How Maxine Waters Became an Internet Sensation

Helena Andrews-Dyer and R. Eric Thomas
·7 min read
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images

From Town & Country

She wasn’t the first to say it. “Reclaiming my time,” the three words that launched Maxine Waters into the millennial meme stratosphere, is, in fact, a pretty common expression on Capitol Hill. It’s formal phraseology that has been used on the House floor and in congressional committee meetings and hearings for decades. Excuse me, hi, thank you, stop talking, right now, please. “Reclaiming my time” is a major key in the legislative lexicon.

Do a quick search on C-SPAN and you’ll find thousands, literally thousands, of examples starring the men and women who make our laws politely giving one another a verbal tap on the shoulder. You know what the difference is between Maxine Waters and all those other members? She makes it sound good.

For anyone unfamiliar (who are you people?), this is the Maxine moment that reintroduced the not-so-gentle lady from California to kids today. More than her blunt assessments of President Trump, James Comey, and another dude who didn’t live up to her high standards, the congresswoman’s takedown of Steve Mnuchin counts as Peak Maxine and as such deserves a thorough examination.

Photo credit: Zach Gibson - Getty Images
Photo credit: Zach Gibson - Getty Images

It was Thursday, July 27, 2017, when newly minted secretary of the Treasury, executive producer of The Lego Movie Steve Mnuchin, showed up to a House Financial Services Committee meeting fully prepared to testify about the intricacies of the international finance system. What he wasn’t prepared for, however, was a run-in with then ranking member Maxine Waters, who showed up to work dressed to interrogate in a string of pearls and a red lip—all the better to eat you alive with, sir.

At issue for Congresswoman Waters, the senior Democrat on the committee, was an official letter she and her party colleagues sent Mnuchin’s office that had, as of their July face-to-face, still gone un-answered. Unacceptable. In the letter, Maxine and friends wanted to know more about President Trump’s financial ties to Russia. She didn’t like being ghosted. This is how it all went down:

The wonkiness continued with a chastened Mnuchin no longer trying to grasp for nonexistent straws. 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? Donald Garrett, a millennial and professional parliamentarian (they do exist), explains that, 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.

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 rights.

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.

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. With decades of parliamentary procedure under her belt, Waters is a guru when it comes to expressing her full self within the rules. That’s a feat—coloring yourself inside the lines without losing an inch. Therein lies the magic of the “reclaiming my time” instant. Maxine Waters was Maxine Waters in a place where folks (those who didn’t know her, obviously) expected her to be someone else. Perhaps someone less blunt and more polite, someone less powerful and more palatable. Maxine Waters does not play small.

Take, for example, Waters’s run-in with Mnuchin nearly two years later. In April 2019, the Treasury secretary once again found himself at a House Financial Services Committee hearing, but this time he was dealing with Chairwoman Waters, who’d been bumped up from ranking member when the Democrats swept the House in 2018.

And once again the two public servants were arguing over time. After three hours in the witness chair, Mnuchin, doing his best impression of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, was late for a very important date! “I have a foreign leader waiting in my office at 5:30 p.m. I hope you understand I’m already going to be late,” he told Waters, who had asked that he stay for an additional 15 minutes so that everyone on the committee could get their questions in.

The two played tug-of-war over the clock. It appeared as if the congresswoman would yield when she told the secretary, “You are free to leave any time you want.” But Mnuchin, sensing the trap, asked for Waters to officially adjourn the hearing. “Please dismiss everybody,” he said. “I believe you are supposed to take the gravel[sic] and bang it.” Bless his heart.

Photo credit: Mark Wilson - Getty Images
Photo credit: Mark Wilson - Getty Images

“Please do not instruct me as to how I am to conduct this committee,” said Maxine. The look on her face, child. Sleepy children the world over sat up straight in church. In the end, Mnuchin stayed for those extra 15 minutes he spent three minutes arguing about and he even agreed to come back at a later date.

The congresswoman had her own theory as to why her initial exchange with Mnuchin took off: mainly, she said, because of President Trump and what his cabinet members represented—an election stolen, mediocrity celebrated, and real damage to our democracy. So, from the start, she was held up as a resistance forerunner by her mere presence. And what a presence it was.

“And I think that,” she told the Washington Post Magazine,“when [I had] Mnuchin in front of me, here is this African American woman who was being forceful. Because I didn’t say it one time. I said it several times, you know. I didn’t scream. I didn’t shout. Just: ‘Reclaiming my time.’ And it caught on.” She didn’t scream and she didn’t shout because she didn’t have to. Throughout her career Maxine Waters has remained even-keeled and consistent no matter the decade.

Photo credit: Anthony Barboza - Getty Images
Photo credit: Anthony Barboza - Getty Images

Time. Is it a line, a circle, or a social construct? Who knows?But for Maxine Waters it is a lightning rod and a wand. She’s weaponized it, in this her not-so-twilight years of service. Time is what makes the gentle lady from California stand out from everyone else. Instead of wrestling with it, she leans into it. In the 1960s she responded to civil unrest in Watts by becoming a community organizer, in the 1970s she answered the call of the women’s movement and ran for office, in the 1980s she set out to dismantle structural racism
by fighting for South African divestment, and in the 1990s she owned the anger of South Central Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict. She’s embraced hip-hop, endorsed Bill Clinton, rejected Donald Trump, and done so much else in between.

Maxine Waters is both a student of time and its spiritual guide. She reclaims it, wields it, and outruns it. That could be why that moment with Mnuchin went so viral. It was like watching a conductor direct her master symphony, a culmination of decades of learning that looks as simple as a flick of the wrist. Or in Maxine’s case, an expertly arched eyebrow.

Adapted from Reclaiming Her Time: The Power of Maxine Waters (Dey Street Books, $26.99)

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