December 11, 2023

Immigration Marriage

Feel Good With Immigration

Kamala Harris, a Very Turbulent Year in America, and the Challenge of Being First

When Vice President Kamala Harris learned the Supreme Court had reversed Roe, eliminating a constitutional right to an abortion and a half century of precedent, she quickly called her husband. “I was like, they bleep did it,” she recalled in an interview this week in her ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive building. “I was so upset,” she added. “I first had to release that feeling in an appropriate place, and then my team, we just roundtabled around what we need to do and what this means. I was actually on my way to a maternal mortality event, and the connection between these two issues is profound. The same people jumping up and down as proponents of Dobbs [have] been virtually silent on the fact that women in America are dying every day in connection with childbirth.”

The Dobbs decision, in June, was one of the most crucial moments of Harris’s historic term as vice president, which began in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021, attacks and is now approaching the midway point, a time to reflect on challenges and accomplishments, such as the passing of the Respect for Marriage Act—a bill that became more urgent in light of Clarence Thomas threatening same-sex marriage rights while striking down Roe. “The same people who are attacking reproductive rights are the same people who are attacking voting rights,” said Harris. “Which was in many ways the impetus for the beautiful occasion we had here.” At last week’s White House signing ceremony, Harris told the celebratory crowd that “because you made your voices heard, marriages are more secure and Joe Biden is our president.”

Sitting across from Harris had me thinking about how I’ve devoted a good deal of my life to analyzing how the media, and Americans more generally, treat powerful women. And here is the most powerful woman—quite literally one heartbeat away from the presidency. She is the first female, first Black and first South Asian American vice president. But before that, she was the first female district attorney in San Francisco and first female attorney general of California. “In this year of our Lord 2022, it is a shame that we are still making firsts,” Harris said, recalling how her mother would say that while she “may be the first to do many things,” she should make sure she’s not the last. “That’s why it is very important to me to make sure that I create a path and widen the path for others,” she said.

But despite such achievements, it occurs to me during our interview that the vice president of the United States is actually trying to make me feel comfortable. Perhaps it’s a function of the world we all inhabit, but the female vice president is way friendlier and more accommodating than a man in her position would ever be. There is an anxiety in her office—the staff is obsessive about getting every last detail right. No one says it to me explicitly, but you can sense in the carefulness and precision of every word and gesture that the success of the vice president is about more than just her. Harris is saddled with the burden of being first. Anything she does will attract more scrutiny, anything she doesn’t do will attract more scorn. There is a tension that permeates the world surrounding her. Being first is never comfortable.

And yet, Harris seems relaxed as we get chatting, starting off with some small talk about wedding photography, of all things, as well as feminism, which led me to mention that my mom is the writer Erica Jong. “That’s your mom?” she said. “Nobody tells me anything around here!” In the course of the interview, we discussed persistent challenges, like immigration, Democrats’ success in the midterms, and her relationship with Biden, along with apparently one more first: how she and husband Doug Emhoff, who is Jewish, placed a mezuzah at the entry of the vice-presidential residency at the Naval Observatory.

While the Dobbs decision sent shock waves through the nation, it didn’t come as a complete surprise. Harris recalled how she was slated to speak to EMILY’s List in early May, an event that occurred the night after Politico reported on a leaked draft decision indicating the conservative majority on the court was poised to strike down the landmark ruling. “I just gave a pretty spontaneous speech, saying, ‘How dare they?’” Harris said. “In terms of just an expression of the outrage I think we all felt.”

But I wanted to know if she saw the fall of Roe coming. I expected that after the Supreme Court failed to act on SB8 (the bill that banned abortion after about six weeks in the state of Texas) that she might have assumed Roe would be overturned. “You brace for any major catastrophe. I think it’s human nature that we retained some element of hope that this couldn’t happen because it would be so awful if it did. That’s how I think about this issue, that it couldn’t happen because I’m acutely aware of how many people will be hurt in a significant way if it did. That was kind of just mentally and emotionally where I was, which is eyes open that it could happen, but also believing this can’t happen. Then, of course, when the leaked decision came down, that was it.”

The former prosecutor pulled opinions related to Roe and started strategizing. “In that opinion, shocking but not shocking, that Justice Clarence Thomas said the quiet part out loud—that marriage, that right to contraception was very much at risk.” (Thomas’s concurring opinion also raised concerns the court could target sodomy laws.) Since Harris had experience as a state AG, where she helped beat back Califorina’s 2008 proposed same-sex marriage ban Propostion 8, she was quick to turn to the states, telling me how governors had been partners with the Biden administration when it came to reproductive health, such as Massachusetts’s Charlie Baker and Wisconsin’s Tony Evers, who’s “going to veto what he has to, he’s going to do it right.”

The fall of Roe triggered a near-total abortion ban in Wisconsin based on a 173-year-old law which Evers spoke out against while running for reelection. His four-point victory in Wisconsin, where Republican Ron Johnson also won reelection, was “unbelievable,” I remarked. “He won by being boring.

“That’s exactly right,” said Harris. “That was part of it.”

Then Harris stepped back. “You talked about your mom. I grew up a child of the Civil Rights Movement, and a big part of the methodology and the success of that movement was coalition-building, bringing folks together to understand what they have in common.” Since the court was sending abortion rights to the states, she said, “we need to get out of DC and go and support and be with leaders in the states. I convened state legislators in red states and blue states to one, remind them they weren’t out here fighting alone, but to also see what I could do, to bring my platform and whatever cameras and voice I could bring, to uplift and highlight the incredible work that they’re doing at a state level.”