Third-time-lucky Joe Biden is set to become president of the United States and Kamala Harris, his vice president, is on the cusp of breaking the political glass ceiling as the first woman and one of African and Indian descent to potentially occupy the high office.
It’s all history-making but the country is split down the middle with nearly 70 million voters saying they wanted another term for Donald Trump. Biden is the anti-Trump — he wasn’t born with a silver dinner service in his mouth, didn’t go to Harvard or Wharton, and didn’t schmooze with the New York elite. He actually has friends among regular people as countless personal stories certify, including many from Indian Americans. In the winter of 2016, when Trump won the presidency, to the shock of the Democratic establishment, Biden was vice president. He opened the doors of the mansion to Indian Americans for a Diwali party to cheer them up.
Fast forward to 2020 and he chooses a woman running mate with Indian heritage. Harris, with her hearty laughter and dancing shoes, represents the diversity of today’s America. Born to an Indian mother, Shyamala Gopalan, and a Jamaican father, Donald Harris, Kamala navigated a complicated landscape along with her mother. The African American community accepted Gopalan readily as one of their own. Not sure if the Indian American community of those days did, even though they were in California heaven.
Harris didn’t always emphasise her mixed background growing up, and understandably so. Trying to belong is hard enough and this was before identity politics was a thing. Many of her friends didn’t even know of her Indian side, or so they told The Washington Post.
Race and Dosa
Her heritage shouldn’t become an obsession either in India or in America. But it has and she too has indulged in some identity politics — cooking dosas with Indian American celebrities or “slaying” Trump as Goddess Durga, thanks to her overactive niece Meena Harris.
Some Hindu Americans kicked up a storm and young Meena quickly deleted the tweet. Did she know that Indian politicians routinely retail themselves as gods they played on screen? Actually, it’s Biden who should have been upset because he was a mere “vahana” for Kamala in the meme. A couple of weeks after the episode, he introduced himself as “Jill’s husband and Kamala’s running mate.” It was a fun coincidence.
How well would the Biden-Harris partnership work? We don’t know much except that Biden is a consummate politician, much more experienced than her and he can make it work. Biden will have the hardest job in the evening of his life — he is 77. It’s a job that arguably requires many presidents working one after another along the same lines — to bring the two angry halves of America together. Biden is known to go across the aisle to make friends and deals with Republicans.
Perhaps, the Democrats did choose the right candidate this time around. He has united the party behind him for a while. After 47 years in the corridors of Washington, he was also the one nominee who could and did reach out to Harris. A presidential aspirant herself, she had skewered him during the primaries. And to ask her to be his running mate over the objections of his campaign advisers? That’s Biden — a smart politician and a nice guy. But a year is a long time in politics and that’s what it took for foes to turn friends and running mates.
To be honest, the Biden-Harris combo wasn’t a natural one, not like ketchup and mustard on a Big Mac or idli-sambhar on a banana leaf. They were like chalk and chocolate. Think back to June last year and the opening night of the first Democratic debate when Harris tore into Biden and how. Both were competing to be the presidential nominee along with 20 others. It was a jungle of competitors. Harris did get the headlines for a brief moment when, as the younger and biracial aspirant, she attacked Biden — the oldest white male on stage — on the question of race.
Harris confronted him for praising segregationist senators and opposing busing of black schoolchildren to integrate public schools. “There was a little girl in California…and she was bused to school every day. That little girl was me,” came the arrow from the quiver of a former prosecutor, pointed and on target. Biden stumbled and his campaign was livid. Clearly shaken, Uncle Joe touted his record on civil rights. But it was clear he was struggling. Gathering his ammunition, Biden took a jab at the fiery Harris and told her she should have been a public defender instead of a prosecutor. The subtext was her controversial record as California’s attorney general vis-à-vis the African American community. Was Harris genuine and reacting on the spot? Not really. It seemed more like a planned intervention because almost instantly her campaign tweeted a photo of Harris as a schoolgirl. She needed a breakout moment and shine during the primaries. Harris is known for creating “moments” for television.
The five minutes of fame soon subsided and Harris faltered, bowing out of the presidential primaries last December because of lack of funds and a message that went all over the place. As Biden’s improbable rise as the Democratic Party nominee became real earlier this year, and a pandemic loomed, Harris kept herself busy being a US senator. She flexed her legal chops, raising tough questions during Trump’s impeachment hearings. She maintained her profile in the media.
Biden kept riding on, slowly demolishing lefty rivals (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren), and centrist whippersnappers (Pete Buttigieg, Andrew Yang) to emerge as the old, wise man of the pack. Along the way, he promised to pick a woman as his running mate. After a summer of social justice protests, it seemed politically savvy to ask a Black woman. His most important African American supporters hinted pretty much it had to be so.
Many were in the running but Harris made the final cut because she had been vetted, had a profile, was smart and being of mixed heritage, would appeal to both Blacks and Indian Americans. But imagine the call from Biden to Harris — it couldn’t have been easy especially because some of his closest aides hadn’t forgiven her for the debate incident.
But Biden did ask Harris to be his VP and she accepted.
She brought much-needed fizz and “colour” to the ticket, Biden being older and forgetful. The Trump people blasted him as cognitively challenged throughout the campaign. But he managed with a fumble here and stumble there. Bidenisms are like Bushisms — sometimes funny, sometimes appalling and always avoidable.
This was Biden’s third and last bid for the top job after failed attempts in 1988 and 2008. The first drowned in allegations of plagiarism and the second in “no traction” when he got only 1% of the Iowa Caucus vote — the test aspirants must pass with better grades.
Fast forward to 2020, and Biden has already clocked 79 million votes and counting — the most for any presidential candidate ever. Take that Barack Obama, a part of Biden is probably saying to himself! Yes, the Obama-Biden pairing was scratchy and full of power plays by Obama’s very controlling inner circle.
Obama and his aides calculated everything by data and focus groups. They had no patience for Biden’s “gut politics” and his undisciplined mouth. They kept him caged to a tight programme, which he resented but never showed. They even contemplated replacing him in 2012 with Hillary Clinton and they blocked him from meeting donors for a possible 2016 bid. Biden was incensed, his friends told reporters plugged into the charmed circle. But he endured.
Biden’s Republican colleague and friend Senator John McCain once said, “Joe never stopped wanting to be president.” And that’s true but not necessarily because of pure, brutal ambition so common in Washington, but because of some inherent drive to keep on going in the face of constant personal tragedy. Biden had lost his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015, a shock that partially prevented a run in 2016. He lost his first wife Neilia and infant daughter Naomi in a car accident in 1972 after a storybook romance and a happy marriage. His two sons survived and Biden was suddenly a single father, a widower and a senator — in that order. The stories of how he traveled by train between Washington DC and Wilmington, Delaware, everyday so he could kiss his sons good night and make breakfast for them in the morning before setting off again are legend. Biden became friends with many ticket conductors on his route, often getting involved in their personal lives.
Biden married a second time in 1977 after his younger brother set him up to meet Jill Jacobs, who was nine years younger. He reportedly proposed to her five times before she agreed. A professor of English and an avid runner, she looked after his young sons Beau and Hunter and became the anchor of the family. They have a daughter Ashley.
When Biden was vice president, Jill Biden continued teaching, becoming the first Second Lady to maintain a full-time job. It seems she will continue to teach even as First Lady. The Bidens have met for a couple of dinners with Harris and her husband Douglas Emhoff, a lawyer, so all parties can get to know each other, the pandemic being a constraining factor. Emhoff campaigned enthusiastically for Kamala, gaining confidence as he went along.
Once the vote count and legal challenges of the 2020 election are behind them, Harris and Emhoff will move into the vice presidential mansion the Bidens once occupied as the Bidens move up the ladder to the White House.
Disclaimer: The article was written before the US election results.