Pelosi the person, though, remains an opaque figure, in large part because she seems to like it that way. She is assiduously on-message. She may trade on her family’s political connections, but she doesn’t run on her personal life. She likes to win and cares less about taking credit.
That makes her a challenging figure for the public to understand and certainly a difficult one to profile. In her hefty biography, “Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power,” USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page takes a shot at cracking Pelosi’s hard exterior. Instead of offering an intimate look at Pelosi’s true self or even her motivations, Page approaches the speaker as a study in power. The result is a biography that doesn’t plumb the depths of Pelosi’s soul but does fully reckon with her as a history-changing force — it’s a kind of Great Woman biography in the style usually reserved for great men.
“They keep underestimating this f---ing broad,” former California congressman John Burton tells Page, an insight that repeats itself through Pelosi’s life. “They didn’t get how godd--- tough she would be.”
Page tracks Pelosi’s life beginning well before her birth, going all the way back to the Italian village of her family’s origin and through her childhood as the only daughter of a Baltimore political dynasty. Her ambitious but professionally thwarted mother and her politically brilliant but chauvinistic father set the stage for “little Nancy,” who initially followed her mother’s footsteps — married young, had a large family by her early 30s, volunteered as a political organizer while others took the spotlight — only to later step onto her father’s path, running for office when she was well into middle age.
That trajectory, Page notes, was also one Pelosi was pulled onto by other women, most notably Sala Burton and Lindy Boggs, who both found their way to Congress by succeeding their dead husbands. That, once, was a woman’s path to power. Pelosi was part of the first generation of women to take office by winning on their own merit. By the time she was pushing 80, she’d be supporting, and sometimes clashing with, another generation of politically ambitious women who didn’t want to play the old games or follow the old rules.
Page delves into the issues of gender and sexism with depth and nuance, illustrating how social norms for women, and Pelosi’s alternate embrace and then defiance of them, shaped her rise — and how she learned early on not to talk about sexism as an impediment, lest she be branded a whiner and excuse-maker. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t notice or resent it.
“There had never been another politician at her level who wore Armani suits and four-inch Manolos,” Page writes. “In a slight she never forgot, Time magazine didn’t put her on its cover through her entire first tenure as Speaker, despite the history she HAD made. Two weeks after the 2010 midterms gave back the House majority to Republicans, the magazine’s cover featured a flattering photo of John Boehner and the headline ‘Mr. Speaker.’ ”
The ins and outs of Pelosi’s early life and biggest professional victories are laid out in painstaking and at times superfluous and repetitive detail, although in the case of the Affordable Care Act, the play-by-play is a useful primer in how Pelosi wields her power and how little she crows about it. Page, appropriately, titles that chapter “PelosiCare,” since the speaker was the most significant force pushing President Barack Obama’s White House to fulfill its health-care promises. Pelosi was answering to members of Congress who were to the president’s left and wanted a single-payer system, as well as members to his right who knew they would face tough midterm elections should they vote for Obamacare. Pelosi debated and cajoled, and the House version of the Affordable Care Act passed 220 to 215 with 39 Democrats voting “no.” In truth, it wasn’t as tight as it looked, Pelosi told Page — “I had votes in my pocket,” she said, from Democrats who would vote yes if the bill looked like it might fail. “I don’t go to the floor unless I know I’m going to win.”
Pelosi didn’t control all of Congress, though, and when it became clear that the Senate was not going to pass as expansive a bill as the House had, Pelosi went into dealmaker mode. In a meeting with Obama, she first spent “about half an hour describing how feckless and incompetent the Senate was,” Obama told Page, and “then proceeded to say, ‘Well of course we have no choice but to go ahead and get the whole thing done.’ ” She was reportedly the one who suggested using the reconciliation process to amend the bill and make important changes. And when Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, pushed for a radically scaled-back bill perhaps focused on covering children first, Pelosi responded with what Page calls “an extraordinary demonstration of political hardball”: She told Obama it was either the comprehensive bill or nothing. He could go big or go home.
He went big. And Pelosi was a reasonable collaborator. “She insisted on a sweeping bill, despite the long odds,” Page writes. “But she was willing to push through a version she saw as flawed when it became the only prospect available.”
She was also willing to talk her troops into battle. When she got a final list of the 68 House Democrats who either opposed or had not publicly supported the Senate’s version of the bill, she didn’t assign out the tough conversations; instead, she talked with all 68 members. She called up their religious advisers and called in her own favors. She spoke to their sense of duty, leveling with some of them that yes, their votes might cost them their seats, but keeping their seats wasn’t why they were elected. She walked that walk herself: She lost the speakership and Democrats lost their majority thanks to a brutal post-Obamacare midterm. But Pelosi expressed none of the regrets some other Democrats did: “We come here to do a job, not keep a job,” she said.
The juicier stuff comes at a faster clip in the second half of the book, as Pelosi becomes a foil to Donald Trump and finds herself simultaneously challenged by the Squad. In Pelosi’s interactions with Trump, Page portrays her as a woman in line with Burton’s observations: the tough broad you underestimate at your peril. When it comes to Pelosi and the Squad, it’s an earlier observation from Obama that stands out: “She likes to win,” Obama told Page about his time working with her. “But at the end of the day, she hasn’t forgotten the whole point of office, which is actually to get stuff done and do things for people you care about.”
Members of the Squad, Page wryly notes, eventually came around to a “political realism that sounded something like, well, Nancy Pelosi.”
Ultimately, Page doesn’t quite break into Pelosi’s inner world, and she doesn’t quite get into what, exactly, about Pelosi inspires such vitriol on the right and the far left alike. But in many ways, the focus on external professional displays — what Page calls Pelosi’s “lessons of power: Weave, whip count” — makes for a more honest and interesting read than any attempt at biography-as-psychodrama. Pelosi is a wheeler and dealer, a savvy and results-oriented operator who cares more about getting things done than getting it perfect (or taking the credit); she’s less an idealist than a practical broker who considers calling someone “operational” the highest of praise. A reader won’t walk away from this biography feeling intimately acquainted with Nancy Pelosi. But they will put it down with a much deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, the work it takes for a woman to harness, maintain and wield authority that was once reserved exclusively for men.
Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power
By Susan Page
Twelve. 438 pp. $32.50