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Mary McGrory

Signs of Democratic Life

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, November 14, 2002; Page A33

He is called "the Hammer."

She's a velvet hammer.

He is Tom DeLay, the newly elected House majority leader, who is all coercion and threat. She is Nancy Pelosi of California, who is all persuasion and smiles.

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DeLay was unopposed. Pelosi was opposed, fitfully and futilely, by a series of Democrats who seemed to be seeking the ink and airtime that hopeless aspirants can sometimes wring from a contest that was over before it began. Pelosi spent 34 months seeking the whip's job and prepared for the next step just as meticulously.

Whatever they say about Nancy Pelosi -- "San Francisco Democrat" is the epithet du jour -- they never say she can't count. On Tuesday, lissome in lipstick red, she dashed from phone to phone in her whip office taking calls from late converts and congratulations from all over the country.

She doesn't care what they say about her. "It's a compliment, really," she says, brown eyes wide, perfect teeth sparkling. She knows the White House will do everything to dis her, the president will give her a nickname, and there will be snickering from the back rows in the House chamber on both sides whenever she puts a foot wrong.

"I have perfect confidence in my ability to do this job," she says. "They're not electing me because of my ideology or my gender." (She's the first female leader in history.) "I know I can lead the Democrats into a consensus on issues so the Republicans can't mischaracterize what we're doing."

Her elevation has provided the only signs of Democratic life on the Hill. In the Senate, the gnashing of teeth is the sound most heard. Democrats are gathered around the wheelchair of Max Cleland of Georgia, a triple amputee from Vietnam service who was turned out of office by a Republican draft-dodger -- C. Saxby Chambliss had four deferments for a trick knee -- who accused him of a want of patriotism. Their rage is mitigated only by the news that Cleland is newly engaged to be married and looks quite cheerful.

The difference between Senate and House is that the House Democrats have been under the thumb of Republicans since 1995, while the senators have been a majority for 16 months and are now going through the agonies of giving up gavels, offices and other majority perks. They were not prepared for such a drastic change of fortune. Their leader, Tom Daschle, mourns that their message was drowned out by the presidential clamor about war and terror. Whip Harry Reid rails against misleading pollsters and the Democrats' failure to heed DeLay's warning of last summer that he was about to unleash a get-out-the-vote drive the likes of which had never been seen. One of the bitterest things about the rout was having Republicans beat them at their own game.

Both Pelosi and DeLay are formidable personalities. Both can raise money, and both are fervent disciples of grass roots. In 2000, when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent some $90 million to pick up one House seat, Pelosi oversaw the victorious campaigns of five California contenders -- all of whom were reelected on Nov. 5.

Pelosi and DeLay probably could not discuss issues with any profit to either, except possibly child welfare legislation. He is a tiger at protecting poor children. She has stood almost alone in her defense of human rights in China. But they can talk politics.

They respect each other. He came to her district once to inspect an AIDS clinic; when she was sworn in seven months ago as whip, he was there. On Wednesday they bumped into each other in the hall outside the chamber and wished each other luck.

She doesn't faint or scream when she's called a liberal. She is a most feminine feminist, not the kind to raise hackles. The most animated conversations in these gloomy days are about Nancy Pelosi's ability to rally drooping Democrats.

To some she is salvation in a designer suit, to others a McGovern in skirts, sure to lead her party far to the left, far from the mainstream. She doesn't do well on television, giving speeches instead of answers, and is incapable of the sound bite that makes headlines and bumper stickers.

She sets out with a united caucus. She bound the members to her by her crisp organizational skills and her hospitality. Right and left mingled happily with guards and secretaries at her buffet suppers in the whip suite on nights of late debates, partaking of Mexican soul food, or Italian dishes. It helped them to realize that having as your leader a bright woman who understands the importance of eating well isn't the worst thing that could happen to a wounded party.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company