Kamala Harris sworn into history

Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice president of the United States on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton

WASHINGTON – Kamala Harris was sworn in as vice president of the United States on Wednesday, shattering barriers not only as the first woman to hold a nationally elected office, but also the first Black woman and first Asian American to reach such heights.

As the world watched, Harris raised her right hand, face steeled as it was through so many hearings and debates that it became her signature stare.

Then, as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor read “so help me God,” the stoicism broke.

“So help me God,” Harris repeated, overcome with a smile as her sister, Maya, broke into tears behind her. She hugged her husband. She found Joe Biden waiting, shaking his fists in triumph. Then she walked back to her seat and into history.

Harris, the 56-year-old daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother, then assumed an office that has been previously occupied solely by men. She was sworn in by Sotomayor, the first Latina to serve on the nation’s highest court, a calculated choice from a former senator from California who has highlighted women of color during her career.

The significance of Harris’s ascent was ever-present Wednesday, as she became first in line to the presidency and the heir apparent to become the future leader of the Democratic Party in a post-Biden era.

From the moment Harris stepped out of her motorcade, she and her husband, Doug Emhoff, were escorted by Eugene Goodman, the Black Capitol Police officer who held off a mostly White mob of rioters during the attempted siege of the complex earlier this month. Goodman also escorted her to the balcony where she took the oath.

She stepped out to a gathered crowd that included allies such as Hillary Clinton, who nearly broke the glass ceiling for women in the nation’s highest offices four years sooner, and recent adversaries, including Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the subject of one of her most-talked-about interrogations on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris and Doug Emhoff arrive before Joe Biden is sworn in as 46th President of the United States. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton

As she walked into the ceremony, she stooped to kiss her grandniece. She bumped fists with Barack Obama, the first Black president. She shared a few words with Mike Pence, her predecessor, who called Harris to congratulate her earlier this week, even as President Donald Trump refused to do so.

She passed women wearing pearls like her, including Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who wore pearls that used to belong to late congresswoman Shirley Chisholm – a nod to the first Black woman to seek a major party’s presidential nomination. The pearls were also a nod to Harris’s sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. When Harris ran for president last year, she chose her logo and colors based on the ones Chisholm used a half-century ago.

Harris, clad in an outfit of purple by Black designer Christopher John Rogers, took the oath of office with her hand on two Bibles. One belonged to civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice and a fellow Howard University graduate whom Harris, a former prosecutor, saw as a hero. The second belonged to Regina Shelton, a neighbor who was a second mother to Harris and her sister. Harris took her Senate oath on Shelton’s Bible in January 2017. Biden administered that oath.

Earlier in the day, Harris and Emhoff joined the Bidens, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and others at St. Matthew the Apostle church for a prayer service. They joined the Bidens in a motorcade to the Capitol, where Harris was sworn in shortly before the new president.

“Don’t tell me things can’t change,” Biden said in his address, nodding to Harris’s inauguration.

Harris’s term was historic from the moment she finished the oath, but she has the potential to be one of the most consequential vice presidents in American history. Democrats and Republicans each hold 50 seats in the U.S. Senate and, as the president of the Senate, Harris holds the tie-breaking vote. The Democratic lean means the Biden-Harris administration has a clearer path to enacting legislative priorities, including an expansion of federal health-care subsidies, a comprehensive immigration overhaul and a tax increase on the wealthy.

One of Harris’s first official acts was to show Pence and his wife, Karen, to the motorcade that would carry them away from the Capitol and signal the transfer of power to the Biden administration. Normally, the new president walks the former president into retirement. But because former president Donald Trump did not attend the inauguration, it was Harris and her husband who walked the Pences down the steps.

Later in the afternoon, Harris walked up the steps to her office in the Executive Office building. She was escorted there by the Howard University marching band, surrounded by her family. A CNN reporter yelled to her, asking what her first job as vice president would be.

“Walk in to work,” she said, and indeed the work began shortly thereafter when Harris swore in three new Democratic senators: Alex Padilla, her replacement as senator from California and the state’s first Latino to hold the position; and new senators from Georgia, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, whose victories in a pair of Jan. 5 runoffs knotted the chamber. At 33, Ossoff became the youngest Democrat sworn in as a senator since Biden, who was 30 when he first took office in 1973.

When she entered the chamber, Harris’s former Senate colleagues stood and applauded. When, in accordance with protocol, Harris read her own name as the senator that Padilla would replace, Harris laughed out loud.

“That was very weird,” she said, before asking the new senators to raise their right hands. Soon, she sat in the chair reserved for the president of the Senate, the first woman to occupy that seat, too.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff; President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden; Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., arrive for the inauguration. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti/

Harris was one of more than two dozen Democrats who had vied to unseat Trump. She began the Democratic primary as an on-paper favorite, drawing one of its biggest crowds – more than 20,000 people – to her campaign launch in front of City Hall in Oakland, Calif.

But her campaign foundered, largely because of her inability to dislodge Biden’s base of support. By December 2019, she was out of money and exited the race before a single ballot was cast.

Harris, who was selected to the Senate the same day Trump became president, did not have the progressive track record to pry away loyalists to Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and she did not inspire the newcomer zing of Pete Buttigieg, then-mayor of South Bend., Ind.

Instead, from the most diverse slate of candidates in history, Democrats searching for practicality and normalcy selected Biden – believing he had the best chance of defeating Trump in the general election.

At 78, Biden is the oldest president in the nation’s history, which thrusts additional importance on the person who would serve in his stead. Biden has said he considers himself a “transition candidate,” a label he cemented when he vowed to pick a woman as his running mate and interviewed more than a dozen.

But as the nation simmered with racial strife following the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, liberal activists and congressional leaders pressured Biden to select a Black woman.

Harris has known Biden for years and was close with his late son Beau, who was the attorney general for Delaware when Harris held the same post in California.

Despite the connection, Harris launched an attack on Biden at the first Democratic debate over his nostalgic talk about working with two segregationist senators.

“It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country,” Harris said during the debate. She also took Biden to task for his opposition to mandatory busing.

Biden’s wife, Jill, described that moment as being “like a punch to the gut,” and it added drama to Biden’s months-long search for a running mate.

But Biden and Harris publicly made up, and aides to both say they have worked in tandem throughout the transition. Both say she will be a key partner in his administration, much as Biden was to President Barack Obama. She often spoke alongside Biden at transition events, a constant presence by design in a way past vice presidents have not been.

Tuesday night, it was Harris who offered remarks to the nation as part of a brief memorial service for those lost to the coronavirus. Her family – some White, some Black, stepchildren and beloved grandnieces – gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial ahead of time, snapping selfies that embodied the kind of modern American experience Harris has come to represent.

And as Harris stood in St. Matthew the Apostle on Wednesday morning, surrounded by high-profile politicians drenched in Washington tradition, her hometown basketball team – the Golden State Warriors – released a video of a young Black girl skipping through the streets of Oakland in Converses, the shoes Harris wore regularly on the campaign trail. That girl wore a Warriors jersey with No. 49, a symbol of the possibilities children see in Harris that they never saw before. Harris, the 49th vice president, will display a No. 49 Warriors jersey in her office. The back reads “Madame Vice President” – MVP.

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