What will Nancy Pelosi do now that she’s no longer being underestimated?
By John Zipperer
Then there’s Dr. No, the derisive nickname given to Tommy Thompson when he waged political battle as leader of the minority Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature. But Thompson would go on to serve 14 years as the governor of a state that had never before had a governor last even eight years.
San Francisco’s own Nancy Pelosi has similarly benefited from observers and critics underestimating her. The popular line on her has been that she’s too rich and too liberal to be effective leading her party in Washington. When she was running for Democratic minority leader in 2002, Slate’s Joe Klein called her “the very sort of political anachronism the party should studiously avoid.”
This month, however, she’s being hailed (or bemoaned) as the most powerful speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in the past 100 years. Everyone can measure “power” in their own way, of course, but even her detractors are likely – though perhaps grudgingly – agreeing that she’d at the very least be on any list of top nominees.
The Economist went further, writing that Pelosi is “arguably the most powerful woman in American history.”
The high praise was spurred by her leadership in the effort to pass the recent health care reform bill. She reportedly personally convinced enough wavering Democrats to give the bill the necessary majority vote.
A friend of mine heard that and quipped, “I’d like to have been a fly on the wall at those meetings,” referring to the bare-knuckles arm-twisting for which Congress is famous. But Pelosi might just have gotten to her position and defied the popular perception of her by using her power differently.
In 1985, years before she would be elected to Congress, Pelosi was a member of a fact-finding trip to Central America. It was the height of the Reagan Doctrine’s efforts to stem the leftist tide in that region. Also in that group of travelers was defense and arms control expert Gloria Duffy. Several years ago, Duffy remembered Pelosi’s actions on that trip to war-torn Latin America: “When our group was initially frozen with horror at the sight before us, she was the first to move over to a hospital bed in San Salvador to comfort the young soldier with the remains of his leg encased in a rude wooden splint.”
The future speaker of the House of Representatives also showed her hard-working side. When the group returned to its hotel in Managua at 1 a.m., Duffy says, “there was Nancy, who had skipped supper, in the middle of the night at the pay-phone bank in the deserted lobby, calling back to the U.S. to reach those with whom she had Democratic Party business.”
In early April, Pelosi came to The Commonwealth Club as part of what some commentators have called her “victory tour” following the passage of health care reform. For an hour, she engaged in a public conversation with Duffy, who now serves as the club’s president and CEO. Pelosi talked health care, immigration reform, Wall Street regulation, deficit reduction, and more – including her belief that certain Republicans would work with Democrats on some of those issues, but if they didn’t, that wouldn’t stop her from pushing the bills through Congress.
After the event, as she worked her way toward the exit, shaking hands along the way, a protestor yelled loudly, “Stop the war!”
Pelosi’s reaction was telling. She said, apparently talking to herself, “Yes, the war, we should have discussed the war.”
You can read into her response what you will. But she didn’t appear annoyed at the protestor. She didn’t snap at her staff. She didn’t even shoot the protestor a dirty look. She replied as calmly and quietly as she would have if she were having a one-on-one conversation with the woman.
The war protestor might be more comforted by Pelosi’s reaction to her shouted demand than by any thought that Pelosi is going to be replaced by someone who will do the protestor’s bidding. In fact, opponents within and outside of her party who think Pelosi won’t last long at the pinnacle of legislative power would do well to remember Helmut Kohl. Or Tommy Thompson, who eventually shed his Dr. No title and earned another nickname in Wisconsin: Governor for Life.