It’s hard to figure out what message President Trump was trying to send this week when he tweeted out a photo of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the only woman at the table, on her feet and making a point in the Cabinet Room of the White House.
Along with whatever amusement Pelosi felt when Trump tweeted out a photo that only confirmed her power in that situation, there must have been at least a trace of nostalgia. For the speaker, this was not her first time to come up against a dismissive man — or even a roomful of them.
In an interview I did with her a decade ago, during her first stint as speaker, Pelosi recalled that she had no long-term game plan in mind when she arrived in Washington in 1987.
Back in San Francisco, she had been known in political circles mostly for her skills as a fundraiser. The earliest story I have found about her in the New York Times is a feature about a stay-at-home mom who raised $3 million for the 1984 Democratic National Convention in her city. The Times described her this way: “Mrs. Pelosi, a slim woman 41 years old, was sitting in her spacious living room in the fashionable Presidio Terrace area of the city while her five teen-agers put together press kits and her husband, Paul, hauled cartons of campaign buttons and posters out of the room.”
Asked the obvious question, Pelosi demurred that she had no interest in ever running for office. “I’m more into fund-raising,” she said, “but I like the vitality, the disagreements, the advocacy of politics.”
What changed her mind was a summons to the bedside of dying Rep. Sala Burton. Burton herself had taken the San Francisco-area House seat after the death of her late husband, Phillip Burton, a legendary political power broker. Sala Burton expressed her wish that Pelosi be her successor.
No one — including Pelosi — saw a historic career trajectory ahead. She was already in her mid-forties, late in life to be grabbing onto the traditional ladder of seniority. “I never had any intention of running for leadership. None whatsoever,” she told me. “I really didn’t know how long I would stay in Congress.”
But Pelosi had a transformational experience in the winter of 2001. The previous November, Democrats believed it was within their reach to win back the House majority they had lost to Republicans in 1994. They needed to pick up only seven more seats. In California, Pelosi had organized and raised money, helping them gain five. But, in the rest of the country, they had lost three. So they were stuck pretty much where they had been before.
That February, the House Democratic caucus went on a retreat to hear from newly elected President George W. Bush — and to lick its wounds. Pelosi showed up with a PowerPoint presentation. She argued the party had grown hidebound. It needed a national message, better organization on the ground, a new way of doing things.
She was shrugged off by the Democratic leadership. As her friend and confidant George Miller, who was a California congressman at the time, explained to me: “There was a time here in Congress when we thought that if you [advertised] on TV long enough, you would win. Everybody was enamored with their TV consultants.”
Pelosi felt it too.
“It wasn’t well received at first,” she said. “People thought, ‘That’s her way. That’s not the way we do things here.’ But [I thought], ‘You lose. And I know how to win.’”
It turned out there were others in the Democratic rank and file who saw things the way she did. The following fall, Pelosi made her move. In a hard-fought leadership race for House Democratic whip, she handily beat 11-term Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).Within a year, Pelosi was the Democratic leader. And, four years after that, Democrats took back the House — by doing things Pelosi’s way.
What Trump apparently has yet to figure out about Pelosi is that she doesn’t melt down. Like steel, she gets harder under the heat. And when she stands up to speak, it is usually a smart idea to listen.