On November 8, 2016, Nancy Pelosi told interviewers she had complete confidence that Hillary Clinton was about to be elected president. Having been House Speaker from 2007 to 2011, she had the distinction of having held the highest rank of any woman in United States history, but “I’m counting the minutes to relinquish that title.”
With President Hillary safely ensconced in the White House, Pelosi planned to retire from elective office. Perhaps she’d take an ambassadorship. She thought the Vatican would be a good fit for her. In her new book Madam Speaker, which is built around ten lengthy interviews of Pelosi, Susan Page dryly notes that at 76 (today she’s 81), Pelosi was already “Well past the retirement age for almost every workplace except Congress.”
Instead: President Trump. Like many Democrats, Pelosi insists that her personal neurotic feelings are somehow relevant to the questions of politics and policy, and when Trump won, “It was actually physical,” she says in the book, “like a mule kicking you in the back over and over again.” Pelosi’s feelings were badly hurt by America’s decision, but, hang on, she also would have us believe she’s tougher than average: “Every day I’m like, don a suit of armor, put on your brass knuckles, eat nails for breakfast,” she says. If that’s true, why can’t she control her feelings? All these years later she’s still incensed that Time magazine never put her on its cover through her entire first tenure as Speaker, though John Boehner made it in 2010.
Pelosi emerges in the book as tone-deaf, petty, narcissistic, self-deluding, obtuse (she attended the March on Washington but left before the “I Have a Dream” speech) and hectoring (this is a word President Obama used to describe her, according to Page). The book attempts to be straight-up hagiography but even so some jaw-dropping details emerge. My favorite anecdote is the one-sentence mention of the time when Pelosi, in a Jeep full of some or all of her five children, actually managed to flip the thing over “several times.” Luckily, no one was hurt, apparently. Page doesn’t tell us any more about this incident.
Early in her career in the House (a longtime Democratic party fundraiser in San Francisco, she won her seat in a special election after Congresswoman Sala Burton died in 1987), Pelosi saw an elderly House member hobbling around with a cane, Pelosi said, “It’s never going to be me.” She told people she intended to stick around as long as her dad Tommy D’Alesandro had in the House- maybe 10 years.
But it’s hard for a megalomaniac to walk away, even when she hurts her party. (When she was a housewife back in San Francisco, she thought, “I have enough time, I could do something — like feed all the hungry people in the world.” Sure.) Pelosi was upbraided by fellow members after the notorious Marie Antoinette moment when, at the depths of the coronavirus crisis, she appeared on late-night TV to show off her two $24,000 freezers stocked with $13 pints of ice cream, then later broke California laws to visit a hairdresser. The book, quoting the Post’s front-page headline, “DESSERT STORM,” notes that as her party unloaded on her, Pelosi, “admitted no fault and acknowledged no regrets. In that way, she bore a bit of resemblance to Trump.” Ouch.
Pelosi is vindictive: Recently retired Senator Harry Reid called her to support a member of Congress who wanted a committee assignment from Pelosi, but she replied, “Not a chance in hell.” Why? That member had “voted for Steny, not once but twice.” This would be back in 2001 when she and Maryland’s Steny Hoyer, her longtime rival since they both worked in the same Congressional office in their twenties, had both run for Democratic Whip. (By the way, Page found that when they were both Congressional staffers in the same office — she was a secretary, he was an assistant — she made twice as much money as he did.)
Pelosi was caught off guard when the writer asked to see her school transcripts. Barbara Bush, a previous Page subject, graciously allowed this. Pelosi’s reaction? “She looked appalled, as though I had asked to rifle through her closet.” She insisted, “I’m a very private person.” Er, isn’t she literally a career public servant? Pelosi wasn’t much of a student, it seems clear. She is quoted in her high-school senior yearbook as saying “I haven’t opened a book yet.”
Pelosi is such a control freak that she would demand her four daughters dress alike (“Okay, everyone white pants and yellow turtleneck”) and such a political animal that when she found the perfect house to rent in San Francisco, having moved there from New York City in 1969 with her husband Paul and their kids, she backed out of the deal when she found out the owner was a (liberal) Republican who was leaving to go work in the Nixon administration. She told her flummoxed real estate agent “I could never live anyplace that was made available because of the election of Richard Nixon.”
Pelosi, we learn from the book, is a liar (in 2009, during a furor about harsh interrogation techniques during the War on Terror, she falsely stated she didn’t know about them, but she had been fully briefed on the waterboarding back in 2002). She is a dissembler — she won the nomination to her House seat by 4000 votes after targeting the few Republicans in her district with a mailer stating, “The individual tax burden is too high. We need a representative who will fight all efforts to raise the personal income tax.” (President George W. Bush used to joke about this, saying that while Pelosi claimed to love low taxes, “She must be a secret admirer.”)
She loses her mind over the silliest stuff (she became “enraged” when a fawning profile of her ran in the San Francisco Examiner under the headline “Not Just a Party Girl” — which was appropriate because she was known both for throwing parties and being head of the state Democratic party).
When asked whether she hated Trump, she replied, “I don’t hate anybody. And as a Catholic, I resent your using the word ‘hate’ in a sentence that addresses me.” Huh? She called Trump “the most dangerous person in the history of our country.” At the 2020 State of the Union, which took place after Pelosi had launched her doomed impeachment, Trump handed her a copy of his speech but she got mad before he even started speaking because he wouldn’t shake her hand. Why would she want to shake hands with someone she evidently reviled and had just impeached? She snubbed Trump by introducing him without the traditional language (“I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States”). Instead, shattering a norm, she merely said, “Members of Congress, the president of the United States.” (The previous year, Pelosi’s famous sarcastic-applause moment came when Trump said, “We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good.” You show ‘em Nancy, down with cooperation!)
At the 2020 address, she proceeded to end the evening with a historically petulant display of childishness when she ripped up Trump’s speech. Her defense of this is that she didn’t have a pen so she made little tears in the pages that she wanted to come back to, supposedly because they contained “lies, misrepresentations and untruths.” She does not cite a single untruth in the book but “my members were furious. You could see steam coming out of the caucus” because Trump “used the Congress, the House chamber, as a reality-show set.” Yet even Page has to concede that Pelosi’s temper tantrum was “the most public display in modern times from the leader of one branch of government to another.” [sic: Pelosi was not the leader of one branch, merely of one half of one branch]. Pelosi fan Ruth Marcus chided her in the Washington Post: “There is no out-Trumping Trump.” Mike Pence, standing imperturbable next to her, applauded and completely ignored her preschool-level theatrics.
But then again Pelosi has always been a bit of a drama queen. Back in Baltimore, where her machine-politician dad was mayor, she used to be driven to school grandly by the mayor’s driver. Daddy used to arrange to have municipal boats used named after her and she would christen them in the harbor while posing for pictures that would run in the paper. A college classmate (she went to Trinity College in Baltimore) notes that when others were discussing political principles, she was more interested in political power — as in how to acquire it. What 20-year-old kid is such a brazen machine pol?
Pelosi’s obliviousness to the effects of what happens when she goes out to create drama were highlighted during a Congressional trip to China in 1991 where she and others unfurled a banner in Tiananmen Square reading “To Those Who Died for Democracy in China” in Chinese and English. “It caused an international incident, as she knew it would,” Page writes, acknowledging that the stunt also earned her camera crews a beating from Chinese guards for filming it. She gets the publicity, the little people get the bruises.
That’s how Princess Nancy has seen her role since the days when her daddy was king of Baltimore. Representing a large, diverse party is a different story. Pelosi is so bad at her job that it’s no wonder that her biggest fans are Republicans. RNC staffer turned White House spokesman Sean Spicer told Page, “Nancy Pelosi was literally the best gift that Republicans had, especially in terms of fund-raisng. I mean, we owe her a special debt of gratitude for the amount of money that she was able to raise for us.”
Never retire, Nancy.