POLITICS JUNE 11, 2008
Nancy Pelosi believes in being direct. With the Democratic presidential contest running hot, in March a reporter with Boston TV station NECN asked the House speaker about the possibility of a dream ticket uniting Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Doe eyes wide, the nation's highest-ranking Democrat flashed her trademark smile ominously.
"I think that the Clinton administration [sic] has fairly ruled that out by proclaiming that Senator McCain would be a better [long pause, dismayed half- laugh] commander-in-chief than Obama. I think that ticket--either way--is impossible."
Pelosi turned to walk off, then retraced her steps and added, with another half-laugh, "I didn't want to leave you with any ambiguity."
Nope. No ambiguity here, say supporters of Team Hillary. As party elder and chairman of the upcoming Democratic convention, Pelosi maintains that she will not pick favorites in the nominating contest. But, as many of Hillary's people see it, Pelosi's repeated rejection of a "unity ticket" is just further proof that, official neutrality notwithstanding, the speaker wants Barack Obama to be the nominee--and will use her influence to make sure there is no place for Hillary on his ticket. Pelosi is "anything but uncommitted," insists one Hillary adviser, echoing colleagues.
Some Hillary folks believe that Pelosi assumes Obama would provide better coattails for down-ballot candidates to ride. Others think Hillary is considered too centrist to win Pelosi's love. Still others suspect the speaker has calculated that she'd have more influence under President Obama than President Clinton--partly because Obama has more limited Washington experience than Hillary and partly because, as the Hillary adviser snarks, under Clinton, Pelosi would lose the advantages that attend being "the most senior skirt in the land."
Pelosi's perceived offenses toward Hillary '08 range from her public call for superdelegates to respect the will of regular voters (a boon to Obama, with his pledged-delegate lead) to her choice of Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius to respond to Bush's State of the Union speech; the morning after her response, Sebelius endorsed Obama--something Hillary backers are convinced wouldn't have happened without the speaker's tacit blessing. With each new slight, Team Hillary aides grumble to Pelosi aides, while outside Hillary supporters-- especially women and California voters--call the speaker's office to grouse. But, as the race grinds on, Pelosi continues to offend. Most recently, even as she assured The Wall Street Journal that she saw "plenty of freshness" in both candidates, the speaker couldn't help but add: "Some might say he's advocating what I've been advocating for a long time."
Under the circumstances, it's no surprise that some Hillary loyalists have grown bitter toward Pelosi. In April, nearly two dozen big-league Hillary donors, reacting to Pelosi's warning about superdelegates, fired off an open letter to the speaker, cautioning that, if she failed to "clarify" her position, they would have to reconsider their long-standing support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It was the desperate act of a desperate people. It was also, to Hillary's detriment, a stunningly ham-fisted move guaranteed to feed whatever bias Pelosi already had. Publicly, Pelosi dismissed the letter as "unimportant," even as her office made clear that she was brassed off about it. "It was," a Pelosi aide stressed to me of the effort, "a mistake on their part."
Don't let the perky-grandmother-in-pearls schtick deceive: Nancy Pelosi is not a woman who responds well to threats or disrespect in any form. For years, she has struggled to be taken seriously--dismissed, variously, as a rich dilettante, a lefty crusader, and a smiley, wide-eyed dingbat. Chronic underestimation, say those close to her, has chafed but has also helped Pelosi fuel her rise with a blend of political cunning, hard work, and raw will. The seventh child and only daughter of a Baltimore machine politician, she was weaned on a vote-counting, constituent-tending, brutally pragmatic brand of politics, the fundamentals of which still guide her. As do early lessons about how to survive as an ambitious woman in a man's world. And, despite her revolutionary, smash-the-china image, Pelosi is a savvy institutionalist who amassed power in part because of her intimate understanding of the House's rules, quirks, and mores.
Now, having smiled, sweated, and strategized her way to the top, the speaker is savoring her burgeoning reputation as a power broker and all-around political badass. While she may not be the person who killed the Bush presidency (that honor goes to the president himself), Pelosi has of late emerged as the chief figure propelling his slide into political oblivion-- blocking his bills, stiff-arming his congressional compatriots, and reminding everyone of how lame the duck has become. In much the same fashion, her status as party eminence has been burnished, particularly on the left, by her tie-ups and stare-downs with Team Hillary. Thwarting the will of both an opposition president and the most fearsome political machine in her own party, Pelosi is now being touted as one of the most powerful speakers in modern history. It is a particularly sweet victory for a woman who has spent her political career striving to prove she can hold her own with the big boys.
If there's one thing "Little Nancy" D'Alesandro learned early, it was the importance of math. Born March 26, 1940, she was the youngest child of Thomas "Big Tommy" D'Alesandro Jr., an insurance salesman turned politician who was teaching his tots how to count votes while their peers were still immersed in the exploits of Dick and Jane. A lifelong denizen of Baltimore's Little Italy, Big Tommy was elected to Maryland's House of Delegates at 21, followed by five terms in Congress and three as mayor of Baltimore.
During Nancy's youth, the D'Alesandro household revolved around her father's political life. "He set the tune, and we danced to it," says Thomas D'Alesandro III, Nancy's eldest brother, who also served as Baltimore's mayor. That tune was combative, pragmatic, and personal. The D'Alesandro home operated like a field office, with the children serving as auxiliary staff. Constituents streamed through the door starting at 10 a.m., and whoever was manning the front desk--a post at which every child served several hours a week starting at age 13--handled requests ranging from finding a family public housing to bailing someone's husband out of jail. It was quite the education, says D'Alesandro, Pelosi's brother. "We dealt with human nature in the raw."
A staunch Catholic and New Deal populist, Big Tommy conferred on his offspring a sense of society's obligation to the poor and powerless, enduring themes in his daughter's politics. But he also schooled them in the nuts and bolts, the transactional nature of the game. His career characterized by hard- fought races and endless vote-scrounging, Big Tommy was forever juggling the demands of the Poles, Germans, Irish, Czechs, Jews, and Italians in his district. Constituent service became his calling card, and Nancy and her brothers helped maintain a "favor file" on everyone for whom their father had ever found a job or served a hot meal. (Nancy's mom kept pots of stew and pasta sauce simmering at all hours to feed petitioners.) The operation also kept scrupulous count of how many votes it had-- and needed--from each precinct, block, ethnic group, union, to win an election. "Make sure you have the votes" was drilled into the D'Alesandro children's heads.
Nancy absorbed subtler lessons as well, including how a smart woman could amass power. At the core of Big Tommy's operation was Nancy's formidable mother, Anunciata, one of those women who, born to a different age, would have ruled outright. Smart and ambitious, Anunciata became Baltimore's first female auctioneer in the 1920s. But, when the company wanted to move her to New York, her parents refused. "She was from a very cloistered Italian family who thought working downtown was a sin," recalls D'Alesandro.
So, instead, the fetching Anunciata married a promising young go-getter from right across Albemarle Street, bore him six sons and one daughter, and threw herself into making her husband a success. She and her "moccasin network" of ladies knew everyone in town and what was happening on every block. She figured out the city's bureaucracies and whom to call to get a problem fixed. On Election Day, she patrolled the polling stations. Fiercely tribal, Anunciata served as her husband's chief enforcer and had a long memory for transgressions. "No one could say a word against him," says D'Alesandro. (Family legend holds that Anunciata once slugged a mouthy poll worker.) "With my mother," D'Alesandro told The Baltimore Sun in 2006, "there was no forgiving."
Anunciata had big dreams for her only daughter. "Our mother saw in Nancy what she had hoped to do," says D'Alesandro. While Nancy's brothers attended the neighborhood parish school, Nancy was sent to her mother's more prestigious alma mater, the all-girls Institute of Notre Dame. Later, over Big Tommy's objections, Anunciata pushed for Nancy to be the first D'Alesandro to attend college beyond Baltimore, at Trinity College in Washington, D.C.
There, Nancy's political interest solidified. Upon graduating in 1962, she wed beau Paul Pelosi and promptly began interning in the Senate offices of Maryland's Daniel Brewster (alongside future colleague Steny Hoyer). Between 1964 and 1969, she bore five children, but she never gave up the game. Settling in Paul's hometown of San Francisco, the young Mrs. Pelosi distinguished herself as an a-list hostess and fund-raiser. Moreover, as part of a bona fide political dynasty, she possessed connections well beyond the Bay Area's moneyed class. When former California governor Jerry Brown ran for president in 1976, he asked Pelosi to use her family's political juice to help him win the Maryland primary. She promptly volunteered to run Brown's campaign there. Brother Tommy was called on to flip through the favor file from his days as mayor and city council president, leading many of the state's big-name politicos to campaign with Brown. Pelosi has credited that episode with making her a player in the party. A year later, she became the Democratic chairwoman for northern California. By 1981, she was overseeing the entire state.
Pelosi suffered her first hard political blow in 1985, with her failed bid to become chairwoman of the national party. She ran as the moderate--as she did in her first congressional race a year later--arguing that Democrats must "move to the center" and become the "party of capitalism." Organized labor opposed her, and, at one point, a union official dismissed her as "an airhead."
It was a dig Pelosi neither forgot nor forgave and one that echoed broader gender barriers in the race--and throughout her career. A recent biography of Pelosi, Woman of the House, recounts her encounters with Democrats who told her during her chairman's race that, on the heels of Walter Mondale's 1984 defeat with Geraldine Ferraro on the ticket, they were loath to elevate another woman to a high-profile party post. "People tell me that I was the best-qualified candidate. But some of them tell me that it's too bad that I'm not a man," she told people privately. As biographer Vincent Bzdek writes, "More than any other single incident, the loss and the reasons for it left her with a moral indignation that drove her up Capitol Hill for years and years after. Her own ambition could now be lashed to the greater, more selfless cause of helping emancipate politics."
Conquering the congressional old boys' network has required all of Pelosi's personal and political skills. When the freshman congresswoman arrived in 1987, "this was essentially a white man's club," says longtime friend Representative George Miller. "And they really weren't going to invite her in." Pelosi set about outplanning, outmaneuvering, and outworking all doubters. To this day, word around the Capitol is that Pelosi doesn't sleep and seems to be everywhere at once: criss-crossing the country on behalf of members, raising money, giving speeches, counting votes, and meeting, meeting, meeting with whoever, as Representative Charlie Rangel puts it, needs "a little love" that day.
Pelosi is a meticulous vote-tracker, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the bills wending their way through committee, and keeps tabs on the political pressures confronting her flock. Her chief of staff, John Lawrence, explains: "She knows what the members need. She knows what the members want. And she knows the difference between the two." Seeking a member's support, the speaker will corner him in the halls and call him at all hours to let him talk until his concerns are conveyed if not resolved. "She has the patience of Job in doing that," says Rangel. She is also a master of the political grace note: remembering birthdays, sending out handwritten thank yous, inquiring after family members. All of this fund-raising, favor-granting, ego-stroking, and information-gathering comes in handy when it comes time to whip votes and forge compromises. By knowing everything about her members, Pelosi is better positioned to control them.
And make no mistake: Control is very important to Pelosi. Among staff, she has a reputation as a micromanaging control freak, with a sharp tongue and zero patience for team members who screw up. To her caucus, meanwhile, Pelosi made immediately clear that she planned to fully exercise the power of her office. Her decision to adhere to the Gingrich-era term-limiting of committee chairmen outraged some of the House's most senior eminences but has enabled her to demand far more obeisance than past Democratic leaders have received. (Caucus unity, she informs me, "is the most elegant message we can send.")
At times, this has meant launching a direct assault on a member's authority, as when she created a select committee on global warming over the objection of Energy Chairman John Dingell, with whom she has long feuded over fuel- efficiency standards. At others, she simply ignores proposals that don't fit her vision. (Think Ways and Means Chairman Rangel's tax-reform package.) Occasionally, Pelosi's heavy hand raises eyebrows, such as her booting fellow Californian Jane Harman off the Intelligence Committee, despite Harman's qualifications and high profile on the issue. And some complain that (like her mother) Pelosi nurses a grudge-holding tribalism. "She overpersonalizes everything," gripes one House Democratic aide. Her insistence on backing longtime ally John Murtha for majority leader over one-time whip rival Steny Hoyer was seen by many as a leadership failure that inflicted unnecessary bruises. But, overall, party members seem impressed by Pelosi's ability to make tough decisions and "herd the cats." Lauds a senior Senate aide who works closely with her, "The speaker has brass balls."
Of course, being a woman in a testosterone-heavy institution has its drawbacks: As Dick Armey memorably told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002, "One of the reasons Nancy's abilities are not appreciated is that she is a beautiful woman." But possessing the proverbial "woman's touch" is also part of Pelosi's political arsenal, helping her twist the arms of some of Congress's grumpiest old bulls without putting them on the defensive. (A certain Ways and Means Committee chairman is said to be highly susceptible to her charms.) Some colleagues have described Pelosi's tough-love leadership style as "maternal." Others think it flows more from her upbringing. "She just knows how to schmooze these guys," says the speaker's communication director Brendan Daly, who posits that having "five older brothers helps." Barney Frank offers a more pointed analysis: "Nancy is a very smart woman who used to be a very smart girl at a time when smart girls were told that if they were too smart they would scare away the boys." Now, he adds, no matter how tough Pelosi has to be, in private she has "a manner" that helps soothe ruffled feathers. One leadership aide recalls a meeting in which a disgruntled committee chairman threatened to oppose a bill; Pelosi rose slowly from her seat and delivered a low-key but sternly disappointed lecture on the need for chairmen to set a unifying example. (The chastened member wound up supporting the bill.) Emily's List president Ellen Malcolm has dubbed Pelosi's expression in such situations "The Grandmother Look."
This look--in fact, the whole maternal role--is key to Pelosi's political identity. Pelosi may be tough, even feminist, but not in the in-your-face '70s way that Hillary Clinton is often associated with. She has never downplayed her femininity and is known for her Armani suits, Tahitian pearls, and oh-so-girly chocolate habit.
The pronounced femininity works because it is naturally who she is, but it is also savvy politics: Such self-marketing undermines GOP efforts to paint Pelosi as a left-wing extremist out of touch with mainstream values. The speaker makes frequent reference to her years as a stay-at-home mom, while staffers and colleagues are quick to attribute leadership tricks and personal ticks to her time in the domestic trenches. Following Pelosi's swearing in as speaker, the media was awash in photos of her, gavel in hand, surrounded by her grandkids as well as the children of other members. She looked deceptively like your garden-variety grandma--albeit vastly better coiffed.
Life at the top, of course, is never easy. Her rookie year, Pelosi drew fire from all sides: from the left for being a politics-as-usual sellout, from the right for being a partisan defeatist, and from the entire chattering class for being outplayed by Republicans. Even as colleagues gave her good reviews for holding the caucus together and passing several bills (including ethics reform, a minimum-wage increase, and a bump in student aid), the press and blogosphere deemed her a grave disappointment for letting Republicans kick her around on all the really meaty issues like children's health care, stem-cell research, and, most notably, Iraq.
Then came spring, and, thanks to a series of high-profile clashes, Pelosi now finds herself being talked about like a cross between Tip O'Neill and Margaret Thatcher. She continues to hold the line against Republican efforts to grant telecom companies immunity from wiretapping lawsuits. She regularly blocks the minority from amending bills--recently sending Minority Leader John Boehner into a rage on the House floor. ("[T]he majority has an obligation to treat the minority with respect!" he bellowed.) She has postponed consideration of many spending bills altogether until a new president takes office. And, in mid-April, she led her caucus in a vote to derail the president's efforts to force consideration of a free-trade agreement with Colombia. Then she gleefully rubbed Bush's nose in the defeat at a post-vote press conference. Decrying Pelosi's iron grip on the gavel, columnist Robert Novak dubbed her "Czar Nancy. " A once-mocking press now marvels at her facility for hardball, even as the liberal blog Daily Kos recently cheered, "This is what congressional spine looks like."
But, arguably, the individual most responsible for Pelosi's newly fearsome stature is Hillary Clinton. It was, after all, the letter from angry Hillary donors that overnight cast Pelosi as a defender of the Democratic grassroots. Progressives in particular--many of whom spent much of last year trashing Pelosi's leadership as timid and pathetic-- celebrated her refusal to be cowed by arrogant party fat cats. Likewise, reports that pro-Clinton movie mogul Harvey Weinstein had tried to compel Pelosi to back his plan for a revote in Florida and Michigan (charges that Weinstein has denied) raised hackles around the speaker's office and burnished the image of Pelosi as a bulwark against an out-of-control Clinton machine.
Even Pelosi's Colombian tussle with Bush had greater resonance because of Hillary. Public attention to trade has risen dramatically in recent months, as Hillary has pitched herself as the anti-nafta choice of blue-collar voters. Colombia specifically snagged the spotlight in early April, when Hillary adviser Mark Penn had to resign as top strategist after revelations that, in his day job as a p.r. executive, he had been working with the Colombian government to advance the trade pact--despite his candidate's opposition to it. As fortune would have it, Hillary helped turn Colombian trade into a hot topic just in time for the speaker to stick it to Bush on the issue.
And so, at long last, Pelosi is getting props from across the political spectrum as a power player. The Iraq war still rages, congressional Republicans still have the numbers to scuttle most Democratic legislation (though Pelosi always has one eye on fattening her governing margin come November), and whether Pelosi is leading her members in a sensible direction depends on your political perspective. But, for now, Madame Speaker has quieted the speculation that she lacks the skill, the smarts, and, most importantly, the cojones to lead her caucus.
Looked at one way, Pelosi shouldn't be annoyed with Team Clinton. Rather, she owes Hillary one of her famous thank-you notes--a collegial, even sisterly nod for helping Pelosi answer the annoying but enduring question all women in politics must eventually address: Is She Tough Enough? The answer, quite clearly, is yes.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic