsightly clutter on the table between hosts and guest in one of the newer, streaming, pod-style talks. That’s when her smile and indeed her laugh seem genuine.
BUT DON’T WORRY: WE’RE NOT DONE WITH KAMALA’S LAUGH. I have to say more because I, too, wince at it, and I struggle to explain why. One common explanation for Kamalaughism—“you’re so racist and sexist you hate to see Black women laugh”—doesn’t cut it. Nobody minds Oprah’s laugh. Oprah’s laugh is amazing. But Oprah’s laugh, as friendly a presence as she is, still channels some of her magisterial command. Her laughter never seems helpless.
All relatable women are prone to laugh helplessly in high-profile situations. Laughter is their shield against anyone in the audience finding them forbidding, haughty, unrelatable. You want to tell me Kamala’s laughter isn’t “really” helpless? That her laughter is “fake”? It doesn’t matter. Helpless and forced laughter are the same thing here: tools for deprecating herself back down to an unforbidding size.
I can’t prove this, but my working hypothesis is that the mass irritation with her laughter isn’t mainly about Kamala qua Kamala. It’s mainly irritation at anyone with her kind of relatable style who runs for high office. As an experiment, I listened to her laughter with my eyes closed, imagining she was not a politician but a college professor I know who laughs a lot. The laugh seemed like nothing special: a relatable laugh. I suspect any laughing white woman or even a man running for president with her laugh would irritate a lot of people.
Outside of politics, we mind relatable women less. Picture a 30-year-old actress who, after a decade in the cameo wilds, finally breaks through as a lead. In a low-budget sleeper called From the Inside, the actress plays the universe’s leading Space Herpetologist who gets eaten by a hundred-foot turtle. No more spoilers, guys. The point is that, in real life, the actress walks onto Jimmy Fallon’s set in jeans and Chuck Taylors, and the studio audience goes bonkers. At that moment, she knows she’s made it. She’s a star. And by the time she reaches her chair, she’s laughing helplessly, covering her face and saying, “I promised Mom I wouldn’t do this.” Fallon, also laughing helplessly, says, “But why are we laughing?” Actress: “I don’t know!”
You’d relate to that actress. You’d find her adorable. You’d want to see every movie she’s in until she announces her campaign for the Senate.
SARAH PALIN WAS RELATABLE. Born the same year as Harris, the former Alaska governor was your kooky old friend from high school, or kooky new friend from day care, who brings a party with her even in her mid-40s. Palin is a relatable alpha—which I don’t mean as a compliment. I just mean that in Palin’s case, her relatability comported uneasily with her bossiness. Palin’s persona keyed the assumption that, wherever she’s headed in her truck, you’re invited to join her while she drives too fast, shares cigarettes, and blabs somewhat incoherently. There were plenty of reasons to dread a Palin vice-presidency, and eventually they would have surfaced even from a more decorous personality. But Palin’s relatability let her flaws surface sooner, and provoked the unrestrained condescension that hasn’t aged much better than the idea of a Vice President Palin. Her relatability made her an instant punching bag.
People who meet Hillary Clinton in small groups often describe her as relatable, to an extent. But on a big stage, Clinton either lacks a relatable gear, or perhaps has the good sense not to deploy it. Unlike Palin, HRC on a big stage can’t hide the fact that she’d rather not spend a minute more with you than a photo-op requires. Clinton was ridiculed for pandering to Black voters by boasting that she carried hot sauce in her purse at all times. In fact it was true: she was a hot-sauce lover. But that didn’t make the bit feel like less of a pander. By the time she narrowly lost the election, Hillary had wisely dumped the hot sauce, and was bidding for voters’ respect, even their awe, not an evening on their couch watching Fargo.
Elizabeth Warren’s sporadic efforts at relatability were still less convincing. Even the campaign-bus presence of her dog, Bailey, was an arm’s-length gesture, deflecting desires for intimacy away from herself. To her credit, the 70-year-old Harvard Law professor grasped early on that she wasn’t made for Instagram gimmicks like drinking a beer with her “sweetie”—her husband, Bruce, who declined the beer. (Wtf Bruce?) Warren’s ultimate signature nod toward relatability was to let supporters stand for 5-second selfies with her, a concession even the haughtiest celebrities make to their fans. Warren’s core offer to voters had never been friendship but her services as a bulldog attorney: “I will fight for you.”
Another difference between forbidding and relatable women in politics is in the relative malleability of their approaches to voters. With personas that suit women in positions of authority, Hillary and Warren never saw the need to address voters of different ages and genders differently. They assume their commanding tone and senior status governs all interactions.
Relatable politicians are more bespoke in their dealings. With women her age, Kamala presents as someone who’d stop by after work to dish. Older men and women are normally shown the respect due a parent; this norm added to the mess with Biden. With younger voters, Kamala morphs once again. Now she’s the cool girl who can hang.
The most multidimensional Kamala clusterfuck came a month after she entered the primaries, when she appeared on the streaming morning show The Breakfast Club. She immediately found the casual, relaxed gear that can be her most winning, and for a while was winning indeed. But she was too anxious to ingratiate herself with the show’s younger, cooler co-hosts, DJ Envy, Angela Yee, and Charlamagne tha God. At one trouble-making point, she too gleefully owned up to smoking weed in college: “I did inhale HEH HEH HEH HEH.” Asked about her favorite music, she named “Tupac” and “Snoop.”
The music answer drew a wave of ridicule. Some of the flak came from bad-faith click baiters looking for any excuse to attack her. But some (mine, for instance) came from being genuinely confused by the show’s cross-talk into thinking Kamala had claimed to have listened to Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg in college. She attended Howard University in the mid-1980s, before Tupac or Snoop had started recording. In fact, Kamala wasn’t referring to her college years. And really, how could that have been case? Pros don’t make that kind of mistake. The reason the calumny had legs was that Kamala had slipped from her casual vibing mode into cringe ingratiation. It was visible in her body language, audible in her voice, and made a far-fetched interpretation seem plausible.
In another excessively ingratiating move during the same Breakfast Club broadcast, Kamala told Charlamagne tha God that legalizing marijuana came naturally to her. Why? “Half my family’s from Jamaica. Are you kidding me? HEH HEH HEH HEH HEH.”
The joke infuriated her Jamaica-born father, Donald Harris, a retired Stanford development economist who had devoted his previous two decades to improving Jamaica’s economy. In a public letter to Jamaica Global Online, Professor Harris issued a mind-blowing rebuke of his daughter’s “travesty.” He evoked their sober, hard-working ancestors “turning in their grave” at seeing their reputations besmirched by the “fraudulent stereotype of a pot-smoking joy seeker.” He accused Kamala of deploying the stereotype “in the pursuit of identity politics.”
We’ll return to the fascinating Donald Harris in a later File. In still another, we’ll trace his daughter’s twisty road to supporting marijuana legalization which, pace morning-show Kamala, didn’t come naturally at all. Harris opposed legalization as recently as 2014, in her re-election campaign for attorney general of California, even as her Republican opponent supported it. Incidentally, the answer Harris gave a local reporter on the subject that year was the first time her laugh got her in real trouble. Hold onto that for bar trivia-night.
AGAIN: I HAVE NO PROBLEM with Kamala’s personality type as such. But before she dropped out of the primaries, it amazed me that no one else found her fish-out-of-waterness worth remarking on. It shouldn’t be problematic to discuss frankly whether any politician as relatably feminine as Kamala can win a presidential election.
The nearest thing to a high-profile criticism of Harris’s personality was delivered unwittingly, in The Washington Post. In an Opinion piece titled, “Vogue got too familiar, too fast,” the paper’s former fashion critic, Robin Givhan, blamed Vogue for making Harris look relatable: “The cover did not give Kamala D. Harris due respect. It was overly familiar. It was a cover image that, in effect, called Harris by her first name without invitation.”
Givhan goes on to suggest that the cover reflected solely the preferences of Vogue’s editor and Hollywood-villain Anna Wintour, and that Wintour’s cluelessness exemplified Vogue’s ongoing problems with race. Astonishingly, this all came after Givhan acknowledged, “Harris styled herself. She chose her ensembles.”
No one inflicts relatability on Kamala, and no one needs an invite to call her by her first name. There’s an invitation in every smile and word from her mouth. Whether Americans want such an invitation from their president is a different question.
SEARCHING FOR THE ROOTS OF KAMALA’S PERSONALITY leads us into a zoo of “likely would have”s and “surely must have”s. But speculation comes with the territory of this kind of inquiry, so here we go. In childhood, the extroverted and agreeable path for making one’s way in the social world must have come somewhat naturally to Kamala. But to become so pronounced in her as an adult, her nascent persona likely would have needed affirmation from adults, particularly her mother. It’s not unreasonable to assume the persona also gave her some leverage over her circumstances as child, starting at home.
Now that we’re speculating, why not go nuts? Kamala’s adult persona is the one whose junior version would have been most suitable for coaxing back home a headstrong man divorcing your mother before your eighth birthday. And if, before you start high school, your mother, a first-rate biomedical researcher, receives an irresistible offer from McGill University to teach and run a lab, and so pulls you and your sister out of the vibrant Berkeley school and neighborhood where you’ve made close friends, and drags you to Montreal, where nearly everyone’s white and frozen and speaks French, well… a knack for ingratiation might come in handy?
Finally, say your younger sister, Maya, turns out to be, like your mother, more introverted and bookish than you. Say she also does better than you in school, and on standardized tests. One tactical exit for your self-worth is to become even more extroverted and seek popular rather than academic affirmation by, say, joining a sorority and running for freshman class president in college.
But again: that’s speculation.
What’s not speculative is the effect Kamala’s personality had on her early political career. The domestic Harris you see now is her nerdy, middle-aged homebody incarnation, a match for Doug Emhoff, her nerdy entertainment-lawyer husband. But in her early adulthood, working as a junior prosecutor in Oakland and San Francisco, Harris had a much livelier and more glamorous social life. By age thirty, she had became one of the most popular comps on San Francisco’s High Society charity circuit. Her name began appearing in the Nob Hill Gazette, the society newsletter, and boldfaced in columns by the San Francisco Chronicle’s legendary social arbiter, Herb Caen. The slender Deputy Assistant DA appeared at dinners and galas in thousand-dollar outfits unaffordable on a prosecutor’s salary alone. Grainy photos from the Gazette show a lovely and, yes, relatable smile that stands out from the more blasé guests for its exuberance, and the note of apology: don’t hate me for being here!
As too many love pointing out, Harris gained entree to this rarefied scene in the early 1990s by dating Willie Brown. Brown, then in his late 50s, was long separated from his wife and completing an unprecedented run as California’s House Speaker and top wheeler-dealer, en route to two capstone terms as San Francisco’s mayor. The evidence suggests Kamala dated him for as little as one year, and certainly less than two. Twenty-six years after Harris broke up with Brown, their brief relationship attracts a quantity of misogynist meme-ribaldry and Puritanical blog disgust that is, let’s say, disproportionate.
The psychologist Daniel Kahneman was the first to isolate a cognitive bias he named WYSIATI: “What you see is all there is.” WYSIATI is a special danger for anti-Kamalites who learn that Kamala dated Willie Brown. Brown was, without question, very powerful, the boss in the strongest political machine in the largest state in the US. But WYSIATI leads readers more titillated than methodical to slop in details that aren’t in evidence, to support their complacent notions of Kamala’s base motives and Brown’s utterly decisive role. They start with an image that does exist, of a robust jovial Brown presiding over his wide-eyed girlfriend at a gala, and end with a caricature of Kamala as a piece of putty the older man shaped and led by sheer force of whim—all to thank her for, to quote more than one of my Twitter followers, “opening her legs.”
Store that thought, please. A deeper dive into Brown’s role will have to wait for a future File. The point here is peripheral to Brown, and concerns the young, relatable Kamala’s special aptitude for friendship and its close cousin, networking. The personality you see on stage possibly annoying you with her laugh now wasn’t perfected for cameras. It came from a private talent for ingratiation that served her marvelously as she gathered the proverbial Rolodex of high-level donors and sherpas needed to run for San Francisco DA. Her bench only deepened in the 2000s, when tech wealth took over the city and the generation of donors and politicians beholden to Brown began to fade.
The Willie Brown obsession nonetheless galvanizes right-wing Kamala detractors. Its prevalence over more substantive criticism, and the racialized or outright racist memes that keep it bumping, aren’t selling points. But the obsession with Brown is also irritating, especially for anyone who knows the story of her great San Francisco rival and “friend,” Gavin Newsom. Newsom rose to governor of California from the same Pacific Heights launchpad that boosted Kamala. But unlike the Berkeley-born Harris, Newsom had been born on that launchpad, on its very bullseye. His late father, William, was widely (and, for once, aptly) described as a “consigliere” to a billionaire: the oil-fortune heir, Gordon Getty. At a time when billionaires were rare, and $10 billion unfathomable, Gordon and his beautiful wife, Ann, presided over the de facto headquarters of a High Society-led political machine, in their Vallejo Street mansion.
While divorce and William Newsom’s imprudence, among other things, led Gavin’s mother to face financial challenges while raising him, his milieu was the most conducive one imaginable to a career in San Francisco politics. He grew up schoolmates and close friends with Billy Getty, one of Gordon’s sons. Newsom would later sell himself to voters as a successful “entrepreneur.” But it was never a secret that his first businesses were all capitalized by Gordon Getty. In the early 1990s, unproven 20-somethings in San Francisco with a decent business plan weren’t normally in a position to grab wads of investment capital. In case Gavin’s bond with Billy Getty wasn’t enough to open the taps, William Newsom was the Gettys’ chief investment adviser.
The Gettys and their set were later instrumental in placing Gavin Newsom in city government and funding his mayoral campaign. It’s hard to fathom now the singular influence the Getty circle had in those years. As a disagreeable introvert, I also can’t fathom the social energy required, at a time before social media, to will yourself into a close friendship with the likes of Billy Getty’s wife, Vanessa.
Years after Kamala broke up with Brown, she and Vanessa were still shopping for Burberry in the day and plotting Kamala’s ascent at night. Boring your way into San Francisco High Society may not be the noblest use of one’s 30s. And we may not admire the results of Kamala’s rise. But if you’re going to mount an epic social climb, for God’s sake, it shouldn’t be an end in itself. And however unpleasant it is to watch the political sausage getting made, a triumph like Harris’s is exceedingly rare. It’s not something that can be credited entirely to Willie Brown. Many young pretty things are called to the periphery of a charity circuit; few are chosen to sit on a museum board.
Gavin Newsom suffers from severe dyslexia. He struggled to graduate from high school, and even now struggles to read. This isn’t his fault, of course, but it’s the sort of thing that would stop most men from ending up governor of California. Yet somehow Newsom managed it. It’s a little too easy to picture Gavin as a handsome young jock, years before he set his sights anywhere near public office, waking up hungover at the Getty mansion, and stumbling into the kitchen to tell the chef what he’d “like.” A year or two of beneficial fun with Willie Brown was Kamala’s substitute for a Harvard degree, a friendship with Billy Getty, or a month of Instagram fame. So what? It gave her a way into politics, a full nine years before she ran for office.
KAMALA HARRIS’S LAUGH is a matter of taste, but sometimes there is accounting for taste. Her laugh divides people the way fruits with feminine perfumes do: passion fruit or guava, say. Whether or not to your taste, her laugh and the personality that generates it have deep roots, long predating her 2003 campaign for San Francisco District Attorney, and even her interest in electoral politics. She had the exceptional discipline, ambition, and drive common to other politicians, but her personality is what enabled her singular launch. Even if everyone found her laugh annoying—her fans, of course, do not—you can see why she’d be reluctant to stop laughing.
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Topics in the works include:
Kamala and the Press; Kamala’s Dramatic Monologue Mislabeled as Autobiography; Kamala’s “Evolving” Social Identity; Slow Motion Buswreck: Kamala’s 2020 campaign.
Topics planned include:
Kamala and Zombie Liberalism; Kamala’s Parents; Kamala and Weed; The Politics of Biden’s VP choice; Kamala as VP; and The Great Preview: Kamala’s First Term as California Attorney General.