How Nancy Pelosi Became the Master of the House

A conversation with Susan Page about her new, comprehensive biography of the House Speaker—and why the San Francisco Democrat feels kinship with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Nancy Pelosi may or may not run for another term as House Speaker if Democrats control the chamber following the 2022 midterms. What is certain, however, is that the first female Speaker is working to enact President Joe Bidens legislative priorities, keep a fractious caucus unified, and placate House progressives without risking moderates in swing districts.

Its hard to believe that when Pelosi came to the House of Representatives in 1987, she and her husband Paul thought they’d only be in the chamber for ten years. But that kind of political longevity isnt, perhaps, surprising coming from the daughter of longtime Baltimore Mayor and Democratic Congressman Tommy DAlesandro. Pelosi was Democratic royalty out of the womb: Newspapers announced her birth.

Pelosi has led House Democrats since 2002, playing key roles in the passage of the Affordable Care Act, two impeachments of former President Donald Trump, and winning Democratic majorities in 2006, 2008, 2018 and 2020.

Susan Page, the USA Today Washington D.C bureau chief, has chronicled Pelosis rise, her breaking many glass ceilings, and how she has kept her troops in line in her new 400-page biography of the San Francisco pol, Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power. I spoke with Page about Pelosi and the Democratic party, about what could be the 81-year-olds last term in the speakers chair and about what the Californian thinks would have happened if the January 6 insurrectionists crying Nancy!” had found her that day.

This conversation has been edited and shortened for clarity.

GS: You’ve already written a book on former first lady Barbara Bush. And now, you’re set to write another on Barbara Walters. Why Nancy Pelosi? What about her struck you?

SP: You know, they may seem like an odd trio, in a way. But the things that made me want to explore the life of Nancy Pelosi were really the same things that made me interested in Barbara Bush. And now, Barbara Walters. It’s somebody who has made a difference, who’s been consequential, who’s had an impact. Someone who is complicated, has some rough edges and some controversies. And someone who I think is not fully understood, has been caricatured by some people and underestimated by some people. Of course, the fact that she’s a groundbreaking woman, the first woman speaker, the only woman as speaker, the highest-ranking woman in American history, that was appealing. But equally appealing was the idea that she was a groundbreaker as a legislative leader, as the most effective speaker since Sam Rayburn.

GS: You got to write about the Speaker’s development from liberal newbie to an archetype of the establishment. What’s the biggest contributor, in your view, of that meteoric rise?

SP: She knows how to get power, how to hold power, how to wield power. She has a skill with power that I think no one else on Capitol Hill has. And that’s been true for decades. So she has been at the center of elections and the exercise of political power from the day she was born. You see that in the fact that she is not cowed by presidents, and that she has this incredibly sophisticated understanding of how to move legislators in the direction she wants them to move.

GS: We’re sometimes led to believe that relationships between senior Democrats and progressives like The Squad are always strained. Your book showed that often isn’t the case. Talk me through the speaker’s relationships with Reps. Omar and Ocasio-Cortez in particular.

SP: I think Pelosi was as surprised as [Former New York Congressman] Joe Crowley was when he lost in that primary to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She talked to AOC the next morning and welcomed her and told her that it was a good thing to have younger women in the House. But they didn’t really know each other. And one of their first encounters was when AOC joined a sit-in at her office, even before she had been sworn-in to Congress, on the issue of climate change. That was a pretty bold beginning to a relationship with the Democratic leader. Pelosi told me that she does see some of herself in the Squad, that there was a day when she was marching in protest for universal health care and other progressive causes as a young mother in San Francisco. But that is not her perspective now. And you know, Pelosi is a New Deal Democrat, for sure, a liberal. But she is pragmatic about what you can get now, and what you save for later. I think she has been frustrated and annoyed sometimes by the Squad.

What’s interesting is her relationship with Ilhan Omar is different. I went over and interviewed Congresswoman Omar and she told me the story. It was the day after [Omar’s] primary—she’s in a very Democratic district—and she was all but guaranteed to be elected in November. Pelosi called her the next morning and welcomed her and basically said, “So I won’t be seeing you again until you’re elected because this is not going to be a very contested election.” But Omar raised an issue that was really bothering her about whether she would be allowed to wear a hijab onto the floor of the House, because it was a long standing rule that you couldn’t wear a head covering in the House. Pelosi said, “We’ll take care of that, don’t worry about it.” But Omar continued to worry about it. And Pelosi understood that this was bothering her. So Pelosi called so often to Omar’s campaign office, just to reassure her, that her staff would say “Auntie Nancy is calling.” And so with with Omar, even though there have been frictions, they have a fundamentally strong relationship.

GS: What do you think the Speaker saw as her mission in the Trump years?

SP: Trump prompted her to stay in Congress. She told me she was planning to step down once Hillary Clinton was elected. So, it certainly changed her plans. And that’s because I think she saw herself as the best person to hold Trump accountable, and to curtail what she saw as his worst instincts. And remember, for two years, she was playing a weak hand there. And yet, she succeeded in curtailing his ambitions, not all, but some of them. And then I think in the second two years, she was trying to make sure he was a one-term president. Because she saw him as so dangerous to the country and to democracy itself.

GS: Democrats won the White House in 2020. But they underperformed everywhere else, losing seats in the House, and failing to take back the Senate until January. What, in Pelosi’s eyes, went wrong for Democrats down-ballot in 2020?

SP: She was surprised by the results down-ballot. She had expected a stronger showing in the Senate and holding seats, not losing them in the House. I think that she saw that as a reminder of the challenges of putting together a majority in a diverse country where you’ve got to win swing-state seats, purple seats, even some Republican-leaning seats. And that is, of course, a long debate in the Democratic Party between progressives who think you want to energize new voters and turn them out and that’s the prescription of victory, and centrists who think you’ve got to really watch out for swing voters and who do not want to be campaigning on issues like defunding the police and Medicare for All.

GS: You quote Pelosi as saying “a glass of water would win with a “D” next to its name” in districts like AOC’s and her own. Does the speaker align with people like Connor Lamb and Abigail Spanberger, moderate Democrats worried that progressive rhetoric could harm them in battleground districts and swing states?

SP: She calls them the majority makers, right? In her view, you don’t get to power without those members who are not always going to agree with the most progressive policies. And in her view, it’s worth it. You can do big things if you’re paying attention to the parts of your caucus that are more moderate. You just can’t do everything the most progressive voices might want to do. But this is a real debate in the party. And there are those like AOC who argue there’s a different path to a liberal majority. I think Pelosi is skeptical of that.

GS: Do you think the Speaker retires in 2022? Or does she go back on her stated plans to leave office after the upcoming midterm elections?

SP: The honest answer would be, “I don’t know.” But my expectation is that this is her last term. She did make a commitment in 2018, when she faced a serious challenge to reelection as leader that she would serve only two more terms. And while she hasn’t repeated that in a Sherman-esque kind of way, she indicated early on that she remembered that promise. I think it makes some sense, in terms of the arc of her career, that this is her last term. I think there are other members of the caucus, even those who have enormous respect for her, who think it’s time for a new generation of leaders.

GS: Now, she’s at the helm of creating the House Committee to investigate the January 6 Capitol insurrection. Is there a danger in re-emphasizing Trump?

SP: I had an interview with Pelosi, after the book was finished, so this isn’t in the book. But I asked her about January 6th. And I asked her if [the insurrectionists] had caught her, would they have killed her? And she said, “Yes, that’s what they were aiming to do.” And then she said that they would have had a fight on their hands. “They would have had a battle on their hands, because I’m a street fighter.” And then, this 81-year-old speaker of the house lifts up her foot, pretty high, so over the coffee table I can see it. She’s wearing those stilettos that are her signature. And she says, “Besides, I could have used these as a weapon.”  I think that on the issue of January 6, she thinks the threat to democracy is beyond a political calculation. If you were making a purely political calculation, I don’t know what you might do. But if you think January 6 was a threat to our democracy, then you do it.

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Gregory Svirnovskiy

Gregory Svirnovskiy is an editorial intern at the Washington Monthly.