Maxine Waters and the Making of a Meme
Helena Andrews-Dyer and R. Eric Thomas recount the exact moment the congresswoman became an internet phenomenon.
MNUCHIN [OUT OF OPTIONS]:Perhaps, Mr. Chairman, I don’t understand the rules because I thought I was allowed to answer questions.WATERS:Reclaiming my time. Would you please explain the rules and do not take that away from my time.And the wonkiness continued with a chastened Mnuchin no longer trying to grasp for nonexistent straws and instead answering Waters’s questions with a quickness. In effect, homeboy got schooled. The Internet, of course, took that moment and ran with it. A better scene couldn’t have been written for the movie
Trump-Tales: Woo-Noo,and no two people could have been better cast for the roles of Powerful Black Boss and Boring White Coworker. Here was a black woman of mature age and experience refusing to give this white man, so new to his job his parking pass was probably still being printed, an inch. “Reclaiming my time”? Who knew parliamentary rules threw so much shade?
We turned to Donald Garrett, a millennialandprofessional parliamentarian (they do exist), to break down the management of “time” among members of the House and Senate so that it will forever and consistently be broke. This is the duh moment: “If everyone was shouting at the same time that wouldn’t help,” Garrett told us. “Each person has their own time.” Basically, during a House floor debate (or committee hearing or meeting), the chair recognizes a member for five minutes. Those three hundred seconds are priceless, and each individual member is in control of how her time is used. At a hearing after the member poses a question, she yields her precious time to the witness for answers—allegedly. So, the clock is ticking. If the witness is rambling (read: going on and on about how great she is) or doing anything else but answering said question, the member can say, “Reclaiming my time,” and the witness is supposed to shut up, er, stop speaking.
Rep. Waters in July 2017.Pete MarovichGetty ImagesSimilarly, this time ownership manual also applies when two members of the committee are interacting. If Member A is recognized and for whatever reason Member B double Dutches into Member A’s five minutes, Member A can “reclaim her time” if Member B is ball hogging. That is why when Waters instructed Chairman Hensarling to take a pause for the cause and explain to Secretary Mnuchin how this whole thing worked, the congresswoman made clear to add, “And do not take that away from my time.” To some it sounded rude AF, but it wasn’t. It was completely within her right.
It was also Exhibit 1619 of black women looking angry when really they’re just out there living their lives.“Maxine Waters has been doing this for decades. It looks nasty, but from a technical perspective that’s exactly what you say to stop the clock for the witness,” added Garrett. “It took on a dual meaning, but it was very technically correct.”
“I didn’t scream. I didn’t shout. Just: ‘Reclaiming my time.’”Why all the technicalities and formalities? Because members of Congress are supposed to be treating one another with respect, and the only way to get folks to do that is to make them speak like Cookie Monster. At least that’s how Garrett, twenty-seven, a professional parliamentarian in his spare time, explained it.
“The idea behind speaking in the third person, directing remarks through the chairman, calling people ‘gentleman’ and ‘gentle lady,’ etc., is to make the debate more impersonal. It helps to cool tensions during spicy meetings,” said Garrett. “For example, it is much easier to yell out ‘You are a liar!’ compared to ‘I believe the gentleman from Virginia needs to reexamine the facts.’ Or ‘Shut up, I’m speaking’ compared to ‘Reclaiming my time.’
“The idea is for members to speak in an esteemed manner so that meetings don’t break down,” added Garrett, who has been obsessed withRobert’s Rules of Ordersince high school and for whom Maxine Waters’s “reclaiming my time” hit single was something of a “dream come true” (his words). It’s not every day that parliament procedure and pop culture get married and make a viral baby.
All this is important to understand because the Auntie Maxine character was born out of that exchange with Mnuchin, an exchange that, sure, sounded sassy and resistance-y but was, in the end, completely routine when you look at it. The woman was just doing her job.
“Yeah, that surprised me. Because I didn’t create it,” she said in aWashington Post Magazineinterview. “That is the regular order of business to get your time back after it’s been imposed on by your witness. So, members have used that; I wasn’t the first.”
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