Is it rude to refer to the Vice President of the USA as the world’s most famous diversity hire? Possibly. But it is the same with so many things that are true.
You needn’t take my word for it. Joe Biden made his selection priorities clear when he was confirmed as his party’s nominee last year. He immediately declared that his search for a running mate was going to focus on non-white women. And in some ways it was a savvy move. Like John McCain in 2008, he knew that the US media might not thrill to a ticket made up of a couple of white, male soon-to-be octogenarians.
Yet the decision left him with a relatively small list of qualified people to choose from. It would be the same if he’d decided that his running mate had to be a gay. It inevitably shrinks the talent pool and turns the focus from aptitude to identity. So it was that Biden ended up choosing Kamala Harris, a senator and former state attorney general who had distinguished herself most in the primaries by attacking him as a racist. On the sole occasion this was raised after she joined the ticket Harris laughed her special laugh. You are lucky if you have not heard this laugh. It is of a type rarely heard outside a penitentiary: a sort of wild, false, exaggerated impersonation of how a human being might laugh. Harris laughs like Mark Zuckerberg moves — as though he has studied these humanoids and is hoping to stay undercover until cyborg D-Day.
But I digress. The point is that Harris is a heartbeat away from the presidency because of her chromosomes and the fact that her parents were born in India and Jamaica. Plenty of firms and companies across the western world have been engaging in similar practices. Indeed there is hardly a field in which the concept of diversity hires is not now an issue. And again, it makes a certain sense. In increasingly multiracial countries it is awkward to see, for instance, a board that is overwhelmingly or solely white. Take the Guardian Media Group. There is one ethnically diverse person in the mix, but otherwise the 11-person board of the Guardian is as white as the Canadian Prime Minister on one of those rare nights when he hasn’t blacked up.
Yet while chromosomes and parentage are something, are they enough to qualify for the second-highest office in the world? This is a question almost no one in the US dared ask. In fact they hardly asked anything. Like Biden, Harris failed to do any traditional campaigning, due to Covid, and that worked in her favour. For the American public didn’t get a chance to see quite how terrible she is on her feet. Harris is the opposite of a motivational speaker. Think Emily Thornberry when she is trying to be especially likeable. The vibe is the same. The jollier she pretends to get, the more the crowd searches for the exit signs.
The US media did not help. The bifurcation of American news means that Kamala was never going to give an interview to a network which did not wish her well. And in the US there are no grillings of candidates like the Andrew Neil interviews in the UK. No one even gently simmers them. One of Kamala’s most strenuous interviews was with Jane Pauley of CBS, who talked to her and her husband before she took office. ‘What is the story?’ Pauley asked, about Kamala’s fondness for a form of soft shoe called Chuck Taylors. Harris did the crazy human-impersonating laugh. ‘I’ve always worn Chucks!’ she said, the laugh function intermittently malfunctioning.
But Pauley just wouldn’t let it go. ‘Well what’s the story?’ asked the intrepid journalist again. ‘It’s my casual go-to,’ laughed Harris. ‘I grew up with Chucks. I just love them. They’re comfortable.’ Pauley then asked Kamala’s husband about his crazy gal’s fondness for Chucks. ‘I can attest,’ he said, ‘this wasn’t just something that she started doing on the campaign. When I met her it was Chucks and jeans.’ Pauley realised she had landed the big one, the belter, the one that would secure her the Pulitzer. ‘What did it say to you?’ she asked him.
So it went on. Thanks to Pauley and the rest of the mainstream American media, by the time Harris arrived into office US voters knew more about their Vice President’s taste in soft shoes than they did about any of her views, foreign or domestic.
The effect is starting to show. During the early months of the administration Harris seemed to do nothing other than stand in a mask to the rear of the President as he was peregrinating at whatever podium he found himself behind. Now her opinion ratings have been tanking even faster than his. They recently sank to 28 per cent, which is the lowest approval rating of any vice president since polling began. And just think of the competition.
In part this may be because she has been given the thankless task of trying to stop the flow of illegal migrants across the southern border. But it is also because she appears incapable of doing anything. Harris’s staff have been flooding out of the Vice President’s employment as fast as the migrants have been flooding into the country. Most of her top team have deserted in despair. Those who remain are said to be ‘exasperated’ at the sheer ‘dysfunction’ of the VP’s office.
There is now open talk of replacing her mid-term. But the Democrat party being what it now is, the name that has been thrown around to replace her is Pete Buttigieg. The transportation secretary doesn’t seem to have much competency at being transportation secretary, but he is gay. And this too is qualification enough for at least one role in the Biden cabinet. Meaning that all those American households suffering supply-chain issues can console themselves that although the cost of basic household goods keeps going up, at least the person responsible isn’t a homophobe.
Somewhere in the midst of all this there seems to be a lesson to be drawn. If only someone could find it?