Friends from the Beginning, Stacey Johnson-Batiste, Grand Central, $29
Stacey Johnson-Batiste’s account of her friendship with Vice-President Kamala Harris comes at an awkward time. Over the past eighteen months, Harris has seen her approval ratings fall to record lows – even worse than Dick Cheney’s and Mike Pence’s – and has been the subject of regular rumors from Team Biden that she’ll be removed from the VP ticket and shunted off to the Supreme Court.
A well-sourced, and damning, CNN story suggests that, in the increasingly likely event of Biden not standing for a second term, she would face an opposed candidacy, rather than the coronation that many, no doubt including Harris herself, might have expected. And stories of dysfunction, an inability to hack it at the job and family members having disproportionate influence on her have all, cumulatively, seen Harris flounder.
So what better opportunity for Team Harris to regain public popularity than by association with Johnson-Batiste and her cheerfully upbeat memoir of her lifelong friendship with the veep? The difficulty with a book such as Friends from the Beginning is that it’s finely balanced between two kinds of purchaser. Diehard Harris partisans, if any still exist, will thrill to accounts of her independent spirit, her capacity for friendship and her tenacity, and will happily pay nearly $30 for this account.
But those who loathe Harris and wish desperately to scour the book to find some inadvertently damaging detail will be disappointed; there is nothing here that suggests she is anything other than a secular saint. One can imagine an editor asking if some minor detail might be included to give Harris a third dimension — a moment of weakness, or jealousy, or anger, or any other recognizable human emotion — and Johnson-Batiste steadfastly refusing. Which is commendable when it comes to her loyalty to her friend, but leaves a void at the center of the narrative.
The impression given throughout the book, perhaps inadvertently, is that Johnson-Batiste and Harris’ friendship is a warm but only sporadically intimate one. Friends from the Beginning spends considerably longer as an autobiographical account of the author’s life growing up in Berkeley and of her family than it does in offering particularly revelatory facts about Harris. We learn that she was kind and resilient, given to “boisterous yet tender laughter,” enjoyed dancing and having a glass of wine and was entirely committed both to her career and her family.
Yet often her presence in the book is near-peripheral, and reduced to platitudes. Of course, Harris “never forgets where she came from or who helped raise her,” just as “she has never forgotten her vibrant roots.” It would be surprising to learn otherwise. But once her political career begins, Johnson-Batiste is reduced to cheering her on from the sidelines, with only the occasional moment of face time and selfie-taking with her friend. Unavoidable, perhaps, but we learn very little about Harris the private woman as a result.
The most interesting sections are the prologue and the final chapters, as Johnson-Batiste offers a blow-by-blow account of her presence at the inauguration and of Harris’ participation in the primaries. Some of the details are well-known — we learn that Lady Gaga’s presence was “not only melodious,” but that she “appeared and sang as if she was making a triumphant statement.” But I was intrigued to learn that Harris insisted on an all-female flight crew for the plane carrying her guests to the inauguration ceremony, and that her invitees were given swag bags of embossed presidential gifts, which Johnson-Batiste describes as “a very characteristic, fitting gesture.”
Although it probably could have done with a more rigorous edit, the book is ultimately too kind-hearted to level any especially damning criticism at it. One can only hope that, if Harris does find her path to the White House interrupted by continued bad publicity, that she will have a good deal more time on her hands to spend with her friends and family who seem sincerely to adore her. Unlike, it would seem, the majority of the American public right now.