One of the first questions Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi took from reporters after announcing her intention to stay on in that job was whether, at age 72, it wasn’t time for her to step aside and make room for younger leaders.
She smiled at the questioner, Luke Russert, as the female lawmakers on stage with her grumbled and booed. “You’ve always asked that question,” she said, “except of Mitch McConnell,” the Republican Senate Minority Leader, who is 70. “Discrimination!” called New York’s Carolyn Maloney. “Discrimination! Age discrimination!”
“Let’s for a moment,” Pelosi told Russert, treat the question as worthy of consideration. “Although it’s quite offensive,” she added, extra sweetly. “But you don’t realize it, I guess. Everything that I have done in my almost decade now of leadership is to elect younger and newer people to the Congress…It was very important for me to elect young women” — especially as she herself didn’t even enter the political arena until the youngest of her five children was almost ready for college. And shouldn’t he maybe spot her the 14 years she spent as a stay-at-home mom?
Had Pelosi stepped down, mind you, the post would have gone to a pup by the name of Steny Hoyer, who is 73. Yet many argued that she should make way anyway: “House Democrats badly need to transition to younger leaders,” wrote the Post’s Chris Cillizza, and the “only way that process begins in earnest is if Pelosi steps aside, allowing [Minority Whip] Hoyer to move up to minority leader (likely without a challenge) and [72-year-old Assistant Leader Jim] Clyburn to assume the whip role,” while more junior aspirants could scrap over the one opening. The Daily Beast’s Eleanor Clift quoted an anonymous Democratic strategist who accused Pelosi of making poor Steny into an American Prince Charles, awaiting a throne that might never be his.
Well, House leadership is not a throne; we did fight a war over that. But the view of Pelosi as a queen — a promotion, I guess, since Herman Cain called her ‘Princess Nancy‘ — and mother figure to a guy who’s a shade older than she is telling, isn’t it? “Just another anti-woman statement,” Maloney told me afterward. “Throughout history, women have been asked to step aside.”
Which is one reason the lawmaker Republicans love to hate isn’t going anywhere. She means to be at the table when three others, all men — McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — knock out a debt deal with the president. “For some people in the public,” she said, “the thought of four men at the table was not an appealing sight.” With entitlements presumably on that same table, she wants to be there to watch over them. Having pushed through the Affordable Care Act, she wants to be on the job when it’s finally implemented. When Obama lately began speaking again about climate change — one of her signature issues — that, too, was an inducement. And looking out for women, she made clear, is very much the point of her decision to stick around.
“You’ve got to admire her,” one of the other reporters at the news conference sighed as she walked to the podium, along with dozens of the record 61 female members of the new Congress. In a fitted blue jacket — royal blue, actually — and matching lapis necklace, she called the event a “girls’ morning out” and her all-female entourage our country’s future.
Asked if she’d ever seriously pondered not running for minority leader again, Pelosi didn’t really answer: “There wasn’t really much time,” she said, what with half a dozen House races still dragging on, and so many winning and losing candidates to debrief, and congratulate or console. There was never any question that the job was hers if she wanted it, and she made the final decision only Tuesday, she said, after talking to her family. Though “my brother Tommy wasn’t as keen on it as my children were; I guess he wanted to spend more time with me but my kids are busy.”
Whether you’re a teacher or a ballplayer, a writer — no, Philip Roth, no! — or a lawmaker, it’s hard to know when to stop. I’ve seen a few greats in their field — Ella Fitzgerald, Margot Fonteyn and Richard Burton — doing what turned out to be their final work, and the first made me laugh in a good way while the second made me cry and the third, too. (But hey, it was Camelot.)
As long as you’re still wearing out the kids on your staff, though, as I saw Pelosi do during a few days on the campaign trail with her this summer, you are just not ready to go yet. She did 450 fundraisers this year, raising $85 million for her party this cycle, and reveling in the process. Though Democrats did not come close to netting the 25 seats they needed to take back control of the House, I always thought she’d stay on doing what she loves — and what, at this point, no one can do better.
One sign of how far women in politics have come is that more are now doing what men have always done, aging on the public stage. Pelosi often makes light of her age: “Nobody’s older than I am,” she says unselfconsciously. Her 83-year-old colleague Louise Slaughter, a microbiologist who motors around the Capitol now on a senior scooter, is part of the House Democratic leadership team, too, and the ranking member on the Rules Committee.
Then there’s Pelosi’s 79-year-old neighbor in San Francisco, Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee and just coasted to reelection, becoming the oldest woman ever elected to a new term in the Senate, historian Don Ritchie told me. Feinstein didn’t run away from her years, either, but on the contrary, ran on her decades of experience. Especially in vast California, she said this summer, “You have to build a base over time.” And then, if you’re lucky, you get to stick around and put it to use.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors the paper’s She the People blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.