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Nancy Pelosi untethered: The former speaker revels in newfound freedom

The former speaker isn’t in charge of anything now but is doing exactly what she wants in what some call ‘Pelosi 3.0’

Reps. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) ahead of President Biden’s State of the Union address on Feb. 7. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
9 min

BALTIMORE — Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) felt that sense of tension, or agita as her Italian family might say, the moment she walked into the massive hotel — that burden, from helping lead so many policy retreats here.

Then, calm.

“You don’t have any responsibilities,” the former speaker told herself, attending the annual getaway for House Democrats as a congressional commoner for the first time in more than 20 years. As Biden administration officials gave policy presentations on Wednesday, Pelosi said she whispered a message to those at her table: “If you don’t like your pillow, it’s not my fault. If you don’t like the menu, I don’t care. I don’t even care.”

That’s not entirely true, because the longest-serving House Democratic leader of the past 60 years still cares deeply about her caucus’s future. And Pelosi, 82, is as busy as she’s ever been, but just in a much different way than in the last two decades.

Veterans of her team have labeled this new period “Pelosi 3.0,” after a career that saw a 15-year climb to the highest ranks of leadership, then two decades at the top, and now this next phase where she has begun to serve as something akin to roving ambassador for the Democratic Party.

She’s not in charge of anything, has no real responsibilities in the House other than casting votes (she declined to take any committee assignments), yet she maintains a level of influence that goes well beyond her rank-and-file status. Inside the Capitol, Pelosi has taken up a mentoring role: not to the trio of new leaders of the Democratic caucus but to the junior lawmakers who want to learn, particularly the few dozen freshmen Democrats who never served under her.

And she maintains a role as a fundraising eminence, particularly for an outside group led by former attorney general Eric H. Holder fighting legal battles to draw up House district maps. She’s hosting former president Barack Obama and Holder in San Francisco on Friday for high-dollar donors.

“I get my tasks, and I do them,” she said, predicting a large haul for this event. “We’ll do well.”

Her successor, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who met some of her longtime donors on a previous trip to California, will return for a big fundraiser she’s hosting in mid-March.

‘I feel balanced about it all’: Nancy Pelosi reflects on two decades at the top

This third phase of Pelosi’s career has, so far, surprised colleagues and advisers because they feared that, after 20 years of being the center of the universe for all Democratic decisions, she would get bored or just plain miss the adrenaline of having every minute of her day mapped out.

Instead, she’s reached a bit of calm — even Zen — about still commanding respect and wielding influence, but being careful not to look as if she’s second-guessing Jeffries and his team.

We spent more than an hour talking in a suite atop a hotel looking across Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where she could see her life and career arc laid out in front of her. Off to the east, beyond the former Power Plant Building, now a Hard Rock Cafe, still sits St. Leo the Great. That Catholic church and school that served as the sun, moon and stars of her childhood growing up the daughter of the mayor, the city that served as the launchpad for a historic congressional figure.

“Baltimore, my Baltimore. Right on the other side of where that brick structure is, where Little Italy is. And that’s where I grew up,” she said, pointing to a neighborhood a little more than half a mile away.

Yet this spot, the Hyatt Regency on the Inner Harbor, also serves as an integral part of her Baltimore story, frequently home to House Democratic retreats. But she returned to it in the oddest of fashion: as a rank-and-file Democrat.

“People keep asking me, maybe I should feel something about not being in charge,” she said. “But I don’t. I feel very liberated.”

A new, unofficial portfolio

On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, before heading to Baltimore, Pelosi began her morning with labor leaders to talk about a few projects, then met with the first lady of Poland, Agata Kornhauser-Duda, whom she met on a trip last year after her surprise visit to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Then Pelosi met with parliamentarians from the European Union to talk about combating Russia.

“I have my own work to do, I have letters to write. I have things to do,” she said, amazed at her still-busy schedule. “And yet, all these meetings keep coming.”

Supporting Zelensky remains a key part of her unofficial portfolio. She’s now sporting a bracelet made of bullet shells, a gift from a Ukrainian soldier who she met at the Munich Security Conference in mid-February. In Baltimore on Wednesday, she wore a brooch with the U.S. and Ukrainian flags interlocked.

While she led the Munich congressional delegation last year, on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she returned this year as a dignified member participating in multilateral meetings that seemed to always focus on Russia. She praised the Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who led his own delegation there, for the unified voice that lawmakers presented to their allies.

“Everyone who was there was very unified in support for Ukraine,” she said.

Her calls to President Biden now happen on an “as needed” basis, an understandable drop after his first two years in the Oval Office hung so much on Pelosi working her narrow four-seat margin in the House.

“I’m a busy person. He’s a busy person. And I respect being busy, and I know how it is to be completely busy,” she said, reiterating her full support for his reelection.

Pelosi is taking time to thank old friends, particularly donors, but also old rivals whom she has deep respect for, including former president George W. Bush, who invited her to his conference in Washington late last month to commemorate 20 years of PEPFAR, the anti-HIV/AIDS program that saved millions of lives in Africa.

When Bush introduced her by noting he would always address her as “Speaker Pelosi,” just as people still address him as “Mr. President,” the crowd gave a standing ovation. “All right, that’s enough. Let’s not get carried away here,” the ex-president said.

An unfiltered assessment

Pelosi 3.0 also means being freed from speaker-speak — that unofficial language of congressional diplomacy of trying not to offend today’s opponent because she might need their support sometime later.

No more. Now she’ll deliver the trash talk, starting with trivial stuff like Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and his refusal to upgrade from his old-fashioned flip phone. It serves as his central political nerve system, always calling everyone, yet it cannot receive simple, precise text messages when Pelosi would prefer to deliver a quick message about vote timing, without actually calling Schumer.

“See, I wish he would get a phone. He has that thing, and you can’t send a message,” she said.

Then there’s the roughly 35-year-old grudge against veteran Democrats who mocked her first speech after getting sworn in, in which she vowed to fight the deadly virus that was ravaging San Francisco.

“Why did you tell them that you came here to fight against HIV and AIDS?” she recalled them asking her. Which brought a blunt reply: “Because I did.”

And she will not tolerate any criticism of her behavior toward Donald Trump when he was president. In Munich, she found the veteran diplomat, Richard Haass, to thank him for sending her his new book, “Bill of Obligations.” Then, she lit into him for the book’s criticism of her ripping up her copy of Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address on live TV. Pelosi felt as if it were a false-equivalence moment compared to Trump’s supporters’ deadly attack on the Capitol.

“There is no equivalence,” she told Haass, mocking the thinking of a MAGA rioter justifying trashing the Capitol: “Oh, she tore up the speech, so we can pee all over the floor, and smear our poo-poo all over the walls.”

She didn’t intend to rip up that speech after making notations of things she felt were false claims. But by the time Trump awarded the medal of freedom to Rush Limbaugh — “That bozo, may he rest in peace” — she began to plot exactly how to tear that tough parchment paper apart, her only hesitation coming from how she might upset her curmudgeonly top press aide at the time, Drew Hammill.

“Oh my God, Drew’s going to flip his lid,” she thought.

Pelosi never saw Trump’s 2016 victory coming — “like getting a mule kicking you in the face, over and over” — and she spent years afterward dissecting how it happened.

One major factor? “Very hard for some men to accept a woman commander in chief,” she said.

Of the last 11 House speakers, only one lasted more than 10 months after giving up the gavel and returning to the rank-and-file. But Pelosi won’t address when she plans to retire and instead enjoys how much freedom she has to mentor young lawmakers. She pushes new women toward committee assignments that will check national security credentials so that if they run for higher office, they will not look weak.

“We will have a woman president. I study it very carefully,” the most powerful woman in American political history said.

She’s offering advice on an as-requested basis, adhering to her pledge to not be “the mother-in-law in the kitchen” dictating how her son likes things prepared.

In Baltimore, she had just one role: to formally introduce Jeffries and the new leadership at Thursday night’s dinner. One attendee recalled how she regaled the Democrats about her trip to Charm City’s National Aquarium, where she learned that dolphins sleep with half their brain awake and one eye open.

In a metaphor that could explain her own long success, Pelosi gave the crowd a final bit of advice: “Always sleep with one eye open.”