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Frank Bruni column: The undertold, undersold story of Kamala Harris

When I saw on Wednesday morning that Kamala Harris had released a short video marking and celebrating her selection as Joe Biden’s running mate, I clicked — eagerly and instantly. I wanted to continue riding my wave of excitement about all the firsts: first woman of color on a major party’s presidential ticket, first Black woman specifically, first Asian American.

By the time I finished the video, that wave had crashed.

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OK, that’s an overstatement. But as I listened to her flat, desultory recitation of her biography and philosophy, I did feel a sense of frustration, and it was familiar. I’d wrestled with the same letdown during the Democratic primary, when the experience of Harris didn’t live up to the idea of Harris. She often skipped or skimmed over facets of her background that she would have benefited from dwelling on. She frequently zoomed past the poetry to the prose, more a steely lawyer rattling off lists than a soulful leader serving up inspiration.

Harris the prosecutor can find the holes in your argument and make you tremble. But can Harris the history-making vice-presidential candidate find the cracks in your heart and make you cry?

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That’s certainly not a requirement — most politicians not named Barack Obama fail to do that — and I’m not complaining per se. As I wrote when the news broke, her presence on the Democratic ticket makes total sense in terms of the experience that she possesses, the values that she represents and the contrast that she helps Biden draw between his politics of inclusion and Donald Trump’s politics of division.

I’m articulating a wish, one that’s tied to my belief that a decent future for this country hinges on an end to Trump’s presidency and my concern that Biden and Harris use every arrow in their quivers to defeat him. I’m venting a worry that Harris doesn’t fully use one of her arrows. She did poorly in the Democratic primary because, yes, her campaign was a mess. But she also did poorly because she never discovered the right, stirring way to tell and sell her story.

I want her to discover it on Wednesday night, when she speaks at the Democratic National Convention (or however we’re describing its virtual facsimile). I want her to hold on to it between then and Nov. 3, because I want to call her the vice president of the United States soon after that.

Although Trump would cringe at the following thought and never understand it, Harris reflects this country’s ideals and its reality much better than he does. “Her story’s America’s story,” Biden said when he and she first appeared together as running mates on Wednesday afternoon. He’s right, and I want her to embrace and flesh out that thought at every turn.

She’s the biracial daughter of immigrants: Jamaican father, Indian mother, both beckoned to this country of newcomers and transplants. Growing up in California’s Bay Area, she was bused to an elementary school in a richer, whiter neighborhood than her own, so she knows the fact of segregation and the dream of integration from the road she traveled.

She understands how families, despite their best intentions, fray. Her parents divorced, and when her mother found teaching and research work in Montreal, she moved for her middle and high school years to that largely white, French-speaking city. For college she went to Howard, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C., that allowed her to appraise America — its past, present and future — from a different vantage point. From there she forged her own path, with her own rules. She didn’t marry until she was 49. Her husband is white and Jewish and she’s a stepmother to his two children.

What a rich mix of influences: as multiracial, multiethnic and multicultural as the country in which her parents wisely invested their hopes. What a portrait of life as it’s lived, with all sorts of swerves.

In her public remarks she makes references to some of this, but they’re usually just that — references. After she mentioned school busing (“that little girl was me”) to attack Biden in a primary debate for his opposition to it, I went back and looked at the big speech that she’d given to kick off her presidential campaign. Busing was nowhere to be found. In fact her speech didn’t have all that much biographical detail, period, at least if you edited out the professional stuff. It was strikingly impersonal.

I recently read much of her memoir, “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” published shortly before that speech, and came away with the same impression. She gives you less of her history than you expect, not more. She steers away from emotion, not toward it.

Maybe that’s what a woman aiming for top jobs in a man’s world has to do. Maybe that’s even more incumbent on a woman of color. A scintilla too angry and you’re unhinged. A soupçon too misty and you’re unraveling.

It’s worth noting that when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stood in the House last month to call out the misogynistic remarks of a male colleague, she twice stressed that she was speaking from the perspective of principle, not of upset. “I want to be clear that Representative Yoho’s comments were not deeply hurtful or piercing to me,” she said, adding that she was made of tougher stuff than that. She later reiterated that she “was not deeply hurt or offended.” To be at all emotional, she had to establish that she was unemotional.

A male lawmaker wouldn’t have felt that need. John Boehner, the House speaker from 2011 to 2015, certainly didn’t: He was famous for weeping at the drop of an amendment. If Nancy Pelosi behaved as soggily, she’d be savaged.

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But in the book “The Firsts,” about the women who entered Congress in record-breaking numbers after the 2018 midterms, Jennifer Steinhauer of The Times notes that several of those newcomers did permit themselves to tear up at appropriate times — for example, when discussing an issue that had greatly affected them or their loved ones — and it came across as authentic, not weak. Maybe the world is changing for the better. Or maybe there’s more allowance for women in House seats than for women in even higher posts.

The Kamala Harris I’ve met and chatted with informally, in person, is warmer and more winning than the version I’ve watched on the stump. More transparent. More accessible.

And I saw flashes of her on Wednesday afternoon, during that appearance with Biden, when her huge smiles suggested that she couldn’t contain her exhilaration. She shouldn’t try. Her story is genuinely exhilarating.

Storytelling is everything. Trump won the presidency with a story about America that appealed to many Americans. It mixed imaginary villains with real ones, lies with truths. But he told it expansively. He told it effectively.

Obama’s rise was rooted in his own story, in the eloquence with which he spoke of Kenya and Kansas and how their commingling inside him was the American dream. I can’t count the number of times, on his path to the White House, that he put a lump in my throat.

Harris’ story is the rival of Obama’s. She just has to give it a comparably mythic shimmer. I know “that little girl” was her. But I want to know more about her, and I want to hear her voice.

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c.2020 New York Times News Service

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