Cokie Roberts is an author and a commentator for ABC News and NPR.
It would be difficult to find two people more seemingly dissimilar than the elegant, coifed, California-by-way-of-Baltimore Catholic mother of five who serves as the speaker of the House of Representatives and the squat, bald Texas Baptist bachelor who held the job longer than anyone else. Other than the fact that they both have served interrupted terms as speaker, what else could Nancy Pelosi and Sam Rayburn possibly share?
As one of “Mr. Sam’s” chosen children, a surrogate grandchild who could call on the old gentleman for such duties as presiding over the funeral of a pet chicken, I think I can answer that question. Rayburn had “adopted” my parents, Hale Boggs (eventually House majority leader) and Lindy Boggs (eventually a nine-term member of Congress), when they came to Washington as 20-somethings in 1941.
Mr. Speaker often invited himself to dinner, giving us the opportunity to know the man and absorb his wisdom. When we were kids, Nancy D’Alesandro was another “congressional brat,” in an era when we all knew each other and, over the years, the families stayed in touch. So here’s what the two speakers share: toughness, tenacity, a good deal of common sense, a passion for service to the country and, yes, a sweetness, especially in the presence of children.
As Pelosi begins her second stint as the highest-ranking woman in government, she can learn lessons from the powerful speaker from Texas, some already passed on to her via my mother. One that Pelosi often quotes: “Don’t fight every fight as if it’s your last fight.” Here’s another regular Rayburn refrain often repeated in our house: “Tell the truth the first time, then you don’t have to remember what you said.”
That adage (one of many Rayburn aphorisms) couldn’t be more important than at this moment when facts fall victim to political arguments. Not only are the facts themselves essential to the making of public policy, but also Pelosi knows they have to be presented honestly, that she has to level with members on both sides of the aisle and the general public.
Like Pelosi, Rayburn also had to manage the frustrations that come from managing a fractious Democratic Party. Circumstances sometimes called for him to beseech and bludgeon his members into compliance, passing the extension of the military draft by just one vote four months before Pearl Harbor. Failure to have done so would have left the country scrambling for manpower after the attack.
Almost as tough, and one I well remember: the expansion of the House Rules Committee in 1961, making it possible to pass the monumental civil rights legislation of the 1960s. He waged and won that battle at age 79.
Pelosi faces daunting challenges — a government shutdown right out of the box could serve as a cautionary tale of what’s to come — but she believes in fighting hard for goals you really believe in. There, too, Rayburn serves as an example. To paraphrase his Texas protege, Lyndon B. Johnson, what is the speakership for, if not that.
Then there’s the question of tactics. Generally, Rayburn got the votes through what he called “persuasion and reason” and the forging of personal friendships. Outsiders might rail against inside-the-Beltway chumminess, but, in fact, today’s hyperpartisanship has destroyed across-the-aisle camaraderie. Pelosi knows how valuable personal relationships can be when it comes to governing. Those friendships flourished in the Rayburn regime and would be welcome again if the true believers in each party would allow them.
My personal favorite of the many Rayburn’s aphorisms — “Legislation should never be designed to punish anyone” — should be etched into the stone wall of the Capitol Rotunda. Congress is here to help — not hurt — everyone, not just the people who vote for you.
To these lessons, I’d resoundingly reaffirm the one Pelosi always graciously gives my mother credit for teaching her: “Know thy power.” Mamma had known Nancy since she was a little girl whose father served in Congress with mine. In 1984, they sought each other out when my mother, by then a six-term congresswoman herself and a member of the site selection committee for the Democratic National Convention, visited San Francisco, where Pelosi was chairing the host committee.
As Pelosi tells the story, she fretted that she had so many honors bestowed on her, maybe she should shed a few. Mamma’s reply: “Darlin’, no man would ever, ever have that thought.”
As the first female speaker, Pelosi must look at the dour portraits of her predecessors and think there’s no way to connect with them. But with Rayburn’s lessons to learn from, along with the words of my mother, Pelosi can depend on the wisdom of those who came before her, as she sets a precedent all her own.