Ryan: Kamala Harris and the wheels on the bus

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This fall, I saw Kamala Harris 20-odd times, and wrote five stories about her, because she was on fire. By the time I finished the stories, she had begun a nosedive that finally made contact a few days ago with the suspension of her 2020 presidential bid. I've released one of the stories already, an account of what was one of the most magical moments in my reporting, this is the second. May the other three rest easy.

Acrobats leapt around the padded floors of world-renowned Chow's Gymnastics and Dance Institute in West Des Moines, an affluent suburb of Des Moines that once belonged to the Sac Tribe.

Half-a-mile away, Kamala Harris was rousing a crowd.

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Photo by Sean Ryan

People of all ages had jammed into this marble-floor rotunda, the colonnaded hub of Valley Southwoods Freshman High School. Something like the Ancient Greek agora, the open area where everyone gathered.

Harris is a lifelong performer. As a girl, she sang in the church choir. As a teenager, she traveled to different community centers, to talent shows and fundraisers, as part of a six-person dance troupe.

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Now, she is not a dancer so much as a boxer or a chess player or, better yet, a big game hunter with a collection of heads, the newest of which is, oddly, her own.

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She doddled across the makeshift stage, between a pillar inscribed with the word "Gratitude" and one that said "Attitude."

At one point, her microphone went out like a mic-drop, and she shouted, "Next question" then everybody laughed.

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Then the next microphone went out. So she spoke without a microphone, with a determined look that said "All right, Kamala, prove to them you can think quickly, in a charming, down-to-earth way."

People got quiet, leaned forward. Occasionally they laughed in unison. Sometimes they clapped.

Within two minutes she had a new microphone, but by then people had grown accustomed to her softer voice.

She grinned vigorously. She was the dangling punchline that people skipped the joke for.

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They were like worshippers and she was their pagoda. She spoke facing a pillar that said Loyalty.

In the parking lot, her purple-dominant bus with the words "FOR THE PEOPLE" emblazoned along one side, and "HARRIS" on the other. Above it all, a trenching blue radiated the sky, dappled here and there with cottonballs, feathered topiaries. It was barely 80 degrees.

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Photo by Sean Ryan

"We need a new Commander in Chief," she shouted, in the crowded high school. Everybody loved that one. The confidence. The certainty. The boldness. The wild and soft look to her eyes. Almost bravado. Almost arrogance. Maybe it was the look of a leader. Quite possibly the stare of Mark Antony or Napoleon Bonaparte, Che Guevara or Margaret Thatcher, Cleopatra or Queen Victoria. The nestled glare of power, real power, bolstered by the natural ability to make it hers.

Then the crowd started chanting.

Ka!

Mall!

Ah!

Ka!

Mall!

Ah!

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As she does in nearly every speech, Harris talked about her "3a.m. agenda." It's an important question, one that every candidate ought to be asking. What keeps us up at night, as people, as ordinary Americans?

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Photo by Sean Ryan

Between thoughts she stopped, pointed to her husband. "Hi, Doug," smiling.

And the people cheered!

The tear-jerker of her stump speech was about how her first grade teacher believed in her. Believed in her so much that she attended Harris' high school graduation.

Every time she said the line about believing in children, people cooed. Several women put their hands over their hearts and sighed.

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Photo by Sean Ryan

It helps that's she was saying this at a high school. If she stuck to education maybe people would forget the slew of tiny controversies she's attracted over the years.

Then they laughed when she followed it with the quip about how we were maybe not as special as we thought.

Sometimes she laughed along with them.

"We need action," she often said. "We need action. We need action."

Then she said, "we don't lack ideas." Then she did the thing where she complimented her fellow candidates. Then she talked about what she will do as President. Then she said, "it's time to act."

The high school graduation rate in Iowa is 88 percent, 17 percent above the national average. Iowa also boasts the nation's highest literacy rate.

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Photo by Sean Ryan

"In the America we believe in," she said, and people listened deeply. She repeated the phrase like it was a line in a Walt Whitman poem. "In the America we believe in … In the America we believe in …" It was one of the most compelling parts of a compelling stump speech.

Her eyes got misty, and she said, "By our very nature, we are aspirational."

When she spoke, she incited deep emotions within the audience. Her audience. Nobody was keeping quiet. Not after that rally. They only spoke when Harris was not speaking, as if maybe she knew what they wanted to say.

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Photo by Sean Ryan

She apportioned blame to Trump himself. She's called Trump a "predator," citing her work prosecuting sexual deviants as proof of her expertise in handling those types.

"He didn't pull the trigger," she said. "But he certainly tweeted out the ammunition."

She was calling Trump a racist before the rest of the candidates had caught onto the punchiness of the accusation.

Kamala Harris Calls Donald Trump A Racist, Calls for Decriminalization of Sex Work

www.youtube.com

Now, she was fired up. Unlike the day before, she was yelling her points. All her quiet voice was gone. The Kamala aggressiveness fully on display.

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The other words on pillars around the circular room:

Self Control

Respect

Compassion

Empathy

Courage.

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Photo by Sean Ryan

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Harris had given a spectacular performance. Her fourth rally that day. And immediately after, she would be speaking at Jasper Winery, where she'd display yet more of her prowess. So underhanded and petty, vicious and caustic, combative and clever. It was a joy to watch, like a good boxing match.

White button-up shirts, khaki jeans, and black Converse All-Stars with black laces. A stamped golden necklace.

She slowly paced the stage with somber control.

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The day before, in Fort Dodge, Iowa, she was a different person, mostly.

"Hi, what's your name," she asked. Then she turned, smiling, "I feel like Oprah."

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Photo by Sean Ryan

Kamala Harris, who turned 55 in October, made tiny silly quips like this all the time.

It was 5:00 p.m., and Harris had started late because her tour bus maxes at 55 mph, and everywhere she goes, people want her time.

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Photo by Sean Ryan

Now, a fresh crowd had gathered in the band room of Fort Dodge Middle School. Mostly middle-aged. In t-shirts or blouses and cargo shorts or khakis or jeans. Packed room, all seats taken, people slanting along the walls.

Harris often refers to children as "our babies." At the middle school, in a room full of teachers and patient-eyed children, she leaned on the phrase even harder than usual.

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During the Q&A, a kid in a Washington Redskins Jersey raised his hand. Harris quickly seized on the opportunity.

"I'm a rising 5th grader," the boy said. People laughed because it's funny when kids say stupid things with an elegant timbre. He did not laugh, because most kids don't realize how cruel life can be so we adults needlaughter. He asked, could Harris imagine what school was like for him, with all these shootings and mass shooting drills and all that fear all the time?

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Photo by Sean Ryan

Consensus was, "Ouch" and "Our country? It's in trouble." Then the entire room turned to Harris. She had the messiah look. Yet another of Harris' looks that deeply spooked my dad.

"I was from you to me away from her," he said. "To the side of the stage. And I swear that she had a tear at the edge of her eye the whole time. She could have let it fall at any moment."

She's telegenic, photogenic. In 2013, then-President Obama took heat for describing Harris as "best-looking attorney general in the country." She knows how to turn a phrase. She knows how to go viral. If anything, she has mastered these talents a little too well. At times it's like she's an actress, the way she can control her affect and emotions, aware of each shifting muscle and arched smile.

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The boy in the Redskins jersey gawked at Harris as she told him that she had answers to his heart-rending question.

Politically, Harris showed an incredible amount of charm. She played the role of mother. Because that's the job she was vying for. The ultimate big momma. The lady in charge. The matriarch of the world.

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Photo by Sean Ryan

"We judge a society by how it treats its children," she said.

She is good with kids. Doesn't have any of her own. Two step-kids. They call her their "Momala."

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A row bass drums stacked on cabinets looked like a herd of wooly mammoths, facing the table behind a row of ferns. The acoustics in that room were perfect. Designed to capture every musical sound in its purest form.

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Photo by Sean Ryan

This environment lended itself perfectly to any pauses and music. It was sultry in that middle school bandroom, about 86 degrees. Made hotter by the studio lights facing the table and the media with all their cameras and recorders and laptops. The floor was a snake pit of extension cords and outlets and cables. At both sides of the room, skyhook light-rigs like you see on movie sets.

The room cooled down within a few minutes of Harris's opening lines.

On the wall, laminated posters advised us to "Be Kind. Be Responsible. Be Safe. Be Respectful." Each imperative had a long-winded explanation. If you went to school in America you know the kind of wacky font the poster had, and the background full of neon shapes right out of the 1980s. How did advice so often turn into that? Into trite, uncool attempts at what? inspiration? Weren't these the same truisms and half-phrases that politicians used? A good thing, overall, this desire to improve the world. But was there a reason that the posters were rarely updated?

"Be Kind," we tell children on repeat. "Be Responsible, Be Safe, Be Respectful." And here was this kid asking about mass shooting drills.

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Harris was far more composed in person than during, say, the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings. You remember those? That was long, long ago, maybe a year. The hearings were where most people first encountered Harris, captivated or annoyed by her dramatic and at times ruthless performances.

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Photo by Sean Ryan

This is part of her divide. Her duality. Commentators often hint at it, but they struggle to capture its allure. In person, you can feel it. A shawoman in punk rock sneakers. For some reason, she reminded me of the character Circe, from Homer's Odyssey,who turns Odysseus' men to swine and, well, does other stuff.

Elected to Senate in 2016, she has approached her job on the Senate Judiciary Committee with the same toughness that made her a formidable prosecutor. And she operates with that belligerent style.

Like when she roasted former Attorney General Jeff Sessions so ruthlessly that he got flustered.

Many on the left label her a cop, as pointed out by the Atlantic in the article "When Kamala was a Top Cop."

More subtly, the New Yorker described her as a law-and-order Democrat. Another way to say it is that she has a lot of experience at the highest levels of law enforcement in the country. Rebecca Young, a senior trial attorney in the San Francisco public defender's office, told the New Yorker, "Much of what [Harris] says is driven by political expediency, and that's why it becomes difficult to trust. We know she advocated for high bails around guns, drugs — around everything, frankly, but misdemeanors."

Tulsi Gabbard went straight for the jugular during the second Democratic debate:

Senator Harris says she's proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she'll be a prosecutor president. But I'm deeply concerned about this record. There are too many examples to cite but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana. She blocked evidence -- she blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California.She was referring to comments that Harris made during February, 2019 appearance on "The Breakfast Club" radio show.

"What were you listening to when you was high?" Charlamagne Tha God asked her. "What was on? What song was on?"

"Was it Snoop?" DJ Envy asked.

"Yeah, definitely Snoop," Harris laughed. "Tupac for sure."

This itself has provoked controversy. If Harris graduated in 1989Snoop Dogg's debut, "Doggystyle," came out in 1993. Tupac's "2Pacalypse Now" came out in 1991.

After the backlash, Charlamagne Tha God and DJ Envy appeared on MSNBC to defend Harris

I mean, we wanted to humanize her, not just talk about politics, talk about what she likes, what she does," DJ Envy said. "And I asked what she listens to and she said she listens to Snoop Dogg and Tupac at the same time my co-host was still talking about the marijuana and it was just a funny exchange but she was actually answering me and people took it that she was answering Charlamagne and said she was lying, which was not true.Problem was, as a D.A., however, Harris had been staunchly against marijuana legalization.

Harris' father — who emigrated from Jamaica for graduate school — also took issue with the Breakfast Club interview.

Specifically, her answer to the question about does she smoke pot. "Half my family's from Jamaica," she said. "Are you kidding me?"

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The woman who introduced Harris said, "My biggest motivation around Senator Harris is that she genuinely cares about people. And not to say that we all don't care about people. But she cares about people in such a way that is gonna move this country forward."

I was learning that, almost every time, the person who introduced the candidates overdoes the whole "I trust this candidate because they truly care about people."

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Harris wore the affect of a careful listener. When she asked a question she'd lower the mic onto the table. Then she'd follow up with a well-crafted answer. Stories that got to the point. Numbered arguments.

Strategic or not, it was admirable. Here she was, a Senator running for the Presidency, and she's asking local special ed teachers questions. Not the other way around.

Although her body language would decline as the campaign continues, it was obvious that she was well-trained in her physical cues, like all the candidates. Except Marianne Williamson. It's the hands. And the affect. And Bernie, of course. Because he doesn't seem to care about surface appearances.

And Yang, sort of. He has body language that isn't political in the slightest, most often with charming effect. Like how, in the Spin Room after the Houston debate, anytime someone interviewed him, he shook their hand. He also flings his arms around like the rapper YG, or many of the other L.A. gangsta rappers from the 1990s. Stiff, yet incredibly confident.

Harris is mostly quiet about her father. He, in turn, has dealt a couple of very public attacks on Harris' character and her lineage, including an article he posted on Jamaica Global Online, claiming that her paternal grandfather owned slaves in Jamaica.

Summers, she and Maya visited their father in Palo Alto, California, home to Stanford University and part of Silicon Valley. The neighbors' children weren't allowed to play with Harris and Maya because they were black.

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Her mother's family was a member of the Brahmin class, at the top of the caste system. Both of her parents are academics, so she grew up around activists and academics. As she artfully pointed out during the second Democratic Debate, she was bussed to kindergarten as a young girl.

During her Ft. Dodge speech, in the middle school band room, Harris didn't talk about Trump at all. She mentioned her fellow candidates. But she did it with civility, complimenting them. Maybe she took a potshot at Biden. Didn't matter. She was too relaxed for it to come across as offensive.

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Photo by Sean Ryan

At several points, she had everyone's attention. Even the media. Even the bored men and women behind station-logoed cameras. In part because she tells a good story.

As soon as she finished, people suctioned toward Harris. They doted. They would have juggled claymores for a chance to say a few sentences to Harris, who kept asking her aides out the side of her mouth, "How's the bus situation? The bus ready?"

She had to jaunt 88 miles north to Clear Lake for Wing Ding at the Surf Ballroom, only able to go 55mph. But the line of people seemed barely to move at all. Seemed to be growing even, somehow. Harris hid a worried look. Smiled for the voters. Smiled for the selfies and the group shots and the jokes she's heard so many times before.

Across the street, a chubby 10-year-old-boy revved around his yard on a go-kart. He spilled into the road, laughing as he did donuts, sending exhaust and rubber into the air.

Next Monday is the final installment of "Field of Dreams," part one of my 2020 election series. I'll pick back up again mid-January, with a unique angle building into the Iowa Caucuses. For updates on any other work, check out my website and my Twitter. Send all ideas, corrections, notes, or hate-mail to kryan@mercurystudios.com. Thanks for reading.

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