Kamala Harris: ‘What Kind of Country Do We Want to Live In?’

ONE AFTERNOON IN LATE APRIL, Vice President Kamala Harris climbed into a large black car parked in the garage of the CBS Broadcast Center on New York’s West 57th Street and sat bolt-upright in the leather seat. She’d just finished taping an episode of The Drew Barrymore Show — remaining magnanimous as Barrymore had pawed at Harris’ burgundy blazer and pleaded with her to be the country’s “Momala” — and was shortly on her way to a dinner in the GM Building that software and investment executive Charles Phillips had arranged in order for Black finance leaders to share their advice for the campaign (“We’ve got a lot to fight, but this is a fight we can win,” she’d assured those assembled at one end of a sleek room with soaring views of Manhattan). These were strategic visits, and evidence of the administration’s growing reliance on Harris to connect with key demographics (suburban women, Black men) who may not be overly enamored with the prospect of another four years helmed by one of two old white men.

But for the moment, Harris’ thoughts were not on the day’s specific demands or what they might mean come November. They were on what had happened that morning at the Supreme Court. More specifically, they were on the arguments that had taken place over what should befall a pregnant woman were she to enter an emergency room in Idaho: Should she be treated like a real person and offered the full range of medical interventions available to protect her health, her organs, and her future fertility? Or should she be treated like a vessel of the unborn and only granted an abortion if the imminent alternative were death?

“Did you hear the oral arguments? What did you think?” Harris asked, shaking her head and never dropping eye contact as the motorcade made its way toward Central Park. “I knew this was coming.” She had anticipated, she went on to explain, the many legal battles and unintended consequences the fall of Roe would have. And she’d envisioned how those consequences would play out, not just for women having miscarriages or dangerous pregnancy complications, but also for the health care providers trying to care for them. “It’s fucked up,” she said, dropping her voice at the word “fucked,” as we pulled up to the hotel where she and her staff were stationed.

These qualities — a prosecutor’s inclination to think three or four steps ahead, combined with a sensitivity to how policy unfolds to affect real people, combined with a righteous indignation at what that effect might be — have always been Harris’ strengths. And they are strengths befitting a child of immigrant activists who was raised in the Berkeley flatlands by a strong, South Asian single mom, attended her first rallies in a stroller, and ran her first campaign for district attorney of San Francisco by passing out campaign flyers from behind an ironing board (turning a symbol of servitude and labor into one of empowerment). They are the strengths that led her, as California’s attorney general, to refuse the $2 billion settlement banks offered in the wake of the housing-
market collapse (she eventually got $18 billion), to confront Joe Biden on his opposition to mandatory busing by personifying how that policy had played out (“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me”), and to famously suffer no fools in Senate judiciary and intelligence hearings, stumping Brett Kava­naugh and making Jeff Sessions plead with her to slow down her line of questioning because, he quivered, “It makes me nervous!”

But, despite certain breakout moments, Harris’ strengths are often ponderous ones: Her thoughtfulness can look like indecision; her noodling of potential solutions can lead to unexpected changes of course. Her policies may be progressive, but her ways of tackling them have often been incremental. In the understudy role that is the vice presidency, especially, such pragmatism can lack flash. “The vice president’s office has always been the Rodney Dangerfield of the Constitution,” says Rep. Jamie Raskin, who served with Harris in Congress and counts her as a personal friend. “I mean, there’s a lot of vice-presidential disrespect in American history.”

FOR ALL THAT HARRIS’ ELECTION may have meant for women and people of color, her first years in office were marred by more than disrespect. There were a series of gaffes (“Rising as quickly as she did, almost any politician would get the bends,” one D.C. insider told me), a number of thankless and impossible assignments (like fixing the economy in Central America), and a supercharged version of sexism and racism directed at any woman of color in power. There have been times when she’s been offered meetings with the first ladies of foreign governments rather than the leaders themselves — invitations her staff have declined with reminders that she is not there as a spouse, but rather the second-most powerful person in the U.S. of A.

Vice President Kamala Harris photographed for Rolling Stone. (Photo by Flo Ngala)
On the tarmac in Atlanta

To be fair, Biden’s age puts the spotlight on Harris; few VPs have been so statistically close to stepping up to the highest office. But after retreating from the public eye to the extent that the Los Angeles Times called her “the incredible disappearing vice president,” Harris has recently found her current moment — campaigning against a convicted felon (“Cheaters don’t like getting caught,” she told Jimmy Kimmel) in a country where he helped legally dismantle a right women had had for decades. Ever the prosecutor, she is on her most solid footing when she has a case to make; her virtues come into starker relief when compared with those of an opponent. “Look, she is methodical. She is logical. She spends time to understand the complexity of people’s experiences and how issues impact them on a day-to-day basis, just as she would if she was putting together a case that she was going to be presenting to a jury,” her friend and fellow Cali­fornian Sen. Laphonza Butler tells me. “She is doing things that other leaders have not. She is speaking words like ‘cervix’ and ‘vagina.’”

In the whirlwind weeks I spent with her on the campaign trail (note: Air Force II serves a lot of burritos), I’d seen her mix of political pragmatism and passion. I’d been with her to Parkland, Florida, where she’d stood in the gym of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and outlined the gun reforms that should be “no-brainers.” To Las Vegas, where she’d derided “Trump abortion bans” to chants of “Four more years.” To L.A. and D.C. and New York and Florida again, where on the day the state’s six-week abortion ban went into effect, she’d riled up a rally with the proclamation “Across our nation, we witness a full-on assault, state by state, on reproductive freedom. And understand who’s to blame: former President Donald Trump.”

In an interview conducted in two parts — first in New York and then in her office in the West Wing — she shared her vision for the campaign, the country, and the case at hand.

You were the first president or vice president to visit an abortion clinic. I’ve now seen you speak about reproductive rights numerous times on the campaign trail. I also know that you started your career as a prosecutor in part because your best friend in high school had been molested by her stepfather — and that when you found out, you had her come move into your home. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that. Did your mom take some persuading?

No, not at all?
I mean, I grew up in a community where people took care of each other. I grew up in a community where my mother, my parents, my extended family really wanted for children to be nurtured and challenged and not harmed. My mother understood the importance of taking care of people, especially when they are exposed to hurt or pain. And I was raised to feel that same way.

A lot of the issues that I focus on really are a function of how I know these issues play out in real life. It informs my perspective, if not my passion, if you will. And that experience with Wanda was probably one of the first of me just being aware of how this plays out in real life.

How did you learn what had happened? Did Wanda tell you?
I could kind of just sense that relationship was weird. And then she told me.

And so immediately you’re like, “I can do something”?
My instinct is … You have to talk to my best friend from kindergarten — Stacey Johnson was her name then — to know that this started at a very early age. A kid was bullying her and trying to beat her up on the playground when we were in kindergarten, and I jumped in and ended up getting in a fight with the kid.

A physical fight?
Yeah, come on!

Did you win?
It wasn’t about win or loss. It was just my instinct as the older child. My mother was always like, “Look out for your sister.” It’s always been an instinct of mine to try and protect people. I hate bullies. I can’t abide by people who use their power in a way that is intended to diminish other people.

So you told Wanda she could move in.
Yeah, she had to come stay with us.

I hate bullies. I can’t abide using power to diminish people.

What was it like to adapt to having someone new in the home?
Well, here’s the thing you have to understand: I had a childhood where everyone was hanging out at each other’s house. We always had an open house. Whoever would just come on in, hang out: “It’s dinnertime, sit down and eat with us.” That’s the community I grew up in. That’s how I grew up. Things are getting boring at your house, you just walk next door. “What are you making for dinner?”

So there was nothing that was out of the ordinary about the idea that this person needed to be in a safe place. Of course she’s going to come and stay with us. That’s the house I grew up in. You don’t reflect on stuff like that, you just do it.

And that experience was one of the things that made you want to go to law school?
Well, there were a number of reasons I wanted to go to law school. I talk about Thurgood Marshall, the way that he translated the passion from the streets to the courtrooms of our country, the ability to use the law as a tool to create justice where it may not otherwise exist. And for me growing up, the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, yes, they were Dr. King and others, and I can go down the list — but they were also the lawyers. My Uncle Sherman was a lawyer. He was one of the few Black students at Berkeley. Anybody who needed help with something: “Call Sherman.” And I saw that. I was like, “Oh, OK. So Uncle Sherman as a lawyer has the ability to be the one who everyone calls when they’re trying to make sense of something and when they need help.”

So it was a combination of the people in my life, but also knowing early that if you want to create justice, the law is one of the most important tools by which that happens.

Do you remember where you were when you first heard about the Dobbs decision?
I was on Air Force II, and I was heading to a maternal-health event in Illinois. I called my husband, Doug — because, you know, I could use words with him — and I was just like—

You can use words with me.
“Bleep. Bleep. Bleep. Bleep. Can you believe what they did?” And I remember saying to him, “They did it. They actually did it.” I’m sure for everyone who cares about the issue it was a surreal moment.

My entire adult life, Roe had been in place. We always knew that we needed to fight for it. We always knew that there was, from the day it was decided, an intent to get rid of it. But truth be told, most of us really didn’t think [it would happen]. And then they did it. Oh, it took the wind out of me.

Even if you anticipated that it was coming, it did feel like a shock, because America’s not really in the business of taking rights away. It felt like such a reversal.
Our strength as a nation, I believe, is a function of many things, including our commitment over time to the expansion of rights. And all of a sudden, we are seeing powerful forces that are trying to restrict rights. That is profound.

Vice President Kamala Harris photographed for Rolling Stone. (Photo by Flo Ngala)
Vice President Kamala Harris photographed for Rolling Stone. (Photo by Flo Ngala)

We as a nation take great pride in our commitment to freedom, liberty. We as Americans take great pride in those concepts. What should it mean to everyone —regardless of their gender — that the government is now taking fundamental freedoms like the freedom to make decisions about your own body? And if that’s happening, what else could happen? [That] should set off an alarm for everyone, regardless of how you feel about the issue.

And then the other piece of it, of course, is that I know how this plays out in real life. I could predict, from the time of the leaked decision, what was going to happen in terms of the harm to real people, every day. And I’m sad to say that I was mostly correct.

Let’s talk about the legal complications that have come up since then. When you and I rode in the [motorcade], I told you I’d had a molar pregnancy, which is a situation in which you have to terminate. There’s no other option. I think back to the difficulty of that moment — which was already terrible — and then about how it could have been further compounded by my doctor telling me, “Well, you must do this medically, but I’m not sure I can.” You did foresee that situation arising?
From the earliest days, I asked my team to do a map for me, and then color-code the map according to what the law is in the state. And in the early days after Dobbs was decided — which included a massive amount of crisis around clinics closing, and doctors and nurses being afraid that they’re going to be prosecuted — I would go to red and blue states and convene their state legislators around this issue, and I’d hold up the map and I would show them — it literally looked like a quilt. We must’ve had maybe as many as 10 different colors on the map. So, the confusion — let me tell you something: Confusion and uncertainty create an environment that is ripe for predatory behaviors. Predatory behaviors that exist because of misinformation, disinformation, and attempts to confuse people into not knowing their rights.

Right now, when it comes to this issue, the right has won. They’ve gotten what they wanted. A lot of people feel kind of hopeless about it. What path do you see forward?
Well, I would say that we have to look at what has happened in the last two years to get a sense of where the American people are. In the midterms, in the elections at the end of last year, in red and blue states, when this issue was on the ballot, the American people voted for freedom — and by, in some cases, overwhelming margins. Which tells me that this is a bipartisan or even nonpartisan issue. And that gives me some solace in terms of knowing that, again, we have not abandoned our commitment to freedom as a people. So if you want to talk about win, loss, we’ve not lost that. And that’s really important to hold onto and know and internalize.

But I think it’s part of the frustration, because people know that the majority of Americans support reproductive freedom, and yet that’s not what many people are getting.
Look, there’s an agenda afoot, that’s clear. From the first minutes that Roe was decided, the design was in process. And we’re all witnessing the implementation of the design, for sure. And we have to remember that any freedom that we have and have fought for, we have to be vigilant in holding onto. They are a function of our collective commitment in a democracy to fight for them.

So how do people fight in this moment?
Elections. Period. Elections. It is an exercise in folly for people to throw up their hands and say, “How did this happen?” Let me tell you how it happened. First of all, there was a president of the United States, Donald Trump, that made himself clear about what he was going to do. And he did it. He handpicked three members of the United States Supreme Court with the intention that they would undo Roe, and they did as he intended.

What have I done differently since I’ve been in this office? I curse more!

But it didn’t start there. Pay attention to what was happening for years, if not decades, around a commitment by people who had this position on an issue like choice, who started paying attention to state legislative races. Paid attention to gerrymandering. Understood that every election is important — not only who’s in the White House and who’s in Congress, but who is the attorney general, who is the governor, who has the majority in the state legislature. That has been in play for quite some time. And all of those things combined led up to the state that we’re now in, which is that in over 20 states you have these bans on a woman’s right to reproductive freedom.

So that is the playbook for the left, then, to pay attention to those same things?
Let me just say this: I am reluctant to categorize this as simply “left” and “right.” This is about fundamental freedom, and I don’t see a left or right on that. There is not a woman in her twenties who, if she’s having sex with a man, isn’t worried about getting pregnant unintentionally. So talk about a lived experience for a whole lot of people who don’t think about “Am I left or right?”

I guess what I’m saying is, is there a form of catching up that needs to happen?
I think that people are catching up. This was a very rude awakening about what can happen in terms of the erosion of rights and freedoms if we’re not vigilant. And this has caused people to rightly ask the question, “How did this happen?” And then to see how it happened. So let’s pay attention to these things. I mean, listen, local elections? Who your DA is definitely matters if you’re in a state that has criminalized doctors and nurses for providing abortion care. Who your DA is matters [when it comes to] whether they’re going to bring charges or try and send somebody to jail. And people are realizing, with this issue — up and down the ballot — it’s important that you vote and be aware.

Trump has now come out saying that he’s not for a national abortion ban and he’s going to leave it to the states.
I would recommend that you don’t believe him. When he was president, he supported a national abortion ban and said he would sign it. He claims now that he’s for the states making these decisions. Well, states like Texas provided prison for life for a doctor or nurse. There are states that are trying to revive laws from the 1800s — before they were even a state and before women could vote. States are passing bans at six weeks of pregnancy — before most women even know they’re pregnant. Those are Trump abortion bans. Had he not done what he did, these things would not be able to be in play.

So you think the waffling is just political expediency?
I think it’s gaslighting.

As a woman of color who, as senator, represented one out of eight Americans, you know what representation means. I’m wondering how much you think just not having adequate representation has led to this moment?
Listen, I think that you’re raising a great point. The majority of state legislators are still men. And I say sometimes — maybe a bit facetiously, but accurately — I wonder if these men passing these laws around six-week abortion bans actually know how women’s bodies work. If they do, it appears they don’t care.

The reality is that representation matters. To have people making decisions that will directly impact lives, [it matters] that they have some sense of how that will actually impact people’s lives. Especially when you’re talking about matters of — as I like to think — the home and heart. Because on some level, we should all agree: These people sitting up in some state capitol, what right do they have to come into your home and presuppose they’re in a better position than you to know what’s in your best interest? My goodness. The gall!

Speaking of matters of the heart and home, you’ve talked a lot about your 3 a.m. agenda, how your policy is guided by what keeps you up at night. Do you remember the last time you woke up at 3 a.m.?

Last night?
It wasn’t last night. I actually had a really wonderful Mother’s Day weekend, and I just realized, “Oh, my God, I didn’t wake up at three in the morning.” [But] I’m deeply concerned about the significance and consequence of this election. We’ve always, for many cycles, talked about: “This is an important election! This is the one!”

They do say it every time.
But we’re in a whole other place. We’re post-Jan. 6. We are in a situation where the former president has openly glamorized almost-dictators and says he’ll be a dictator on day one. Says he’ll come in and weaponize the Department of Justice, says he is proud of what he has done in terms of reproductive freedom, proud of the fact that doctors and nurses can go to jail, proud of the fact that our daughter and so many others will have fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers. We as Americans have a responsibility, I believe, to hold ourselves to a standard. Imperfect though we are, flawed though we certainly may be, we pride ourselves on fighting for freedom, for liberty, for democracy. And this is one of those moments that all of us are being confronted with a question: What kind of country do we want to live in? That’s really what is on the ballot this November. What kind of country do you want to live in?

We have to remember that any freedom we have fought for, we have to hold onto.

It’s actually a little bit hard for me to imagine [an undecided voter], but for someone in the middle, you’re hearing it from both sides: “This is a fight for our liberty.” How do you persuade them that your fight is the one they should join?
Well, let’s start with, is there any consensus that a woman should have the freedom to make decisions about her own body? That’s a fight that’s on the line. Is there any consensus that we should all be free from the fear of gun violence? Where do we stand on the freedom to love who you love openly and with pride? Where do we stand on the freedom to be free from hate and bigotry? These are the freedoms I’m talking about.

And someone can decide if those are the freedoms they care about or not.
Right. I mean, I don’t mean to deny anyone their perspective, but I would ask that we all think about some basic freedoms. We believe in the freedom of bodily autonomy. We believe in freedom of rights. We believe in the freedom to learn America’s full history. I believe strongly in those freedoms.

I went to Jacksonville, Florida, with you. It’s not lost on me that the last time you were there, it was to talk about book bans and changes to the Department of Ed.
It really does highlight that there’s so much at stake. And that there’s something perverse that has happened over the last several years in our country that suggests that the measure of the strength of a leader is based on who you beat down and not who you lift up.

The idea, the notion that it’s somehow a weakness to have empathy? One of the greatest character strengths that someone can have is to have some level of concern and consideration and care about the suffering of other people, and then take it upon themselves to actually do some­thing to lift up their condition. So issues at play in this election are about that. What kind of leadership do you want? What do you consider to be the strength of a leader? Is it based on big words that beat people down, or is it based on an approach that’s about “Hey, let’s [have] the most significant infrastructure law since Eisenhower and get it done? Let’s have a bipartisan consensus on gun safety for the first time in 30 years and get it done. Let’s invest in America’s global leadership around a clean-energy economy and get it done. Let’s invest in chips and science and bring back supply chains and invest in American manufacturing of semiconductors and get it done.”

I have to say, the stamina that [a campaign] must take is amazing to me. I saw you meet with Kim Kardashian recently, and I was like, “I’ve never thought about this before, but there is a similarity: They’re both surrounded by cameras, microphones, everywhere.” Are you just having to brace for the coming months? Does it take a toll?
I have muscle memory [laughs]. Honestly, Doug and I went home for the Christmas break, and back in L.A., we just slept. He looked at me one day, and he was like, “Honey, we’re defrosting.”

And so, we defrosted, knowing that come January, we were very clear about what this year would require of me, and of us, and, frankly, of our country. Started the year ready for the battle. And we’re in it, and with 174 days to go.

Vice President Kamala Harris photographed for Rolling Stone. (Photo by Flo Ngala)
Campaigning in Jacksonville, Florida

So, I’ve been on a number of trips with you. One of the big ones was to Parkland. Closing the gun-show loophole was a big win for this administration, but there’s, obviously, a lot still to do. You might have seen today the study that came out that said one out of seven Americans lives within a quarter-mile of a recent gun fatality?
I did not see that. But what’s equally horrific [is that] gun violence is the leading cause of death of the children of America. Not car accidents. Not cancer. Gun violence. What is horrific is that one in five Americans has a family member that was killed because of gun violence.

Remember that the victims of gun violence are, obviously, the person who was shot, who was killed, but [also] their family, the community, all of us, psychically. That takes a toll on society. A lot of the work I’ve done — actually, I’ve talked a lot with Kim Kardashian about it recently — a lot of my work from my earliest years when I was DA was focused on undiagnosed and untreated trauma that is the result of people experiencing violence, either directly or within the community. Understand the ramifications. Listen, I have worked with, and in, communities where when gunfire breaks out, the children are told, “Jump in the tub,” because that’s a place that you can avoid a stray bullet.

When we went to Parkland, and you met with the [victims’] families, that was such a hard day.
That was a very hard day.

You visited the school building where the shootings happened. These places have become hallowed ground in America, unfortunately. What was it like being in that space?
Well, first of all, I have, personally, visited many crime scenes where the blood was fresh, and so it was an experience that I’ve had before — many times actually. But to be there with those families, and to witness a scene where time stood still …

It happened on Valentine’s Day. There were hearts, there were valentines. The desks were there, and were left as [they were] right after that shooting, so some were knocked over. Pages of homework were spewed over the ground. The blood was there. Obviously, it’s dry, but the blood was there. You could see where there had been pools of blood where these children were slaughtered. The shattered glass from the windows of the classroom door was still on the ground. Backpacks. And to be there with those parents, and to walk through that scene with them, and to also look at them looking at it, and look at it through their eyes, to see it through the eyes of a parent who was knowing exactly “that’s where my son or daughter was the last breath they took …” This, I have to tell you, is what I wish and want people who have such strong opinions about these issues would see and understand. We simply are calling for reasonable gun-safety laws. I believe in the Second Amendment. I support the Second Amendment. I also know we need an assault-weapons ban. We need universal background checks. We need a red-flag law.

If more people could see what I saw, and see through the eyes of these families … Not to mention, as a prosecutor, I looked at autopsy photographs. I’ve seen what gun violence does to the human body. I’ve seen what assault weapons do to the human body. On so many issues of public policy, including — and especially — this one, we can’t just rest back on an issue without really understanding how it plays out in reality, and then feel some level of empathy and purpose to say, “Hey, it doesn’t have to be this way. We can do something about this.”

On the subject of violence, I’m wondering if you’ve spoken to your predecessor, Mike Pence, about Jan. 6.
I have not.

Have you been tempted to?
Listen, I respect and applaud him for having the courage to do what he did that day. I think history will show that at a moment of extra­ordinary crisis, an attack on our democracy in such a blatant way, he showed great, great courage, and I applaud him for that.

I want to talk about the dire situation with the war in Gaza, because it’s an issue that many people feel a real personal connection to. And you come from a mixed-religion family.

When you have these conversations at your Sunday dinners, around the table, what do those conversations look like?
Well, first of all, this issue is one that must be discussed with an appreciation and respect for the nuances and the context and the complexity. Part of my concern is that there’s been an appetite for a presentation of this issue as though it’s binary. It’s either one thing or the other. Let’s have a full conversation. On Oct. 7, 1,200 people were slaughtered, many of them young people attending a concert. Think Burning Man. Women were horribly raped. I’ve seen this in different places around the world, rape being used as a tool of war. Let’s understand that Israel, when that happened, has and had a right to defend itself. We would. And let’s understand that how it does so matters.

There are many truths that exist at the same time. Far too many innocent Palestinian civilians have been killed. We are looking at famine conditions. Aid must get in. And hostages must be freed. And we need a two-state solution. And we need to have a cease-fire to get to a place where we can start building toward a two-state solution. And Palestinians are entitled to security and dignity and self-determination. And Israelis are entitled to security and safety. And we must fight what we have seen as a rise of antisemitism around the world. And we must fight Islamophobia. And people are living in fear.

Protests are a part of every movement for freedom in our country.

When you were at Howard University, you participated in a sit-in in the A Building over apartheid and discrimination. Do you empathize with students protesting over this issue now?
You know what? I’m going to show you pictures. [Gets a frame off a cabinet behind her.] It’s not of me. It’s of my mother. This is my mother on Berkeley’s campus [protesting] the Birmingham atrocities.

That’s a great photo.
I show you that picture when you ask this question, one, because I love that photograph, but also to reinforce the point that protest is part of a long tradition in America. Protest has been a part of every movement for the expansion of rights and freedoms in our country. It’s part of what makes us a democracy that we support that approach. We are not an autocracy that shuts down protest. And we expect peaceful protest.

I’ll tell you something: When I was DA of San Francisco — it was during the height of the Iraq War, and it was San Francisco, so [there were] protests against the war all the time — I would bring in the police and protest organizers, and I’d say, “Let me be very clear with everybody: For peaceful protests, if you arrest them, I’m not charging them. So don’t arrest them. If there’s vandalism, I’m charging them. If there’s violence, I’m charging them, you can be sure. Let’s everybody get on the same page about what’s going to happen.”

Let’s talk about climate. As a Californian, have you, personally, experienced the effects the climate crisis?
We were evacuated twice from our house. In fact, one time, I was in the Senate, and I was in the middle of a hearing on wildfires, and I get a call that we have to evacuate. Doug was here in D.C., and so I call our son, who at the time was [in his] early twenties. I’m like, “Cole, go to the house. FaceTime me.” Let me just tell you — he’s going to kill me for telling you this — I’m in the hearing, and I’ve got to keep stepping out to go FaceTime with him, and I’m trying to describe what’s valuable and what’s not. And — any parent of a twentysomething or teenager will understand this — he practically was like, “You want me to save this bottle of tequila?” I’m like, “No! The photographs! The things from my grandmother!” [Laughs.]

Oh, my gosh.
It’s a funny story, but, my goodness, yeah, we have been personally affected. I was affected growing up in California. We had droughts where it was like, “You got to conserve water in every way.” These are crude details, perhaps, but it was about how frequently you can flush a toilet.

I created one of the first environmental-justice units of any DA’s office back when I was DA. When I was in the Senate, too, a lot of the work that I did was about pushing for the inclusion of wildfires as being part of the federal response to these emergencies — because so much of it really had evolved around hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods — and we got the federal rules to change to adapt to the seriousness of wildfires. I was on the ground, literally, the embers still burning, for some of the most tragic fires that we had in California — the Paradise fire, where the only things standing were the chimneys, which, in my eye, looked like tombstones rising up out of ash.

It’s horrible.
Yeah, but I’m very proud also of what we, as an administration, have done, because we really have been very ambitious about what is possible to make up for lost time. By my estimate, we’re going to be dropping over a trillion dollars in the streets of America around adaptation and resilience and building a clean-energy economy.

This administration’s record has been one of the most effective of my lifetime. I wouldn’t have imagined that the Infrastructure Bill or The Inflation Reduction Act would get through. Closing the gun-show loophole. Negotiating prescription-drug prices. The list goes on. And yet, when you look at polling, people see Joe Biden as a status quo president, and they see Trump as a change agent — for better or worse — and people are like, “I want change.” I’m curious about that disconnect.
So here’s how I think about it: The more time that passes, the more people will feel [these changes]. For example, $35-a-month insulin just took effect in January. It’s one thing to talk about the name of a bill being passed, and what it’s going to do, but I give credit to the American people for wanting to feel it. As more time passes, as we get toward November, more people are going to feel the accomplishments, and I have a lot of optimism about that.

And part of my job is to travel around the country and help people see the signs of the implementation, of it becoming real, and not just the name of a bill with a certain dollar amount attached. In the last four months, I’ve taken 40 trips in 16 states.

What is something that the office has taught you, or that has surprised you in your time in the vice presidency?
As you can see from my career, I’m a devout public servant. I believe in the nobility of public service. I believe that there is a lot that can be done standing for the people. And I’ve always been in the executive branch — the only time I was in the legislative branch was when I was in the Senate, and that was a short time — so my work has always been about getting things done.

I will also tell you that my work has almost always been fueled by challenging the premise and not accepting tradition — and not being burdened by tradition. When I created one of the first [prison] reentry initiatives—

As you said a few days ago at a legislative summit, you kicked the fucking door down, right?
Well … [Laughs.]

I had to! I had to!
What have I done differently since I’ve been in this office? I curse more! [Laughs.] Although, kind of. I don’t know. It’s not a new language to me, and I think when one speaks the language, one should get the pronunciation down. My pronunciation is very good, thank you very much! [Laughs.]

So approaching my work — always challenging traditions, not accepting status quo, knowing what’s possible, even if it hasn’t been done before — I also know how difficult it can be to propose, and require, new approaches. When people hear “status quo,” they think, “Oh, static.” But let me tell you — and it’s a learned experience for me — status quo is anything but static. Status quo is quite dynamic. You start trying to change status quo, you fuck with status quo, it will fight you.

Vice President Kamala Harris photographed for Rolling Stone. (Photo by Flo Ngala)
Vice President Kamala Harris photographed for Rolling Stone. (Photo by Flo Ngala)

And so, now as vice president, I’m looking at the beauty and nobility of the work that government can do, and the profound bureaucracy that can just slow it down. And I admit that I’m quite impatient. I want to see things get done. For example, on marijuana, I stepped on a couple of toes when I made the public statement, “Can we move on with this? Do the analysis on the [drug] schedule. Move it. Change it.”

Let’s not pretend it’s the same as heroin anymore.
Yes. Should I have said that? Some people thought I shouldn’t be saying that, because the bureaucracy needs to take its course. I’m not trying to put undue influence on anything. But move it. [That’s] the way I feel about what we need to do around gun violence. I’m the head of the White House Office on Gun Violence Prevention. I brought them in almost immediately, and said, “OK, this is not about a website or a fancy speech. Let’s move this stuff forward.”

Thinking about pushing things forward, you were so ahead of the front on LGBTQ+ rights.
Always have been.

You were one of the first people to perform gay marriages.
In the country.

You’ve always supported marriage equality.

Do you think another administration could undo it?
Clarence Thomas said the quiet part out loud in the Dobbs decision. Look at Florida, at the “Don’t Say Gay” laws. On Valentine’s Day this year, 2024, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of when I performed those [first] same-sex marriages in San Francisco. Twenty years [later], and there’s a Don’t Say Gay law in Florida, a state [with] one of the largest populations in the country. And there are teachers who are afraid to put up a photograph of themselves and their partner for fear they could be fired. For doing what? God’s work of being a teacher? The noble work of teaching other people’s children? God knows we don’t pay them enough as it is.

So, yes. We should all be con­cerned. When we just witnessed the highest court in our land take such a fundamental right — the freedom to make decisions about your own body — everyone has got to be really clear-eyed about the fact that if that can happen, what else could be at stake?

And this gets back to my point: We always have to be vigilant in fighting for these rights. They will not sustain themselves. So, yeah, I worry about it. People should worry about it. This is not a time for anyone to be a passive observer. This election truly is the one where we decide what kind of country we want to live in.

Final question: Since this is Rolling Stone, what music are you listening to right now?
What music? The pages turning in my binder! [Laughs.]

Oh, no.
I’ll show you my binder. [Gets a black binder several inches thick.] This is my daily binder. It’s got briefing documents about some of our economic policies. It’s got what’s happening with the Office of Gun Violence Prevention. It’s got classified stuff on national security.

So I can’t look?
No, you can’t look! But this is my little songbook. This is today’s. So what music am I listening to at the moment? [Laughs.] Apparently, my little violin.

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