By Sue Schechter, Berkeley Law
The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, by Kamala Harris, Penguin Books, 2019
Kamala’s Way: An American Life, by Dan Morain, Simon & Schuster, 2021
Having lived and worked in the SF/Bay Area since 1990, I make no claim to be objective about Vice-President Kamala Harris. While I never had the good fortune to cross paths or work directly with VP Harris, I have known a good handful of people who have – and she does have loyal friends, fans and colleagues. And quite honestly, while I always wished she were more progressive on criminal justice issues and did more on the left-side of the spectrum, I realized I knew little about her background, her values, and her motivations before she became our U.S. Senator in 2017.
Having just finished my second book about VP Harris, I can honestly say I am a fan now. I am guessing we are all realistic enough to understand why she took the path she did to get to where she is now and I know we are all excited to see what she will be able to do to make progress on racial, economic, and criminal justice issues, to name just a few issues we can only hope she will work on.
For my Field Placement Workshop class, we ask the students to pick a biography and this spring. Several students picked her autobiography – The Truths We Hold, and one student picked Kamala’s Way, written by a California-based journalist who covered issues for the LA Times and the Sacramento Bee. The students use the book as a jumping off point to reflect on the lawyers in their books, the lawyers and legal work in their placements, and themselves. It has been a fun and revealing exercise to see what books they pick and what they glean and relate to (and not) from the books – and I loved when one student compared their supervisor to Nelson Mandela – you cannot beat that! (Happy to share on that exercise, if anyone is interested).
I started with The Truths We Hold and I loved it – I plowed through in a couple of evenings. Given that it was a political autobiography written by someone who clearly wanted more than a U.S. Senator seat, I thought it was well-written, inspiring, and each chapter addressed a different current issue – immigration, health care, housing/banks, criminal justice and more. She had some great and strong quotes in there, including (this is just one I picked, but there are many):
“One thing we must do is take on, head-on, the racial bias that operates throughout our criminal justice system. And that effort starts with our stating clearly and unequivocally that black lives matter – and speaking truth about what that means.” (p. 68/paperback)
While you learn some about her personal background – mostly about her mother and what an amazing strong woman and role model she was – I was eager to learn more. She does touch on meeting, courting, and marrying her current partner – Doug Emhoff, the Second Gentleman, and other members of her family. And as if the world were not a small enough place, she talks about mentoring an up and coming criminal justice advocate who was referred to her by a Career Services colleague (when do Law Career Services folks ever get a shout out in a major NY Times bestseller!) – Venus Johnson, and coincidentally and wonderfully, I finished the book the day before she came to one of my law school’s courses to talk about her path and her views on criminal justice to inspire the next generation of law students to pursue public service!
Dan Morain’s book, Kamala’s Way, is arguably more ‘objective,’ and it was helpful to read in conjunction with her autobiography, although I was struck by how many times he quoted VP Harris from her own book. I guess he thought it was best to use her own words. Mr. Morain may not have been as impressed as others about VP Harris’ political nature and he seemed to think there were issues she could have been more forceful and less forceful about – but it was clear that even he had a respect for her desire to serve without ever questioning her motivations. It was interesting to read about something in VP Harris’ autobiography and then to see how Mr. Morain spun it in a different, albeit less personal way.
Several chapters do weave in stories about her personal life and he makes a point to highlight something she does out of the press’ limelight to recognize or support someone in her circle – and calls it Kamala’s way. I thought it was certainly worth reading, but I think it is was enhanced because I had just finished her autobiography. To his credit, Mr. Morain provided some great political and historical context for California politics and the issues that VP Harris has worked on – on a regional, statewide, and in the end national (and even international) level.
I finished both books with a real belief that VP Kamala Harris is a true public servant – motivated solely by her caring for people – and wanting to make the world a better place for children, for families, for communities, and more. Given what we have just lived through (and continue to live through), these books were a refreshing re-centering of being able to see and hold up government officials who pursue their path to empower and get resources into the hands and feet of those who need them to live their lives.