Opinion | Nancy Pelosi, Liberated and Loving It
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By Maureen Dowd
WASHINGTON — It’s not a pretty sight when pols lose power. They wilt, they crumple, they cling to the vestiges, they mourn their vanished entourage and perks. How can their day in the sun be over? One minute they’re running the world and the next, they’re in the room where it doesn’t happen.
Donald Trump was so freaked out at losing power that he was willing to destroy the country to keep it.
I went to lunch with Nancy Pelosi at the Four Seasons to find out how she was faring, now that she has gone from being one of the most powerful women in the world — second in line to the presidency — and one of the most formidable speakers in American history to a mere House backbencher.
I was expecting King Lear, howling at the storm, but I found Gene Kelly, singing in the rain. Pelosi was not crying in her soup. She was basking as she scarfed down French fries, a truffle-butter roll and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts — all before the main course. She was literally in the pink, ablaze in a hot-pink pantsuit and matching Jimmy Choo stilettos, shooting the breeze about Broadway, music and sports. Showing off her four-inch heels, the 82-year-old said, “I highly recommend suede because it’s like a bedroom slipper.”
Fans dropped by our booth to thank Pelosi, and women in the restaurant gave me thumbs-ups, simply because I was sitting with her.
“I wonder, Maureen, girl to girl, I keep thinking I should feel a little more, I don’t know,” she hesitated, looking for the right word. Over the course of our conversation, she said the word was “regretful,” and she thought about it in church, and during morning and night prayers, but she just wasn’t feeling it. “It’s just the time, and that’s it. Upward and onward. I’m thrilled with the transition. I think it was beautiful.”
Her daughter Alexandra, a documentary filmmaker, assured me that it’s not an act. “I can tell you, in my 52 years of being alive on this earth, I have never had the kind of weekend I’m having right now,” she said last Sunday. “My mother is at peak happiness. I’ve never seen her like this. It’s like she’s floating through the air. It’s fascinating for my kids because they don’t know this person.
“I think you want to enjoy being old. I don’t think you want to spend your final days fighting with Kevin McCarthy about how many seats you get on Appropriations.”
Before I could broach the humiliating spectacle of McCarthy abasing himself to the loonies on the far right and being tortured by preposterous Matt Gaetz, Nancy Pelosi brought up her successor.
She looked at me, her brown eyes widening, and said: “I’m sad for Kevin that he couldn’t do that in a way that brought a little more dignity to the House of Representatives. It’s strange.” She added, “What happened was inexplicable.”
The woman is, as her friend and fellow California lawmaker Anna Eshoo said, “satin and steel.” I tried to keep a straight face at Pelosi’s satiny solicitude. She had, after all, called the Jello-spined McCarthy “a moron” in 2021 after he criticized the Capitol physician’s mask mandate.
I dryly asked the devout Catholic if she was praying for McCarthy, the way she once prayed for her nemesis Donald Trump.
“Yeah, I was, because I was praying for the House,” she said. “It was just stunning that he wouldn’t be ready. You know what your challenges are. Just be ready. What they were seeing, whether they realized or not, was an incredible shrinking speakership.
“Really, in order to even honor — ‘honor’ isn’t the word — in order to recognize some of the requests that were being made, you have to have the leverage to get the job done. They were undoing his ability to do what they were asking him to do. That was most unfortunate. I don’t want to see the job turn into something else. It has to be the speakership.”
Did she give McCarthy any advice?
Yes, she said; before the first vote, when he seemed confident, she told him, “Get it done.”
But for four long days — days in which McCarthy was brought low by the ugly forces he had helped unleash — he couldn’t get it done.
“Well,” she observed, popping another chocolate in her mouth, “you do have to know how to count.”
At one point during the later rounds of voting in the McMarathon, Eshoo said, Pelosi asked her for a pen. “She grabbed part of the newspaper, and she was running the numbers herself,” Eshoo said. “She had the numbers before the numbers ever appeared. When I left the Capitol that night, I wish I had kept the rumpled newspaper used by the master of numbers.”
Pelosi said she found it “particularly concerning” when McCarthy “went up to Gaetz on the floor. That seemed to be unnecessary.” She said, why not “work it out in the bathroom” or some other private space. “To me, it was indicative of the disrespect they had for the Congress of the United States, that they would not have had their act together. It was a cause of wonder that they had to take 15 votes. How does that bode for what comes next?”
Pelosi did not accept an invitation to sit with her protégé, the new minority leader, Hakeem Jeffries, for the speaker votes. She did not want to be the Godfather whispering in the ear of Michael Corleone. She chose to sit near the back with her old friends in the California delegation, Eshoo, Doris Matsui and Mike Thompson.
Pelosi had vowed not to hover over the new leadership, telling reporters, “I have no intention of being the mother-in-law in the kitchen saying that ‘my son doesn’t like the stuffing that way — this is the way we make it in our family.’”
Some in the room felt that Steny Hoyer, her old deputy, looked needy, still sitting up front behind the new leadership.
I asked Pelosi if she had to persuade Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, her old No. 3, to step back and make room for a new generation.
“I’m not responsible for them,” she said. “No.”
Eshoo said Pelosi does not need to cling because her tenure was “jaw-dropping with a real sense of awe about the place and who came before us.” Her reputation, Eshoo said, “will stand the way the Washington Monument stands. They can’t chisel away at that.”
Not that there weren’t those who tried. For Republican candidates, Fox News and the right, she was a “Satan” to rally against, the epitome of Democratic evil. “S.N.L.” caricatured her as an uber-lib in 2006, with Kristen Wiig, as Pelosi, talking to a pair of chain-and-leather-clad aides, one with a gag in his mouth. But the far left of her caucus never made things easy for her, either, and some moderate Democrats even made a pathetic stab at deposing her. She never won over pundits, as Tip O’Neill did, despite accomplishments to match his.
I asked Pelosi to compare working with President Barack Obama and President Biden.
They were both “Senate-centric,” she said, but “they connected with the American people in different ways.”
“Obama in a more Obama-esque way” — here she waved her hand over her head — “and Joe in a real regular-Joe way” — here she waved her hand over her heart. “Both of them are quite wonderful. I always say to people: ‘You have to know your Why. Why do you think you should be the one? What is your vision?’ And you have to know your What — how to get it done.’ They’re both good at that.” In the case of Obama’s signature health care plan, it required all Pelosi’s legislative legerdemain to provide the What to his Why and power it into law.
Even before Pelosi had a chance to turn over the gavel, the inmates had taken over the asylum. The madness includes scenes of the country teetering on the edge of financial default; Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene throwing down in the congressional ladies’ room; the backlash against giving spots on the Homeland Security and Oversight Committees to Greene — who said that if she had been running the Jan. 6 attack, “we would have won” and it would have been armed, and who blamed “space lasers” she said were controlled by a prominent Jewish family for a wildfire in California; and, of course, the fabulist follies of the Untalented Mr. Ripley, George Santos, the anti-drag queen/alleged former drag queen whose most recent nadir was getting accused of pilfering money from a disabled veteran’s dog.
While McCarthy tried to quell the chaos, Pelosi was busy ruminating on whether she should wear a blue and yellow sweater (Golden State Warriors colors) to take her teenage grandsons to the game against the Wizards that afternoon; they were also going to the White House Tuesday to watch the championship team be honored. When Alexandra complained that her kids would miss school if Mimi, as the boys call her, took them to the Warriors’ celebration, Mimi replied, “This is the White House with Steph Curry.” End of discussion.
Even Pelosi’s old sparring partners have bowed before her mastery of politics. She was regarded by many on the Hill as an Armani dilettante when she arrived in Congress in 1987, an affluent San Francisco housewife with a frozen smile, a well-connected daughter of a former Baltimore congressman and mayor. But she is finishing up her career as “one tough son of a bitch,” as the former Speaker John Boehner told me. He calls the first Madam Speaker the best speaker of the modern era; he even cried at her portrait-unveiling at the Capitol last month.
She knew how to raise money and get her candidates elected, he said, and “she held her caucus together in an unbelievable fashion.” He added, “When push came to shove, she just whipped them in line. I don’t have a mean bone in my body. All right? I just don’t. She does.” He chuckled with admiration for his old adversary.
Abigail Spanberger, a Democratic lawmaker from Virginia, saw the steely side of Pelosi after she co-sponsored legislation to ban current members of Congress and their families from trading individual stocks. Spanberger claimed that Pelosi stalled until the bill was moribund. (It has now been reintroduced.) Pelosi — whose husband holds a fortune in stock — argued that lawmakers should be able to participate in the free-market economy.
Eshoo recalled the time in 2019 that Pelosi (in an interview with me) brushed back A.O.C. and the Squad, saying that they might rule on Twitter but in the House, “They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”
The part of Alexandra Pelosi’s HBO documentary about her mother that got the most attention was film from Jan. 6, when the speaker said about President Trump, moments before the mob in the hallways screamed for her blood, “If he comes, I’m going to punch him out.” It was a raw moment for Nancy Pelosi, described by Eshoo as “a lady with both an inner and an outer refinement about her.”
Nancy and Alexandra Pelosi say they’re not sure whether she actually would have thrown a haymaker if he had invaded her turf. “Perhaps we’ll never know,” Alexandra said. As speaker, Pelosi did offer a master class, with a fiery orange coat, wagging finger, dramatic ripping and sarcastic clapping, in how a woman could spar with Trump. His nickname for her, “Nervous Nancy,” did not hit the mark because, as Eshoo said, at critical moments “she never blinked or had a white knuckle.”
Alexandra agreed: “I’ve never seen her crack. It’s in her DNA. She doesn’t cry, she doesn’t whine, she doesn’t throw tantrums. Her motto is, as the Marines say, ‘Embrace the suck.’”
I asked Pelosi how the savage attack on her husband of nearly 60 years, Paul, had affected her decision to step down. The beating with a hammer by a QAnon believer left him looking like Frankenstein under his dashing hat, Alexandra said, and with an incapacitated hand that the doctors thought he might lose. His daughter said he has handled it gracefully because he’s “a really cool cat.”
“I was probably going to go anyway,” Nancy Pelosi said. But, she added, “say we won by 20 votes and it was a big thing, I might have stayed. It’s true that I had two thoughts in mind when I went to the floor, to stay or not to stay. It was time to move on.”
She said that in 2016: “If Hillary had won, I could have left. But I was not going to let Donald Trump have his way with the government.” She was also irritated that she was constantly asked if she was too old for the job when Mitch McConnell, who’s about the same age, wasn’t.
She said that she believed the Democrats could have held onto the House in November if top New York pols had realized that the key issue in that state was crime.
“That is an issue that had to be dealt with early on, not 10 days before the election,” Pelosi said, adding about Kathy Hochul, “The governor didn’t realize soon enough where the trouble was.”
Returning to the subject of her husband, she said that it was unimaginable having her home turned into “a crime scene” and then getting hit with sick conspiracy theories about Paul, and Republicans making fun of the attack.
“The fact that they were after me and then they hit him,” Pelosi said, looking stricken. “He’s a strong person, athletic. This has been tough. It’s going to be about three or four more months before he’s really back to normal.”
Alexandra, always the id to her mother’s superego, was more blunt: “I think that weighed really heavy on her soul. I think she felt really guilty. I think that really broke her. Over Thanksgiving, she had priests coming, trying to have an exorcism of the house and having prayer services.”
Alexandra has always been outspoken about the personal sacrifice for the family that her mother’s public service entails, given all the demonization; the daughter teased her parents that her mother had turned their last name into a curse word.
“It’s a miracle that this kind of thing never happened sooner,” Alexandra said. “We were always worried. It’s like your worst fear coming to life.”
Now that Nancy Pelosi has made way for fresh leadership, does she think President Biden should do the same? He would be 86 by the time he finished another term. (Chuck Grassley was just re-elected to the Senate at 89 and fractured his hip this month.)
She said that Biden “has done a great job” and will make his own decision on whether to run again. She said he will have to weigh the pros and cons: “Is age a positive thing for him? No.” But she said that age is “a relative thing,” noting that she met recently with centenarian Norman Lear and he was sharp as a tack. On the plus side, she said, “I think Jill is ready to go, for him to run.”
Does Pelosi think Biden is the only one who can beat Trump in 2024?
“No,” she replied. “I think we have other great candidates when the time comes.”
I said that some Democrats are rethinking a Biden re-election run because they are upset over the slippery, inept way the White House has handled the discovery of classified documents from Biden’s days as vice president in multiple places — including the Wilmington, Del., garage that houses his green 1967 Corvette. They worry that it neutralizes Democrats’ ability to go after Trump on the issue, especially after the president cavalierly said on Thursday that he has “no regrets” about it.
Pelosi said that her long years on the House Intelligence Committee taught her that there’s a big difference between the sort of “obstruction” on documents that Trump engaged in and the way Biden “openly put forward” the documents.
Also, she said, it’s important to know, “What is the nature of the documents? Maybe there’s one word in there that shouldn’t be.” Or, she said, is it in the “strictest” classified category?
I noted that even analysts on MSNBC were saying that the White House’s messaging was terrible, and Pelosi replied: “I’m not a big fan of MSNBC. I love some individuals there, but. …”
Pelosi’s accomplishments are stunning. Besides getting Obama’s health care bill passed, she saved the economy when she forced through the bank bailout in 2008. She shepherded the spending bill last year with a historic investment in climate change. She was that rare, courageous lawmaker who fought the Iraq invasion, while other top Democrats inexplicably went along with the tragic decision.
When I asked other women in journalism what they thought I should ask Pelosi, they all said the same thing: “How does she do it?”
She climbed to the top in a “Boys will be boys” universe while raising five kids she bore in six years. She said she had many 20-hour days as speaker, days that were often scheduled in five-minute increments, according to aides, and she still tirelessly works and travels around the globe and, while she doesn’t drink, she and her husband like to socialize. And on top of all this, she manages to stay meticulously groomed, wearing masks that matched her outfits during the Covid siege, and sticking with her stilettos to briskly walk the Capitol’s marble floors, even as women who are 20 years younger phase out their high heels.
“You’re a freak of nature,” I told her.
She agreed: “I’m not saying everybody’s like me because I am a little bit freakish. I have to say I really feel quite blessed in that regard.”
In her daughter’s documentary, there’s a funny scene where Pelosi does housework while she listens to a pandemic briefing from Mike Pence and members of the Trump administration. She is clearly not impressed with their strategy on Covid. After fulsomely thanking the vice president, she puts him on mute and asks Alexandra, who’s behind the camera, “Am I a bitch or what?”
Pelosi laughed when I asked about it. “I did my rugs,” she said. “I did my kitchen. I made my bed. And he’s still talking.”
She credits her energy to Italian genes and dark chocolate. She has even started using her famous sweet tooth to avoid uncomfortable questions.
When I told her I’d pulled a muscle doing yoga, she smiled. “See? I keep away from all exercise.” She power walks, but her daughter said that turns into “walks while taking power calls.” Alexandra once saw her mother on an exercise bike, eating chocolate ice cream out of the container while talking on the telephone and lightly cycling.
When a Fox News reporter asked Pelosi in the hall of Congress recently about how the president has handled the classified document kerfuffle, she nibbled on a cookie, indicating she couldn’t talk because her mouth was full. It evoked the days when Ronald Reagan would pretend he didn’t hear tough questions because of the whirring blades of Marine One.
I thought of Pelosi’s indefatigability when another of the world’s most prominent women, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, said she would quit before the upcoming election because she was out of energy and resolve. The inspiring and charming 42-year-old, who has a 4-year-old daughter and has been in office five years, said she does not think you should stay on the hot tin roof of politics unless “you have a full tank and a bit in reserve.”
If I were Pelosi, I would be supine on a chaise in my St. Helena vineyard watching BritBox. But, over a double espresso, she reeled off some recent weekend activities, stacking them Jenga-style.
She was back in San Francisco the weekend before last. On that Sunday, she had a thank-you event for supporters. Then she went to the 49ers game — “which we won” — and later swung by the San Francisco Jazz Festival to see trumpeter Chris Botti.
She spent last weekend at a hotel in New York. She and Paul went to see “Leopoldstadt” on Saturday afternoon and took Alexandra’s sons to the closing show of “The Music Man” on Sunday. The family went to Balthazar Saturday night, where Paul and Nancy previewed many of the songs from the Meredith Willson show. (Paul once played Prof. Harold Hill in a charity show.)
“They have joy for the first time since the attack,” Alexandra said. “We sat there for three hours having all these courses. She never pulled out her phone. We used to sit down and tell the waiter: ‘Oh, we’re in a rush.’”
Last month, Pelosi invited me, along with several other women reporters, to lunch in the Board of Education Room, which was once, as Jackie Calmes, a columnist for The Los Angeles Times, put it, “the Capitol’s most historic man cave.” Earlier speakers, like “Cactus Jack” Garner and Sam Rayburn, both from Texas, had invited younger lawmakers, like Lyndon Johnson, for drinks, cards and bull sessions.
Opposite a painting of the Texas state seal, Pelosi had ordered up two new frescoes of her own — the Golden Gate Bridge and suffragists marching outside the Capitol in 1919.
When she came to the House in 1987, determined to sound the alarm about AIDS, she said the men in power would dismiss the women with remarks like, “Why don’t the women just make a list of the things they’d like to see done and give us the list?” She revealed that she still feels the sting of sexism — “a thousand nicks a day, even though people may not realize it or intend it” — and slyly said of the men who tried to hamper her political rise, “Poor babies.” She’s planning a memoir “to set the record straight.”
As we left the Four Seasons, Pelosi showed me a turquoise ring she was wearing given to her by Afghan female artisans and said she “would like to see Congress be a stronger voice for women in the world.” She also said she would like to help the women in Congress in any way she could.
Won’t she still be a celebrity, even without her old title and big staff and wide balcony?
“I was a woman of great power, and now I’ll be a woman of great influence,” she said. “Whatever that happens to be.”
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