It’s now a staple of conservative media: Vice President Kamala Harris speaks in batty, confused loops. Her words float from mouth to sky, where they mass into fluffy shapes that hazily resemble meaning. Choice excerpts from her speeches circulate, like this one, delivered on April 25 at Howard University: “I think it’s very important, as you have heard from so many incredible leaders, for us, at every moment in time, and certainly this one, to see the moment in time in which we exist and are present, and to be able to contextualize it, to understand where we exist in the history and in the moment, as it relates not only to the past but the future.”
Last year, Fox News compiled a year-end best-of list of similar clips. Harris, the story goes, is pathologically incoherent, cringingly inept at best and perhaps, at worst, somehow impaired. This is a marked reputational shift for a former attorney general who, a few years ago, enjoyed the image of an incisive, prosecutorial figure, conducting hard-nosed questioning in Senate hearings.
The vice president’s critics have not exactly fabricated, ex nihilo, the notion that she chops language into what they call “word salads.” Lines like the one from Howard are not indecipherable — you can catch her drift — but political speech tends to have failed as soon as “deciphering” enters the picture. The cloudiness of the words, the way they double back and needlessly reiterate already-gauzy ideas: These do scan as the habits of a rambler, not a fearsome lawyer or deft policy communicator. And these moments do often occur when the occasion demands that Harris say something general, something abstractedly optimistic, personable or solemn; it’s as though her sentences, dissatisfied with fulfilling merely ceremonial duties, begin flailing around in a doomed search for profundity.
Other videos tell a more complicated story. Some of the clips in Harris’s catalog of supposed gaffes are in fact intentional wordplay, or momentary slips of the tongue, or the kind of verbal spew that, if you were not in the business of aggregating evidence of her supposed incompetence, would not register as newsworthy. Consider these lines from March: “During Women’s History Month, we celebrate and honor the women who made history, throughout history — who saw what could be, unburdened by what had been.” (In print, uncharitably punctuated, this might raise an eyebrow, but Harris’s pauses make her intentions clear.) In another clip that came in for derision, Harris’s only mistake seems to have been repeating the word “gumbo” more than you’d expect in a conversation about gumbo. Last year she took flak for describing herself, at the start of a meeting, as “a woman sitting at a table wearing a blue suit” — which seems less odd once you learn that she was speaking about the anniversary of the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act and seeking to accommodate visually impaired people.
That partisans pick through their opponents’ public appearances for embarrassing moments is hardly a revelation. What’s fascinating about the particular embarrassment pinned on Harris is how much it feels like the recurring story of the office itself. A vice president makes countless public appearances that will be mostly ignored unless something humiliating happens — something that serves to make him or her look like the hapless lightweight who symbolizes an entire administration’s ineptitude. George H.W. Bush’s young vice president, Dan Quayle, is remembered for misspelling “potato” on camera. Joe Biden’s reputation as a gaffe-prone goofball fully ripened into a persona under Barack Obama. Mike Pence, whom Donald Trump once described as “straight from central casting” for V.P.s, spent much of his term pegged as a self-abasing lackey; Al Gore was called a droning dweeb. The main recent exception to the comic-V.P. arrangement simply reversed the roles: George W. Bush, with his own malapropisms, could be seen as infantile in part because Dick Cheney was imagined as the menacing puppeteer who actually ran things. This is the cartoon of the office: an abject position whose proximity to power only disempowers its occupant, who must defer to the president on all substantive matters while handling a portfolio of intractable issues like, in Harris’s case, the Central American migrant crisis.
If Harris is searching for an inspirational V.P. story, she needn’t look far. Biden’s time in the office actually helped burnish a goofy charm; he was seen not just as folksy or avuncular but, in some corners, paradoxically cool. (The Onion spent those years crafting a satirical version of him as a guy who might be found in a White House driveway, shirtless, in jean shorts, washing a Trans Am.) This image surely made it harder, during his 2020 presidential run, to tar him as a frightening extremist; instead he was called senile or weak, manipulated by radicals. The idea of him as a Machiavellian mastermind would actually thrive on the left, in the internet meme of “Dark Brandon,” a laser-eyed president with underestimated reserves of power.
Harris, infamously described by Biden as a “work in progress,” seems unlikely to follow a similar path — though if you squint and know where to look, you might see glimmers of it. In some niche internet circles, the clownish image of her has given rise to its obverse: a relatably addled figure of half-ironic adoration. This is the woman seen, in some clips, singing “Wheels on the Bus” at a campaign vehicle and then cackling with laughter, or gushing about Venn diagrams. One Twitter user racked up likes by positing that her meandering sentences resemble the dense philosophy of Friedrich Hegel.
But this remains a far cry from her tenure as an imperious Senate figure. Therein lies the problem: She does “prosecutorial” better than “endearing cartoon.” In a viral eight-minute clip from 2019, she was said, in the exaggerated parlance of televisual conflict, to have “demolished” Attorney General William Barr during a Senate hearing following the publication of the Russian-interference report by Robert Mueller, the special counsel. “Has the president, or anyone at the White House, ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone?” she opens. “It seems you’d remember something like that and be able to tell us,” she prompts. She speaks pointedly, directly, repeating herself only for emphasis. In clips like this, she seems to thrive on confrontation, on pursuing opponents until they’re the ones grasping for a cogent response.
But the vice presidency is not a position that affords opportunities to grill adversaries, and the tepid language of public engagements — paragraphs left out overnight and brought dutifully to work for reheating — seems not to suit her. (“I find it off-putting to just engage in platitudes,” she said in one interview with The Times; that shows.) She can struggle, as well, to deliver concrete answers to journalists. In 2022, asked by Craig Melvin of NBC News if it was time to change Covid policy, she responded that it was “time for us to do what we have been doing, and that time is every day. Every day, it is time for us to agree that there are things and tools that are available to us to slow this thing down.” Fielding such questions is part of the job; Harris, it can seem, might rather be asking them. Her supporters have often advocated a simple fix: Let Kamala be Kamala. Being vice president may make that difficult.
Opening illustration: Source photographs by Ethan Miller/Getty Images; Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images.
The post Why Are the Language Police Obsessed With Vice Presidents? appeared first on New York Times.