Power Walker

On the banks of the Potomac, Nancy Pelosi takes life in stride

It's just before dawn, and the streets of Washington are dusky, dimly visible in the purple light of late-night revelry and early morning risers. On the Potomac, crew teams, kayakers and scullers glide across the water in the ghostly mist. If they looked up, they might notice a woman striding alongside the river, nearly keeping pace, purposefully heading toward the Lincoln Memorial then over Memorial Bridge into Virginia, under the blooming cherry blossoms.

The woman is the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, dressed uncharacteristically in jeans, wraparound Ray Bans, a jaunty black beret, "those Masai walking shoes -- my children make fun of me," and a chocolate-brown barn jacket. It's now 7 a.m., but the speaker has been up for hours, working the phones and monitoring the results for a close-call special election in New York for the congressional seat vacated by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. The evening before, she also popped in at an event at the Library of Congress. Often, time is too short to even eat dinner. "Sometimes I wonder, did I eat lunch?" she says. More often than not, Pelosi grabs a chocolate doughnut and keeps going. She jokes that she does not need to worry about her weight "as long as I stick to a dark chocolate regimen."

Nevertheless, beginning in spring and through the fall, whenever the weather is clear, the speaker makes time for at least three miles of early morning speed-walking. When we meet, she talks a blue streak on everything from Thomas Jefferson to paid maternity leave benefits and the key "missing link" of affordable child care. It's so fast, and so cogent, and so very early.

The speaker professes to not have a real exercise routine, since she doesn't go to the gym. "I get in a lot of walking between my office and the House floor and from meeting to meeting," she says. "I always enjoy walking, especially walking precincts." But there is also the fast-paced walking -- along the Potomac or on the Presidio in San Francisco, her home base, that allows the longtime California representative to unwind.

A week before our walk, and one day shy of Pelosi's 69th birthday, we are sitting on silk chairs in the speaker's grand office, the pomp and circumstance of the position heavy in the space. Heavy that is, until she asks to see photographs of my newborn baby and gushes appreciatively over a tiny cellphone screen.

"I gave my daughter a speech," she tells me. (The daughter in question is Christine, who has just given birth to Isabella, the Pelosis' eighth grandchild.) "Well, I didn't think it was a speech, but she tells me it was. Anyway, when I had my fifth baby, and I brought her home from the hospital, that week our oldest child turned 6! But I always took really good care of myself. I had to take care of babies and all the rest, but I didn't try to do everything else. And I said to her: 'Do not be misled. You feel great. You are exhilarated, but pamper yourself for a few weeks -- two months, I would say.'"

In her child-rearing days, taking care of herself meant napping while the babies slept. Now it means recognizing that "public life is insatiable. There is never enough time. You could never respond to the requests, so you just have to prioritize among them. And you do need time that is not scheduled. To think. To read. To reflect."

Pelosi expounds on her thinking during our walk. "One of the aspects of raising children," she explains, as we round a particularly verdant corner, "is that you learn how to use your time very well. Very well. There isn't ... you know, there isn't any 'lost' time. And so when I'm in San Francisco, for example, I have my time with my constituents, with my family; I do my political work. You just organize it well. You can do justice to all of it. But you cannot let it overpower you. I say to schedulers: 'You're scheduling a human being.' I go to church. I see my family. I do these things Sunday, and then I'll go on to my campaign trail or my events schedule. But I have to have some place where the rest of it is on the shelf."

Sometimes for Pelosi that place is walking along the Pacific Coast earlier than California wakes up. Now, it's here. She stops speaking at one point as we walk and looks out over the water. "The Potomac," she finally says aloud. "I like to see the crew teams, the kayaks, the water ..."

She trails off, savoring the peacefulness of it all, basking in memories of mornings in her beloved California, and the beauty of early spring in her adopted city, Washington, D.C.

PHOTOS: Timothy Devine

© 2009 The Washington Post Company