Voices: I used to think Nancy Pelosi was everything wrong with Washington. Wow, was I wrong


Nancy Pelosi has never been particularly popular outside Washington. Like most of Congress, she has low approval ratings and high disapproval ratings. Many conservatives see her as the embodiment of out-of-touch California liberalism that triggers outrage, but liberals see her as part of an old guard that is much less left-wing than they are. Meanwhile, much of America saw her as unwilling to let go of power.

I say this because at one time or another, I shared all these views. As a young man inspired by Barack Obama’s soaring rhetoric about bridging larger divides, I found Pelosi’s establishment-style politics out-of-touch. If I’m completely honest, as a conservatively raised man from middle America, I also chafed at the idea of women holding power as ruthlessly as she did (that’s a “me” problem, of course).

It’s why, when I first moved to DC as an idealistic intern in the Obama administration, I had little interest in Pelosi. Just the year before, she had helped pass Obamacare and Barack Obama himself had admitted she was the linchpin its survival, yet I was unmoved. During her first run as Speaker during George W Bush’s presidency, I wondered why she didn’t go after Bush harder, given his mismanagement of the Iraq War. During Donald Trump’s administration, I thought she was too slow to hold his lawlessness to account.

But as time progressed, I found myself disillusioned with partisan politics. In fact, I became so disillusioned that I abandoned my political ambitions entirely and moved into journalism. I later learned that beneath Obama’s flourishes, Pelosi’s nuts-and-bolts understanding of the machinations of legislating ensured his legacy’s survival (the same, I should say, goes for the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who died late last year but whose political organisation staved off disaster for Democrats in Nevada.)

And the more I covered Pelosi, the more I came to marvel at her ability to keep Democrats unified, to whip votes and ultimately pass transformative laws. Last November, when progressives huddled for hours as leadership tried to pass Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, all of the members left their phones on a table outside of the room, lest anyone leak or interrupt the meeting. Then, one by one, their phones started buzzing.

Later, I learned that this was because Pelosi was blowing up their phones. The strategy worked and the bill passed.

“She has the interest in the House and the institution,” John Lawrence, who wrote a book about Pelosi’s tenure as speaker, told me. “She understands the process, she understands the substance and she understands the members. And that gives her an enormous advantage in terms of managing the House successfully.”

This is not to give her a pass on her shortcomings. Pelosi was never that much of a captivating communicator and at times she struck the wrong tone, like when she recited a poem in response to the Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade. She also killed the chance to ban members of Congress and their spouses from trading stocks.

Perhaps the most compelling video presented at the January 6 hearings was footage of Pelosi working the phones and trying to get various government branches and nearby governors to help secure the Capitol as would-be insurrectionists were calling her by name. We have seen the toll that right-wing vitriol toward her can take in the form of a man assaulting her husband while apparently looking for her.

All this makes her tenure as Speaker even more remarkable. To be a woman who wields national power is to be scrutinized ten times more than any man ever could. We are so used to the swagger of male politicians who carry themselves with a bravado, who speak softly but carry a big stick or chomp on cigars.

But Pelosi has shown that leadership can be done in a different way. The tiny Italian Catholic who never swears, abstains from alcohol and doesn’t even drink coffee achieved more than most of the men around her. Love her or hate her, she is, without a doubt, the most effective woman politician America has ever seen. On the unforgiving marble floors of the Capitol, the familiar sound of her heels will be missed.