Nancy Pelosi perma-grins and bears it as she hands speaker's gavel to John Boehner

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) was elected speaker of the House Wednesday, ending the time of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at the helm.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 8:00 PM

Why is this woman smiling?

Nancy Pelosi smiled and applauded on the House floor Wednesday afternoon as the clerk read the tally of the vote that formally ended her speakership.

She smiled even as 19 of her Democratic colleagues, one-tenth of her caucus, called out their votes symbolically opposing her as their new minority leader.

By the time she handed the oversized gavel to John Boehner, her emotional successor as House speaker, he was weeping with the flow rate of a lawn sprinkler. Yet Pelosi smiled still.

It was the same joyless perma-grin - really, a grimace with upturned corners of the mouth - that came to define Pelosi during her four years in charge of the House: an expression meant to connote her warmth and sincerity that too often conveyed the opposite.

But there was a genuine reason for Pelosi to smile as she surrendered the gavel: She was returning to a job that suits her better.

As speaker, her record was mixed. She had many major legislative achievements, particularly in the past two years, but she also led her caucus off an electoral cliff, in part because she forced members to take damaging votes on policies that didn't have a chance of passing the Senate.

In her four years as minority leader, by contrast, Pelosi's effectiveness was seldom questioned as she tripped up the majority with her relentless opposition. "If people are ripping your face off," she said before winning the majority in 2006, "you have to rip their face off."

Pelosi is better in the fight than she is in charge, a more able warrior than lawmaker.

She had already begun to return to her warrior ways on Wednesday, in her last public appearance as speaker before the transfer-of-power ceremony. She served notice to the audience, a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus, that she has every intention of reclaiming her title after the 2012 election. "We all know what our role is," she said, hands on hips. "Two years from now when we come together, things will be different. Things will be different. And we are now all engaged in a campaign for all Americans."

This time, the grin on Pelosi's face looked entirely genuine.

Even before she relinquished the gavel, she was trying out her themes as the new minority leader. "We extend a hand, a willing hand of friendship" to Republicans, she told the black caucus meeting, as long as "we're not giving tax cuts to the rich and sending the bill to our grandchildren."

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