The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nancy Pelosi is an anachronism — in a good way

The Capitol office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The Capitol office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (Melina Mara/THE WASHINGTON POST)
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In 1976, a very young California Gov. Jerry Brown swept into Maryland and won the state’s presidential primary, somewhat to his own surprise. Everywhere he went, especially in Baltimore, the governor was greeted by improbably large, enthusiastic crowds of older, urban, ethnic types, organized by local Democratic groups. These working-class folks seemed puzzled by Brown’s Jesuitical enviro-hipster act, but they cheered anyway, as instructed. After his victory, Governor Moonbeam — as he was then known — was asked about the machine support he’d received in Maryland. “In my father’s house,” Brown replied, deadpan, “there are many machines.”

This particular machine was led by former Baltimore mayor Tom D’Alesandro, who was Nancy Pelosi’s brother, and Baltimore County Executive Ted Venetoulis, who had been Pelosi’s high school boyfriend. Both were proteges of Pelosi’s father, the former mayor and congressman also known as Tom D’Alesandro — and her mother, Annunciata, who may have been the brains of the operation. This was the world that produced the first female speaker of the House in American history. It was a labor-intensive style of politics. You knew your constituents personally — and I mean all of them — and found out what they needed: a patronage job, help with an immigration lawyer, maybe some coal in winter. In return, they gave you their votes (sometimes you paid them for those). It was a world of relentless door-knocking, implacable loyalty and peremptory revenge against those who strayed. Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi was immersed in it, and she was a quick learner. “She has political skills that nobody else in Congress has,” said her friend, the late representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania. “Don’t think she’s from San Francisco. She’s from Baltimore.”

The great strength of Molly Ball’s “Pelosi” is the recognition that America’s most successful female politician is, ironically, an urban machine anachronism. Ball’s appreciation of Pelosi’s ancient abilities makes this a smart, solid biography with a lesson: Despite our current fixation on political showmanship, politics works best in a complicated democracy like ours when its practitioners can navigate their way through the byzantine cloakrooms of power.

In Ball’s account, Pelosi is as tough as bullets. She knows how to count votes, how to negotiate (both from a position of strength and from a position of weakness) and how to herd her tribe; she knows what can get passed, against the odds — like the Affordable Care Act — and what can’t. She has the courage to tell her fellow female House members face to face, with tears in her eyes, that government-funded abortions have to be removed from the ACA for it to get through. These are lost skills in American politics, atrophied in the modern-day rush to preen and tweet. They are small-room, off-camera skills. Ball makes a convincing case that no woman could have made it to the top without them.

It didn’t hurt, Ball argues, that before entering politics Pelosi had five children in six years and created order out of the ensuing chaos. She raised those children in San Francisco — her husband, Paul, is a financier and developer — and by all accounts, Pelosi loved being a mother. But the political itch was always there, the partisanship always fierce: Early on, she refused to buy a house she loved because it had been “made available” by a Republican who had joined the Nixon administration. And as the children became teenagers, Pelosi began holding house parties to fundraise for the local Democratic Party. She was a brilliant rainmaker, eventually a legendary one; her ability to raise money for fellow House members was a crucial weapon in her rise to the top.

Fundraising is the political equivalent of housework. It is dreary, humiliating and — as with Pelosi’s other talents — it takes place almost entirely in private. Ball doesn’t spend much time explaining just how she did it, which is a shame: Pelosi isn’t the most transparent of subjects for a biography, and a better sense of how she succeeded in this mysterious realm might have helped to reveal more of who she is. We must assume that persistence had a lot to do with it, but was charm also involved? Was there horse-trading: favors for contributions from her Silicon Valley friends? Her ability to raise money certainly made her an attractive candidate for Congress in 1986; her ability to organize relentlessly made her a successful one. One of her mentors, the late congressman Phillip Burton, paid her his ultimate compliment: She was “operational.” As opposed to ideological, or aspirational, or charismatic.

Pelosi was ideological, of course. She was the very definition of a “San Francisco liberal.” She supported and defended her district’s gay community with passion. She was feminist, antiwar, pro-environment, a furious opponent of trade with China because of that country’s human rights abuses. Indeed, it was her partisanship that led to her greatest insight about politics in the 21st century: Bipartisanship was a crock. The Republicans weren’t going to play. This became particularly apparent after Barack Obama became president. The passage of the Affordable Care Act was his and the speaker’s signature achievement, but, Ball writes, “the key to Obama’s triumph had not been his ability to reach across the aisle, but Pelosi’s skill at holding her caucus together.”

“Pelosi” isn’t quite hagiography. Ball admits to admiring the speaker, but she is honest about her deficits: Pelosi is a clumsy public speaker, not much of a policy visionary and vengeful, often to a fault. She was on her way to losing her leadership position, a brittle, ill-tempered has-been — in 2014, she chased a Republican congressman across the floor of the House, shouting: “You are an insignificant person!” — when she was given the gift of Donald Trump as an adversary.

Trump was the perfect mark for a machine pol with Pelosi’s talents: He was disorganized, thoughtless, uninformed, with no sense of small-room strategy or tactics. He was reality TV and she was reality. It was, and is, a metaphoric battle: Trump, the rear-guard, testosterone-addled bloviator and Pelosi — suddenly — the avatar of a feminist political future. Ball quotes Amy Klobuchar’s famous observation: “If you think a woman can’t beat Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.”

But she does it the old-fashioned way — counting the votes, twisting the arms, knowing when and how to cut a deal. “She’s better organized than we were,” her brother reported back to her father early on, watching Pelosi’s first campaign for Congress. And “operational,” too: If she has to call 70 of her colleagues in 24 hours to get a vote, she makes the calls.

Politics evolves, of course, but there are ways and means that endure and that are essential. Pelosi has proved that the same ceremonies that worked in the wards of Baltimore can be successful in Washington’s corridors of power. Indeed, her style may point the way toward the new, pragmatic politics we’ll need after the coronavirus pandemic. And in the end, wouldn’t it be a lovely thing if Pelosi, mother of five and daughter of the machine, proved that the best path to power for women — and maybe even for a few thoughtful men — ran through the retail politics of the past?

By Molly Ball

Holt. 345 pp. $27.99