Another Biographical First for the Speaker

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By Edward Epstein,
a reporter for Congressional Quarterly and former writer for the San Francisco Chronicle in San Francisco and Washington
Wednesday, January 23, 2008


The Rise of Nancy Pelosi

By Vincent Bzdek

Palgrave Macmillan. 264 pp. $24.95

As she wraps up the first year of her historic tenure as first female speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi is prompting a mini-boom for publishers as the subject of at least four new biographies.

Pelosi's story is a compelling one, whose general outline is familiar to those who follow American politics even cursorily. The daughter of Baltimore's New Deal Democratic congressman and three-term mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. and his strong-willed wife, Annunciata, the future speaker moved west to San Francisco in the late 1960s after marrying Paul Pelosi, became a super-duper Democratic Party fundraiser and was elected to the House in 1987. She assiduously worked her way up through the ranks and smashed the "marble ceiling" of Congress's old-boys' network last year to become the highest-ranking woman in U.S. political history.

Journalists, publishers and Pelosi herself know that her story -- with its twin subtexts of how a "San Francisco liberal" managed to lead her party back into the majority after a dozen unhappy years chafing under Republican control and how her rise has potent implications for women trying to reach power parity with men -- packs commercial potential. Books about her are being rushed into print at what for the publishing industry is supersonic speed.

First up is "Woman of the House: The Rise of Nancy Pelosi," by Washington Post News Editor Vincent Bzdek. His book will be followed this spring by "Madame Speaker: Nancy Pelosi's Life, Times, and Rise to Power" by Marc Sandalow, former Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Chronicle. Another veteran journalist, former Chicago Tribune and Newsday congressional correspondent Elaine S. Povich, is at work on "Nancy Pelosi: A Biography," aimed at the high school and junior college market. If you detect a striking similarity in theme and approach in these books, you're probably right.

The problem for all these authors, whom Pelosi has cooperated with either a little or not at all, is that the 67-year-old speaker has signed a contract to produce her own still-untitled autobiography this year. Pelosi, a demanding, detail-oriented workaholic boss, is teaming up with James Kaplan, who, after collaborating on "as told to" autobiographies with such mercurial personalities as tennis great John McEnroe and movie comic Jerry Lewis, might find Pelosi a comparative breeze.

Bzdek's book, which offers a rather admiring picture of its subject, has all the pluses and minuses of being first. Though workmanlike, it resembles an extended newspaper profile more than a full-blown book. That probably has to do with the brutally short deadline that Bzdek confronted.

He relies heavily on a handful of extensive interviews with such Pelosi intimates as three of her closest friends in the House, Democrats George Miller and Anna Eshoo of the San Francisco Bay Area and John Murtha of Pennsylvania, who as a pro-military Marine veteran makes an unlikely confidant for a speaker who is a longtime member of the House Progressive Caucus. The result can be enlightening, but also repetitive, as Bzdek's interviewees tell how Pelosi has managed not only to rise to the top herself but also to bring along a new generation of women who have sharply increased female representation in Congress, or how she campaigned for and won races within the House Democratic Caucus for minority whip and minority leader and then masterminded her party's triumph in 2006.

Bzdek's problem is that too frequently he writes as if through a journalistic gauze of memories -- that is, he tells the reader things rather than using specific examples or colorful details to show us. His book comes alive in those few instances where he breaks through that gauze and offers vivid firsthand accounts.

Nowhere is that clearer than in his well-told story of the most dramatic moment in Pelosi's life. Early in 1987, Rep. Sala Burton of San Francisco, the widow and successor of Rep. Phillip Burton, the tough, tremendously skilled liberal lion who lost a race for House majority leader by a single vote, herself lay dying of cancer in George Washington University Hospital. The Burtons were Pelosi's main California political mentors, and now Sala Burton, with an eye on continuing the family's liberal legacy, summoned her friend to her bedside and asked her to run for her seat after her death. Pelosi, then a 47-year-old mother of five known mainly as a Democratic hostess in San Francisco's tony Pacific Heights neighborhood, agreed. After winning a raucous special election, Pelosi was on her way.

Bzdek uses several lenses, including Pelosi's own recollections, to make this moment come alive. But the vividness doesn't last. Pelosi apparently granted Bzdek one interview, which is more cooperation than she has extended to Sandalow or Povich. Such stinginess with her time, recollections and insights inevitably raises the bar for her own book. If Pelosi can let loose and tell readers what she really thinks about the major events of her life and personalities she has known, including Presidents John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush and such House powerhouses as Speaker Tip O'Neill and Newt Gingrich, she will have a whale of a tale. If she doesn't, Bzdek's book could be about as close as we'll ever get to knowing what makes Pelosi tick.

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