ANDERSON, S.C. — It wasn’t a particularly boffo opening. The Kamala Harris Show was running late.
“She’ll be here in just a second,” vowed the official at the microphone, a councilwoman from this city of 27,000 in upstate South Carolina. Warm-up speakers are the norm on a candidate tour like this, though coming in from the 95-degree heat, everyone packed into the Westside Community Center was already warm enough. As we waited for the guest of honor, you could feel our host, Councilwoman Beatrice Thompson, doing her best to vamp.
In my world, the theater, timing is everything. The last impulse you want to foster in an audience is restlessness. So, to me, the wait from the announcement of “Kamala Harris!” — pronounced correctly as COMMA-la — through the dozen or so minutes that ticked by before she entered via a side door seemed interminable.
“It’s wonderful to be with you,” Harris exclaimed at last, bounding onto a platform decked out in American and Palmetto State flags, beaming a thousand-watt smile and seeking to recoup the sympathetic energy of an audience 300 strong by declaring, “I truly intend on winning the election!”
Political campaigns are all about seducing audiences. So why shouldn’t someone like me be out here, reviewing the art — or artlessness — of the seduction? Presidential contenders do not win merely by trumpeting their achievements and policies. No, their instrument has to resound with some other, ineffable qualities. Although the laws of attraction vary from voter to voter, it seems that we look in the early days of a presidential race for connections, in some of the same ways casting directors use their antennae to winnow down auditioning actors. We want someone who feels right for the part.
So I had traveled to South Carolina in late spring to follow the senator on a two-day swing through the northern part of the state, to see how her audition played. I was taking the analytical eye I have cultivated in 17 years as The Washington Post’s chief theater critic and applying it to the performance skills of a few Democratic candidates.
I was seeking to evaluate how those running for president strive to be that person — what aspects of style, humor, oratorical skill, emotional accessibility and physical presence they demonstrate — for the mission of persuading voters to find them worthy. Actors invest huge amounts in the service of making scripted words sound like their own. Politicians do much the same thing, except the character they seek to project is themselves, or, more to the point, the best parts of themselves.
Choosing to start with Harris was an easy call. On the television screen, she exudes star power. You could imagine her playing a lawyer on a prestige TV series. On the retail-campaign stump, her natural charm and exuberance are on display, qualities that become even more apparent in more intimate settings, such as a visit, after the Anderson event, to a women’s group in the elegant mini-mansion of a wealthy supporter in Greenville. Telling a story about her own mother’s stock answer to her daughter’s complaints — “What are you going to do about it?” — Harris warmed the assembled women with her empowering reply: “So I decided to run for president.”
The unadorned production Harris takes from venue to venue has at its core a person seeking to project warmth, strength and a common touch. The people who introduce her at her events in South Carolina, where she runs third or fourth in polls at present, are local people, not celebrities, and she rarely fails to mention that her campaign manager is her sister, Maya Harris, a lawyer and political analyst for MSNBC. Her strength is conveyed readily, by her backstory: The essential biographical framework at a Kamala Harris stop is her government experience outside Washington, as onetime district attorney in San Francisco and as California’s attorney general. It seems no accident that she will often invoke the verb “prosecute,” both to convey her intention to pursue her policy goals to fruition and to remind audiences of her “Law and Order” bona fides. (When was the last time a president was a former prosecutor? It appears you have to go all the way back to William Howard Taft.)
Subtext is everything in drama: What a character says is subordinate to what an audience intuits. With Harris, the visceral impression is of a pleaser — she is an inveterate dispenser of thank-yous to inquiring voters during Q&As — whose résumé suggests a toughness.
“It was the way she interrogated Barr,” said Ernest McManus, a Vietnam vet and retired maintenance mechanic, an admirer who had come to hear her in Anderson. He was referring to Harris’s big media moment in May: the grilling to which she subjected Attorney General William P. Barr as he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions about the Mueller report.
“She showed that leadership quality,” McManus added. “She can stand up to any man.”
By any man, you knew exactly about whom he was speaking. The president gets under Harris’s skin so thoroughly that she can barely bring herself to acknowledge him. During the Harris show, Donald Trump is He Who Must Not Be Named. Not once in two days did I hear her mention it, even though her remarks boil with contempt for his policies: He is always “that guy in the White House” or “this commander in chief.” Her crowds feed on this not-so-subliminal disdain.
What Harris does with her aura of authority is key to her campaign style, and I would wager that, as she becomes more relaxed at commanding a room, the presentation will become even more powerful. Watching her in a series of formats, which also included a televised hour before a live MSNBC audience in Spartanburg with Lawrence O’Donnell, you got earfuls of the same rhetoric from stop to stop. That is in the nature of retail politics, too. But you also began to see what aspects of laying out her case Harris excels at and where her performance might still be considered a work in progress.
For one thing, the candidate lapses into long-winded replies to questioners, too frequently couched in Washington buzzwords. “This is an inflection moment in the history of our country,” she declares often, as eyes in the crowds wander to their smartphones. Harris is more effective when the pitch shifts to everyday vernacular, as when she cites bread-and-butter issues, such as the lack of adequate pay for teachers, and then dismisses objections to righting the wrong by saying: “I’m kind of done with that.” Her audiences giggle delightedly, because the convention stated so casually in this context is unexpected. You could talk to this person, you think, over coffee, or the back fence.
Carol Smith, a Democrat from nearby Clemson, contemplated Harris’s visceral appeal as she waited with her friend Libba Kellner to hear the candidate in Anderson. “I would love a woman,” she said, “and I would like someone who can beat [Trump]. And I do like youth and energy. But,” she added, “I don’t want someone who’s just ‘likable.’ ”
“Likable” is indeed a loaded term, especially if you recall how often it was weaponized against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Still, candidates seek in myriad ways to get you to like them. When children are called on in the Q&A portions of Harris’s appearances, she will shower them with praise for their courage to speak up. (It can come across as patronizing.) In her best moments of audience interaction, she moves to the lip of the stage and stares intently at questioners, letting them finish their inquiries before responding.
But navigating personality politics is not Harris’s forte, as she noted in her 2018 agenda-setting memoir, “The Truths We Hold.” “This process didn’t come naturally to me,” she wrote of her California campaigns. “I was always more than happy to talk about the work to be done. But voters wanted to hear about more than just policy. They wanted to know about me personally — who I was, what my life had been, the experiences that had shaped me.
“ . . . But I’d been raised not to talk about myself. I’d been raised with the belief that there was something narcissistic about doing so. Something vain.”
At a Harris event, you find yourself mentally willing her to include more applause lines, like the unequivocal declaration that gets her best response in South Carolina: “On Day One, we’re going to repeal that tax bill!” In these moments, she looks comfortable alone on the stage — more at home, in fact, than she had when she appeared at the town hall on O’Donnell’s MSNBC show, “The Last Word,” from the campus of Wofford College in Spartanburg. Though the questioning was friendly, Harris seemed a bit too aware of the cameras: Her overuse of hand gestures, to embroider her responses, felt unnatural. Hamlet refers to it, when instructing the Players, as “sawing the air.” Harris might consider laying aside the saw.
One of her more endearing oratorical habits is she can’t get out a laugh line before laughing herself, even in the retelling of the same humorous anecdote at every stop. Is it nerves or a fear the audience will not find it funny? In any case, Harris’s reflexive laughter is humanizing; it pierces the prosecutor’s armor, makes her seem a bit more like the rest of us.
At the end of her South Carolina swing, in Greenville’s West End Community Development Center, 500 prospective voters patiently waited for Harris to appear. When she did so — 30 minutes past the starting time of the event — she still managed to look fresh, businesslike in a no-nonsense pantsuit. The size of the crowd seemed to invigorate her, although interestingly, the script the campaign sought to follow held little interest for the spectators. Billed as a forum to talk about education issues, the event only barely touched on school concerns.
“Will you take care of Lindsey Graham and send him out?” an audience member blurted out at one point. Another woman wanted to know how the local protests against the administration in which she participated could have more impact.
“I want to thank you for your activism,” Harris responded. “I know it’s not easy for you.”
Was the former prosecutor failing to take full advantage of the anger in the room? Or was this calming persona calculated to make the best long-term use of it? It remains to be seen whether voters will decide to make the qualities Harris is seeking to project — dogged and at the same time empathic — those of a recurring character.