Nancy Pelosi's True Grit
Political journalist Molly Ball explains how the first female Speaker of the House has beaten the men--including Donald Trump--at their own game
When I saw it in the bookstore last May, I had to have it: Molly Ball’s Pelosi (MacMillan, 2020). Until just before the Covid-19 lockdown, I had been working for Elizabeth Warren, and I was making the turn to support Joe Biden.
But I had some time to kill before the serious national campaigning began, I was discouraged about the failure of all the female Democratic candidates to even come close to the nomination, and digging deep into the life of one of my favorite politicians, was a great way to find a little comfort. The book, the first full-length treatment of Nancy Pelosi’s trajectory from the mean streets of Democratic Baltimore to the third-ranking politician in the United States, did not disappoint.
Pelosi--decked with a graphic of the first and only female Speaker of the House in a now-iconic red coat and sunglasses—is fast-paced and fun to read. Its author is Molly Ball, a self-described “beltway political nerd,” national political correspondent for Time Magazine, and a prize-winning journalist who has also written for The Atlantic, Politico, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and the Las Vegas Sun.
But as you will see below, Ball also thinks that telling a good story is the way to involve people in politics. Last week, she took some time to sit down and tell me the story of what she learned about the most powerful female politician in the United States.
Nancy Pelosi tears up her copy of President Donald Trump's State of the Union address, Washington, D.C., February 4, 2020. Photo credit: mccv/Shutterstock.com
Claire Potter: Molly, can you tell me why you decided to write a book about Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi?
Molly Ball: Sure. When I started at Time Magazine in late 2017, one of my first assignments was to write a cover profile of Pelosi, who was then Minority Leader. Although she became Leader of the House Democratic Caucus in 2003, and the first woman Speaker of the House in 2006, she was never on the cover of Time, or any American news magazine, and she was slightly bitter about that. She has been quoted in the past saying things like: "Isn't it curious? [Mitch] McConnell has been on the cover. [John] Boehner has been on the cover."
CP: That’s hilarious. Why was she slighted, though?
MB: I don't think it was a nefarious plot. But it did seem odd that, until I wrote that piece, the first woman Speaker of the House in American history was not on the cover of Time or Newsweek or US News. On the other hand, she's also not a big personality like some politicians.
But in September 2018, she was at the center of the midterm election cycle for both the Democrats and the Republicans. The Republicans' entire campaign strategy, not for the first time, was to put Nancy Pelosi's face in hundreds of thousands of scary TV ads.
And for the Democrats, Pelosi was the engine of their fundraising and strategy, but also a source of angst. Would she be the liability that cost Democrats the midterms? Could she overcome dissent within the caucus and keep the gavel even if they did win?
At the same time, the most important political dynamic in American politics in 2017 and 2018 was the historic uprising of American women. I really don’t think there has been anything like it in American history: a women's movement specifically directed to electoral politics, women running for office, and organizing around the elections in historic numbers.
I remember Hillary Clinton even made a slightly irritated comment at the time: "Well, where were all these women when I was running?"
CP: Yes, although you could argue that, in a sense, 2018 was a continuation of the lost 2016 campaign and many of the organizers who drove that women’s uprising had been part of the Clinton campaign.
MB: Right. And here was the irony in 2018: in Pelosi, you arguably had the most powerful woman in American political history, at a moment when women have never been more important to an election. And yet, all anyone wanted to talk about was: When will she go away?
That tension was the backbone of my piece. The other point I made was: Congress is notoriously gridlocked and dysfunctional, and here's someone who has actually been able to make it work. Yes, Nancy Pelosi has a perception problem, but she's very good at her job, and it's a job that nobody else seems to be very good at in this day and age.
I am going to sound like every beltway political nerd when I say this, but I'm obsessed with governing and with the disjunction between politics and governing. Governing is a skill and something that people have to learn to do and get good at.
CP: And Nancy Pelosi is very good at it.
MB: Yes. And I felt like there was more of a story to tell after the profile had come out, so I decided to write a book about her.
CP: Is the media part of the perception problem you are pointing to? I think one of the tensions in political journalism is that the need for stories that draw eyeballs has sometimes pushed stories about how government works off the front page, and the people who make it work, perhaps disadvantaging a politician like Pelosi who is good at her job in part because she is not flamboyant and attention-seeking.
Are major outlets going to put more emphasis on governance now that we have a President and a Congress that will pass legislation?
MB: I hope so. But I do quibble with your premise. I think most reporters care very much about governance and government. What's really the problem is human nature. We like gossip. We like stories. We like them to be juicy. A whole lot more people are reading about Marjorie Taylor Greene today than are reading my long, technical and wonky story about the activists and organizers who worked on the election.
CB: Guilty. I wrote one of those click-baity pieces about Marjorie Taylor Greene that people are reading when they could be understanding the Biden economic package.
MB: There’s nothing wrong with that. I really do think, though, that it's on us as journalists to tell compelling stories about government and policy.
I started out as a general assignment reporter, so I have always wanted to tell good stories. Politics is a great vehicle for that, but I don't like the kind of coverage that tells readers, "This isn't going to be very fun for you, but you should read it." It's on us to create absorbing narratives so that people will read about Congress.
CP: So let’s return to that ambivalence about Nancy Pelosi, because I have no ambivalence about her and have always loved watching her leave male politicians in the dust. I remember where I was sitting in 2006 when she became the first female Speaker of the House. But, given the fact that Pelosi stands for all the right things, why do the feminist movement and Pelosi always seem to be at a slight distance from each other?
MB: She's a complicated character. She has always foregrounded her femininity in a very traditional way but has defined herself on her own terms for her whole career. She certainly considers herself a feminist and the institutional arms of the feminist movement such as EMILY's List and NARAL are very into her. That said, she is a devout Catholic who has been somewhat conflicted about, although a consistent supporter of, reproductive rights over the course of her career.
I've thought about the femininity question a lot too. Remember, from her first campaign, Hillary Clinton was doing the Margaret Thatcher thing, trying to be tough, and almost masculine, to convince people that she had the necessary gravitas to be a Senator, or president, or Secretary of State.
Nancy Pelosi took the opposite approach. She never challenged people’s stereotypes of womanhood as many feminists do, and she's always dressed in a very feminine manner. She also had a very traditional life before entering politics: she was a stay-at-home mom who had five kids in six years, became a volunteer political activist, and then ran for office when all but one of her children were launched.
None of this ought to be viewed as anti-feminist. But it is who she is. I mean, this is a woman who was born in 1940 and she still very much has a 1950s Catholic school sensibility. I think her femininity probably puts a lot of powerful men at ease. And those feminine qualities have also helped her govern. You hear a lot in the House about the personal touches, the relationships that help her whip votes, the thank-you notes, and the orchids she sends. She's always the first one to call when there's a death in the family or someone has fallen ill. Those are certainly stereotypical feminine graces, and they have endeared her to many people.
CP: But Pelosi pairs these social graces with the instincts of a ward boss. In the book, you craft a portrait of her family of origin, her father’s powerful role in the Baltimore Democratic party, and a little girl who learns to do politics because it's actually happening in her home. Pelosi begins her adult life as a traditional wife and a mother in the Bay area, but at the same time, she's putting those skills to work raising money and volunteering for politicians in the California Democratic party.
MB: She definitely went into the family business. Pelosi’s father, Thomas D’Alesandro, was a Congressman when she was born and then became Mayor of Baltimore, and her brother also became Mayor of Baltimore. But in most political families, it's not one person who's in politics, it's the whole family. And women are an important asset. Pelosi’s mother, Anunciata, was very much the woman behind the man, the strategist, the political brain, the enforcer, the organizer. She ran the Baltimore Women's Democratic Club out of the family basement. She was also a notoriously fiery character. She supposedly punched out a poll worker at one point, told off LBJ to his face, and later did the same to Ronald Reagan.
Anunciata was not a woman who backed down, and I think we can see a lot of Nancy Pelosi's personality in that. But without openly criticizing her father, Pelosi was also very frank with me about how her mother was limited by being a woman. Annunciata wanted to go to law school, wanted to be an auctioneer, wanted to go into business, and Thomas D’Alesandro wouldn't let her.
CP: So Nancy Pelosi learned a lot from her father, but her mother’s work—and her frustrations—are an equally important part of the story.
MB: Right. I think anytime a woman achieves some level of prominence, there's a sort of unconscious, mad scramble to find the man responsible for her success. You see this in a lot of the online conversations about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: it's her male chief of staff, it's her boyfriend. Some man must be manipulating her behind the scenes. We're just not capable of giving women full credit and agency for their ideas and strategies, particularly in politics, which has been so male-dominated.
That's part of the reason that Nancy Pelosi's husband has always been very careful to stay out of the spotlight: he knows that people would assume these things about her.
CP: Just to follow on this theme, Molly, there's been a lot of attention in the last few months to Doug Emhoff as the supportive partner to Vice President Kamala Harris. And I wonder if what you're describing is starting to change as men are becoming more comfortable talking about having their careers come second.
MB: I think all of these things are changing gradually. In the book, I try to track some of those changes in how we perceive women's relationship to power and how much they've affected how Nancy Pelosi has been perceived over the course of her career. I also question the extent to which perceptions about her--as opposed to the things that she's done, the actions that she's taken-- consume our understanding of her accomplishments and abilities.
CP: So let’s stay on the topic of men for a bit longer, since it tells us a lot about women. One theme of the book that I thought was fascinating was Pelosi's relationship to Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. They come up together, and they're very competitive with each other. You seemed very interested in that relationship too.
MB: I didn't talk to Pelosi very much about it, but I did interview Mr. Hoyer for the book and he was very generous with his time. They go back a really long way. They're both from the Baltimore area. He comes from a sort of working-class family, whereas she comes from political royalty. They were interns together in Daniel Brewster's office back in 1962 and actually sat on either side of a wall from each other.
Now, Pelosi and Hoyer are the number one and two in the House of Representatives. It's quite a coincidence. And they complement each other well. Most of the House Democrats would tell you they think that they are well-served by the balance these two have struck. Pelosi is obviously much more liberal and also much more partisan in some ways, but that gives her a lot of credibility with the left-wing of the caucus. I think it would be very difficult for a Speaker Hoyer to manage the progressives in the way that Pelosi is able to, for example.
In the book, I describe Pelosi and Hoyer as frenemies: I think that's a pretty accepted terminology for their dynamic. Mr. Hoyer would be the first to tell you that he sees himself as her partner, but not her deputy. He has his own domain and she respects it to some degree. I don't think they're particularly great friends, but they have a good working relationship.
That being said, there are certainly a fair number of people in Washington who believe that part of the reason Nancy Pelosi has hung on as long as she has is to prevent Steny Hoyer from ever becoming Speaker.
But I cannot confirm or deny that.
CP: I want to end by talking about the insurrection of January 6, in which members of the pro-Trump mob were literally hunting Speaker Pelosi and others. She has been targeted by conspiracists like Marjorie Taylor Greene, and my guess is that she receives violent messages and threats constantly.
Yet I've never really heard her speak about it. In contrast, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did a video about how frightened she was. She believed she might die that day, and as she has described it, the incident triggered past trauma.
I'm interested in the difference between an upcoming generation that is willing to open up about the very emotional, difficult aspects of being a woman in politics, and Pelosi's desire to really button that down and keep on moving.
MB: That's a really interesting contrast that you've drawn. For Speaker Pelosi, I think part of it is dispositional, part of it is generational, and part of it is just the way she was raised: she is a very formal, very private person. But it's also true that she never could have gotten to where she is if she let that kind of thing bother her. There is an absolute sewer pipe of bilge directed at Nancy Pelosi every single day. And she has a really incredible ability to simply put it out of her mind.
But it’s not something everyone can do. She's told me that she does spend a lot of time trying to convince more women to run for office, and one of the most common answers that she gets is, "Well, I could never put up with what you have to put up with." I haven't spoken to Pelosi or her staff about the insurrection specifically, but she does have a stock answer for whatever latest horrible thing her detractors have done. She says nothing surprises her, but she will admit to sometimes being disappointed in the Republicans.
With the example of Ocasio-Cortez, you've hit on a change in the way that we are now hopefully allowing powerful women to be human. Over the course of Nancy Pelosi's career, any time she does anything that can be seen as in any way entitled or selfish, even showing people the ice cream in her freezer, it becomes a consuming scandal for weeks. So I think she's learned the hard way never to let people in on a personal level.
But you do have a new cohort that feels differently. Again, some of this may just be that they're different types of people, but these women want to open up and confront that kind of negativity by refusing to shut it down rather than by fencing it off.
CP: We’ve been very lucky to have Nancy Pelosi for the last four years—and you to write about her. Molly, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us at Political Junkie.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research, and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
What I’m writing:
At Alternet, I explore the history of conservative warnings that any move against them, or the issues they promote, is a “slippery slope” to social and political calamity. (“'This will never end': Why conservatives sound increasingly desperate and ominous,” February 5, 2021.)
What I’m reading:
The Marjorie Taylor Greene saga continues: she’s glad she got kicked off her committees because now she will have more time for “holding the Republican Party accountable and pushing them to the right,” not to mention doom-scrolling QAnon threads. (New York Times, February 5, 2021)
“By far the largest chunks of Indivisible funds have fueled extraordinary staff growth, with millions each year devoted to salaries, benefits, office fittings, and travel needs for dozens of professionals, as well as to the costs of programs they directly devise and control.” Theda Skocpol and Caroline Tervo show how a grassroots mobilization quickly became a Beltway behemoth. (The American Prospect, February 4, 2021)
“The ensuing assault and ransacking of the Capitol…triggered the flight of a striking number of its major corporate backers—a development that, if it continues, could make it considerably harder for McConnell to retake the Senate in 2022.” Jane Mayer on why Mitch McConnell finally threw a president he loathed under the bus. (The New Yorker, January 23, 2021)
What I’m watching:
The Marsh family’s Covid-19 lockdown parody of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
So interesting. This line near the end fascinates me because it hints at a shifting paradigm: "With the example of Ocasio-Cortez, you've hit on a change in the way that we are now hopefully allowing powerful women to be human." I see that Pelosi is just naturally more adapted to the misogynist violence of Washington, her personality one that disregards nonsense and in possession of a remarkable sense of personal authority. But most women are not like that because of the society we live in. The "Lean In" philosophy of a Sheryl Sandberg didn't get far with most American women I think, in part, because we are suspicious of taking on an armored self as the only way to power. It doesn't pass the smell test. We want more of a yes-and philosophy: YES I am a woman (black, Asian, Trans, Queer, etc.) AND I have authority. YES I am empathetic AND I can out-think, out-organize, and out-do you in ever way. YES I want the best for the community I represent AND I want the best for the rest of the country and world, too.
I think you are correct about this--and, I think the AOC approach has some advantages and some vulnerabilities. One of the things that has changed political culture is the emotionalism, which can overwhelm the need to do business. The attack on the Capitol, adn everything that preceded it from eh White House, was a kind of ongoing disinformation campaign intended to keep Dems off balance all the time by "making them cry." The idea that tears are the endgame says volumes about the GOP's lack of ideas, but it also suggests there is a percentage in not ever letting them see you cry.