As possible 2020 presidential candidates start announcing exploratory committees, there’s talk that Sen. Kamala Harris may be on the verge of launching herself into the ring.
On Tuesday, her memoir The Truths We Hold hits shelves. In it, the California Democrat ticks through her résumé and credentials, while mixing in a look at her upbringing and family life.
Harris spoke with NPR on a number of wide-ranging topics, from her mother to her views on the death penalty and the Kavanaugh hearings to whether Joe Biden would make a good president. But she didn’t commit to a presidential run herself.
Here are some highlights from the discussion.
People like you write books like this mostly when they are getting ready to launch a campaign — it’s a “get to know me on a national level.”
I have not made up my mind. There are a collection of factors to consider … they include my family, they include the need for real leadership in this country and whether I can provide that leadership. So there are a number of factors, but I will keep you posted. But I am not prepared to make any announcement at the moment.
Much of the book is framed around your mother. How does introducing her to your readers help them understand you?
My mother was a force of nature. She was somebody who really committed her life to the service of others. She is and was somebody who was incredibly smart but incredibly loving at the same time. These things coexisted with my mother. And there’s so much that I learned from her that we would call values and principals, and reason for being.
Many people will not know that your mom was an immigrant from India. Why did she come to the U.S.?
My mother was 19 when she graduated college. She wanted to study science. She went to her father, my grandfather, and my grandmother and said, “I want to go and study at one of the best schools for that.” And my grandfather, who had an arranged marriage to my grandmother, and this was in the 1950s that my mother approached them, my mother said she wanted to go and study at UC Berkeley California and my grandfather said go. And so they put her on a plane, and this is when transcontinental travel was not very common, she had never been to the United States. But my grandfather was really quite progressive, and he said to his eldest child who was his daughter, my mother: “You go and you study.”
Truth be told, I believe that the plan was that she would then get that degree and come back and have a good arranged marriage in India, but my mother being who she was, the daughter of a father who fought for India’s independence, she was naturally attracted to the civil rights movement that was exploding all over the United States — but also in the Bay Area… She became very involved in the civil rights movement, and met my father. Instead of going back to India and having an arranged marriage, she had a marriage based on love. And that really was, in many ways, an ultimate act of courage and optimism and really set in place the foundation for how I think of the world.
As you mentioned, they were both activists — met during the civil rights movement. In light of that, did you ever consider representing marginalized people as a defender? Why did you decide to be a prosecutor?
The Truths We Hold
An American Journey
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At a very young age, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. And mostly because the heroes among many of the civil rights movements were the lawyers. These individuals who understood the skill of the profession of law to translate the passion from the streets to courtrooms of our country and do the work that we know must constantly be done of reminding people of that promise we articulated in 1776, that we’re all equal and should be treated that way.
My family and extended family thought, at best, it was a curious decision and with some of them I had to defend the decision like one would a thesis.
Why did they not expect that from you?
They said, “Why would you go and be a part of an institution that is not always fair and does not always pursue justice?” Some would call it the persecutors office, not the prosecutor’s office. … Law enforcement has such a profound and direct impact on the most vulnerable among us. And there is a duty and a responsibility to be a voice for the most voiceless and vulnerable and to do the work of justice. And that’s the work I wanted to do. … It is also understanding that the victims of crime come from the same communities as those who have been treated unfairly. The victims of crime deserve a voice. I, for a while, specialized in child sexual assault cases. I’m gonna tell you, prosecuting those cases were extraordinarily difficult and some of the most important work I did.
You have been criticized by some on the left over the death penalty, for defending the death penalty. How to you explain your position?
To be clear, I am personally opposed to the death penalty. I have always been — and I remain — opposed to the death penalty. I believe for a number of reasons that it is a flawed system both in terms of the way that it has been applied historically, which is disproportionately against people of color and poor people.
But you still think there’s a place for it.
No. I don’t. But as attorney general of the state of California, I had a constitutional responsibility to represent my clients. And one of my clients happened to be the California department of corrections and the district attorneys of California who did seek, in many jurisdictions, a death penalty sentence.
Going back to the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, do you regret how that unfolded for her [Christine Blasey Ford]?
What I regret about her experience is that she was treated as though she was on trial. She was not on trial. She had done nothing wrong. … She decided that what she had known needed to be known by the decision-makers. So she reached out to her member of Congress, to make sure that those people who have the responsibility for vetting this guy knew this thing that she knew. And she wanted to remain anonymous because it was never about her. She initiated all that visited her in the ensuing months because she felt an obligation as a citizen to make sure that those who are in a position of power and responsibility had all the information.
And what ended up happening was a circus. What ended up happening was she was vilified for doing what she believed was the right thing to do. And again, having personally prosecuted sexual assault cases, I was incredibly disappointed and frustrated by the lack of information that leaders have about the nature of these kinds of issues like sexual assault. And how they treated her, I thought was regrettable and really unfortunate. And I have nothing but praise for her and her courage, including what it did, which was require people to have a national conversation about an issue that is seldom discussed — and impacts a wide range of people in all genders, in every socioeconomic background, race, religion and ethnicity.
Big picture question: Why do you think Donald Trump won?
I’ll give you a crude analysis. I mean, if we had hour upon hours, I could get into much more depth and specificity. But here’s my take on it: Over the last 10 years in our country, at least, we’ve seen an incredible amount of change — the Great Recession, the term “Great Depression” was already taken. But in America, then and today, people are literally walking around with the proverbial tin cup. Economic upheaval like we have not seen in generations. People lost their homes, they lost their jobs, many of whom will never be able to buy a home or have a permanent job again. People are reading about the browning of America and the immigrants are coming. And we had Barack Obama as president and then we had a women running as president and we had a Jew running for president and gay people can marry and: “Oh my God, Oh my God.” And then you talk about the impact of technology and automation …
There’s an incredible amount of change that has happened in a relatively short period of time, and it has understandably had a lot of people feeling displaced, wondering and asking a question about where do they fit in, their relevance, are they obsolete. I think it brings into question questions of identity. What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be a productive American? What does it mean to be a breadwinner or the leader of a household? And people are also resentful of this change and where will they fit into it and will this include them. And [Trump] read it accurately. And then he took it to the lowest common denominator. [He said] it is us versus them instead of what real leadership would be about — which is to read it and say, “Hey everybody, We’re all in this together. And my vision of the future includes you. You are in my vision of the future. We will get through this together.”
You mention in your book about your relationship with a former attorney general of Delaware, Beau Biden, who passed away a few years ago of cancer. You call him an incredible friend. Do you think his father, Joe Biden, would make a good president?
I think there are many people who would make a good president. And I got to know Joe as a person through Beau. They had an incredibly special relationship. It was really very special. I’m very fond of Joe Biden, so you’re not gonna hear me criticize Joe Biden. I think he’s a great guy.
I started with an assumption about why you wrote this book, but I’m going to end by just asking you, what did you want to communicate?
The election of November 2016 — obviously it was a national election for president, but it was also the night I was elected to the United States Senate. And as I write in the book, even just that night, which was the impetus for writing this book, I was experiencing our election and watching on the monitors this thing happen to our country. And I write about how my godson came up to me crying, “Auntie Kamala, this man can’t win.” And he was afraid. And people were afraid. And my speech, impromptu that night, was we must fight. And that there is so much worth fighting for. And I wrote the book to talk about that.
Do you think your mom would want you to run for president?
I think my mother would want me to do whatever she thought I wanted to do. My mother, I write about it in the book, when she was in the hospital — and it was when I was just starting my race for attorney general — she had, at that point, disassociated from many things. She was turning things off. She was otherwise a voracious reader and passionate. She’d scream at the TV when necessary, when some debate was happening. And she was laying with her face turning the other way so her back was where I was, because I was just spending time with her. And then she said, “Kamala, How’s the race coming along?” And I said, “Well Mommy, they say they’re gonna kick my ass.” And she turned around in the bed and looked at me with this big smile across her face — and that says it all.
Sydney Harper and Peter Granitz produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Milton Guevara adapted it for the Web.