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Smile, Though Your Head Is Aching

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, October 10, 2007

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in a determinedly good mood when she sat down to lunch with reporters yesterday. She entered the room beaming and, over the course of an hour, smiled no fewer than 31 times and got off at least 23 laughs.

But her spirits soured instantly when somebody asked about the anger of the Democratic "base" over her failure to end the war in Iraq.

"Look," she said, the chicken breast on her plate untouched. "I had, for five months, people sitting outside my home, going into my garden in San Francisco, angering neighbors, hanging their clothes from trees, building all kinds of things -- Buddhas? I don't know what they were -- couches, sofas, chairs, permanent living facilities on my front sidewalk."

Unsmilingly, she continued: "If they were poor and they were sleeping on my sidewalk, they would be arrested for loitering, but because they have 'Impeach Bush' across their chest, it's the First Amendment."

Though opposed to the war herself, Pelosi has for months been a target of an antiwar movement that believes she hasn't done enough. Cindy Sheehan has announced a symbolic challenge to Pelosi in California's 8th Congressional District. And the speaker is seething.

"We have to make responsible decisions in the Congress that are not driven by the dissatisfaction of anybody who wants the war to end tomorrow," Pelosi told the gathering at the Sofitel, arranged by the Christian Science Monitor. Though crediting activists for their "passion," Pelosi called it "a waste of time" for them to target Democrats. "They are advocates," she said. "We are leaders."

It was a rather fierce response to the party's liberal base, which frightens many a congressional Democrat. But it wasn't out of character for the new speaker. Pelosi's fixed and constant smile makes her appear as if she is cutting an ad for a whitening toothpaste. But when you listen to the words that come from her grinning maw, the smile seems more akin to that of a barracuda.

One reporter asked about Democratic lawmakers who proposed a tax increase for the war. "They were not making legislation; they were making a point," Pelosi judged.

Another asked about a Republican congressman's complaints that the word "God" was removed from certificates accompanying congressional flags. "I don't know what his point is," Pelosi volleyed.

Complaints that she didn't go far enough on climate-change legislation? "We did not say we were going to do any more than we did."

The Senate's stalemate on the war? "We in the House will not be confining our legislation initiatives to what is legislatively possible in the Senate."

Pelosi admitted no mistakes and claimed no regrets as she reflected on her first session in the speaker's chair. "I'm very proud of the work of this Congress," she declared. Evidently so: She repeated how "proud" she was nine times. Passing the recommendations of the 9/11 commission made her "very proud," while energy legislation made her "very, very proud," and new ethics rules made her "especially proud."

"What do you see as your greatest mistake?" asked one reporter.

Pelosi smiled. "Why don't you tell me?" she proposed. She smiled again, then laughed. " 'Cause I think we're doing just great." She laughed again.

Even those approval ratings for Congress, in the teens and 20s, didn't evoke regrets. "I don't like the numbers for Congress," she admitted, but "I'm very pleased with the Democratic numbers." She then took an unusual detour into polling minutiae. "Today the Rasmussen numbers were the third time that we were double-digit ahead in the generic," she reported, "and the third month in a row we were in the high 40s."

Holders of high office typically avoid discussions like that because it makes them look, well, political. But Pelosi did not hesitate to plunge into the political, explaining that "it was so important for us to bring the president's numbers down two years ago on Social Security" because it discouraged Republican candidates from running for Congress.

Pelosi may have realized that her words sounded too calculating, for at one point she begged the reporters' indulgence for her to "be allowed a partisan moment." She smiled at her joke, then chuckled.

The ready grin seemed at odds with other body language that suggested Pelosi was not having an enjoyable lunch. She ignored her salad and roll, then waved off the chicken and vegetables and left her dessert untouched. "The tea is fine," she told the waiter, taking her first sip more than halfway through the lunch.

But the smile had its uses. She smiled warmly while telling a reporter in the room that his story was completely wrong. She laughed heartily when somebody mentioned the awkward interview in which Whoopi Goldberg expressed a lust for Pelosi's husband. She grinned when mentioning the fight over children's health care. And she laughed while discussing how she has "striven" to work with Bush on Iraq. "Is that a word? 'Striven'? " she asked.

It seemed that only the antiwar advocates had the power to wipe the smile off Pelosi's face. Speaking about ethics legislation, she boasted that "we have drained the swamp" in Congress and pleased government watchdog groups. "At last," she added, "some advocates from the outside who are satisfied."

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