July 25, 2021

Maxine Waters and the Making of a Meme

9 min read

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.

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 unanswered. 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, emphasis our own:

WATERS [NOT HERE TO PLAY]: Is there some reason why I did not get a response to the letter that I sent May 23rd?

MNUCHIN [PLAYING]: So, Ranking Member Waters, first of all let me thank you for your service to California. Being a resident of California I appreciate everything that you’ve done for the community there. I also have appreciated the opportunity to meet with you several times—

WATERS [ALREADY OVER IT]: Reclaiming my time. Reclaiming my time.

CHAIR OF FINANCIAL SERVICES REPRESENTATIVE JEB HENSARLING: The time belongs to the gentle lady from California.

WATERS: Let me just say to you, thank you for your compliments about how great I am, but I don’t want to waste my time on me. I want to know about the May 23rd letter. You know about it. Why did you not respond to me and my colleagues?

MNUCHIN: I was going to answer that.

WATERS: Just please go straight to the answer.

MNUCHIN [IN SEARCH OF SOLIDARITY]: Mr. Chairman, I thought when you read the rules you acknowledged that I shouldn’t be interrupted and that I would have the oppor—

WATERS [ALL OUT OF F–KS]: Reclaiming my time. What he failed to tell you was when you’re on my time I can reclaim it. He left that out so I’m reclaiming my time. Please will you respond to the question of why I did not get a response, me and my colleagues, to the May 23rd letter?

MNUCHIN: Well, I was going to tell you my response.

WATERS: Just tell me.

MNUCHIN: Okay, so first of all, okay, let me just say that the Department of Treasury has cooperated extensively with the Senate Intel Committee, with the House Intel Committ—

WATERS: Reclaiming my time.

MNUCHIN: —with the Senate Judiciary Committ—

WATERS: Reclaiming my time.

MNUCHIN: Matter of fa—

WATERS: Reclaiming my time.

HENSARLING: Mr. Secretary, the time belongs to the gentle lady from California.

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 millennial and professional 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.

federal reserve board chairwoman janet yellen testifies to house financial committee on state of economy

Rep. Waters in July 2017.

Pete MarovichGetty Images

Similarly, 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 with Robert’s Rules of Order since 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 a Washington Post Magazine interview. “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.”

Not the first but definitely the one with the most finesse. It wasn’t just what Maxine said but how she said it and whom she said it to. If you listen closely, Waters’s voice throughout the exchange vacillates between exasperated school teacher just trying to understand why her first grader won’t stop eating paste to intense prosecutor circling for the aha moment. 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.

The congresswoman had her own theory as to why her 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. She is not trendy, she is transcendent. The fact that she became famous by doing what she’s always done is a testament to not only her staying power but also her particular superpower—bending time to her will. (Remember when she was the only one calling for President Trump’s impeachment and folks were calling her crazy? How’d that whole thing turn out?)

Reclaiming Her Time: The Power of Maxine Waters

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. She’s walking around with loads of it in her back pocket and somehow it hasn’t seemed to wear her down. Her former staffers call her the “Energizer bunny,” a member who rarely gets tired (at least not in public). All time belongs to Maxine Waters, because 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.

From the book Reclaiming Her Time: The Power of Maxine Waters. Copyright ©2020 by Helena Andrews-Dyer and R. Eric Thomas. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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