Opinion Nancy Pelosi prepares for her exit — but her work will endure

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at the Capitol on Tuesday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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Nancy Pelosi has never been an easy person to interview. Especially when the subject turns to herself. In a new documentary about the speaker of the House streaming on HBO, her filmmaker daughter, Alexandra, grows exasperated as she tries to get Pelosi to open up during a tense election season: “You are impossible to crack! You are always on message. How do you do it?”

But now that her last march leading her troops in a national campaign is behind her and her final landmark piece of legislation, protecting the right to same-sex marriage, has been signed by the president, even Pelosi recognizes that the season has come to pause, look back and take what in the legislative trade is known as “a point of personal privilege” for valedictories and reflection.

So I found Pelosi unusually expansive during a Tuesday lunch she held with a handful of female journalists. She talked about how much things have changed since her early years as a backbench congresswoman from San Francisco in an institution where only 23 of the 435 members were women; about the choices she made and the chances she took during her unlikely rise to becoming the most powerful woman in U.S. history; and about the challenges that will be faced by those who will succeed her.

Pelosi not only became the first female speaker but also exercised the power of that office more effectively than anyone in modern times — two things that once would have seemed unimaginable, even to her. So hidebound was the House when she arrived in 1987, at the age of 47 after raising five children as a stay-at-home mom, that Pelosi said she believed she would see a woman in the Oval Office before one would hold the speaker’s gavel. The Democrats, who had run the House continuously since the 1950s, had established what she called a tight — and male — “pecking order.” The only time she heard from anyone in the top echelon of her caucus was when they wanted her to hostess a fundraiser in California.

“You know the first time I was in the Democratic Speaker’s Office?” Pelosi said at the lunch. “The first time I was in the Democratic Speaker’s Office was when I was speaker.”

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When she made her audacious bid for a top post in House leadership — at a time when the Democrats’ fortunes had turned and they were haplessly mired in the minority — the reaction Pelosi said she heard from some of her more sclerotic male colleagues was: “Who said she could run?”

“Poor babies,” Pelosi added with a laugh.

When her male colleagues suggested that the women just make a list of what they wanted and give it to the guys to handle, Pelosi said she replied: “No, we’ve been waiting over 200 years.”

Nancy Pelosi says she was raised to be holy, not speaker of the House. Now, as she turns 80 on March 26, she is the most powerful woman in American history. (Video: Joy Yi, Shane Alcock/The Washington Post)

Growing up the daughter of the mayor of Baltimore, Pelosi learned how to win elections, a vote at a time. And it turned out there were enough of her colleagues who also wanted to see an overturning of the old order. In the 2001 secret ballot for Democratic whip, Pelosi came out on top, by a vote of 118 to 95. Just over a year later, she became minority leader. In 2006, she drove the midterm elections strategy that won back a majority for the Democrats and made her speaker.

Later, in 2018, Pelosi would become the first speaker since Sam Rayburn to have lost the majority and then returned to hold the gavel a second time. She remained and fought for eight years in the minority, she said, because she was determined that the Republicans not be allowed to make good on their promise to dismantle her most significant and masterful legislative achievement. “That’s why I stayed,” she said, “to save the Affordable Care Act.”

No spot in the U.S. Capitol more symbolizes that old get-along-go-along order Pelosi first encountered than the storied room in which she held the luncheon on Tuesday. Lately, it has become a favorite meeting spot for her while her grand official office is being packed up. Tucked in a quiet corridor where tourists rarely venture on the first floor of the Capitol, it is known as the “Board of Education” in which Rayburn, the Texan who served as speaker three times between 1940 and 1961, would gather a select few for bourbon and scotch after the day’s business was over.

This hideaway was where Vice President Harry S. Truman was relaxing over drinks when he got an urgent call from the White House switchboard informing him that Franklin D. Roosevelt had died, putting Truman in the Oval Office. And where a 28-year-old freshman congressman from Texas named Lyndon B. Johnson got his early lessons in legislative tactics, along with the juiciest tidbits of intelligence to pass along to the New Dealers in the White House. LBJ biographer Robert Caro would later write that entree to the Board of Education was “the greatest favor Rayburn had bestowed on him.”

The current speaker has had the Board of Education redecorated. Long gone are the Rayburn era’s threadbare carpet, tufted chairs and portrait of Robert E. Lee. A seal of Texas still decorates one wall, but another features a bright scene of the Golden Gate Bridge and a third one a mural depicting the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote. “Tomorrow I’m having the women members to come in and see it, because it’s brand, brand new,” she said.

Pelosi describes today’s Democratic caucus as “about 70 percent women, people of color, LGBTQ, and 100 percent courageous.” She prides herself on appointing a diverse collection of committee chairs and opening the doors that were once shut to junior members — starting with the speaker’s own office. “They’re in there all the time,” she said. “It’s a different day.”

Over the years, Pelosi came to hold some of her adversaries in high regard — notably, President George W. Bush, whom she considers, “despite the war in Iraq, beautiful, lovely, a wonderful person to work with.” Of their work together, she said, “Many meetings in this room have been energy and other things. Nobody even knows about this room, so nobody even followed us, his secretaries or whatever.”

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As she prepares to once again become just another member in the House chamber, Pelosi knows what lies ahead for her fellow House Democrats, who narrowly lost their majority in the midterms, and for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who will take her place as head of the caucus. “I’ve been speaker and minority leader with three presidents — President Bush, President Obama, and President What’s His Name — and then speaker with President Biden,” Pelosi said, adding that being effective in the minority means putting an even higher premium on party unity, even though it sometimes means members will have to do things that are unpopular in their districts.

As for her own plans, Pelosi spoke of writing her memoirs — which seems surprising for someone who has always held things so close. “I’ve got to set the record straight about certain things that I’m hearing about how we did this and how we did that,” she said, and launched into a harrowing story about the 2008 financial crisis, and how close things got to a complete collapse of the financial system before she finally helped muster the votes for the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program.

“I think that’s why we lost the election in 2010, because it created the tea party on one side, Occupy Wall Street on the other,” she said. “Everybody unhappy we’ve bailed out Wall Street at the expense of Main Street. It wasn’t true, but that’s how it was perceived.”

The commentariat didn’t always get things right about Pelosi, it’s true, but history surely will. At the unveiling Wednesday of her official portrait, the soon-to-be-former speaker recalled the slogan of her first race for Congress: “A Voice That Will Be Heard.” No one, not even Pelosi herself, could have imagined how true that would turn out to be — not only in her own time but also for generations to come.