Pelosi by Molly Ball • Henry Holt and Co. • 2020 • 368 pages • $27.99
Nancy Pelosi, the first and so far only female speaker of the House and the most powerful woman in U.S. politics ever, reminds me of that quip about Ginger Rogers, who did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. In Pelosi’s case, four-inch heels. Pelosi possesses to a high degree the qualities we associate, not always correctly, with mighty politicians, most of whom have been men: endless energy, a ferocious work ethic, deep institutional knowledge, a sixth sense for strategy, a thick skin, charisma. But she is also conventionally feminine, in an old-fashioned mode: beautifully dressed, impeccably groomed, a little formal, soft-spoken, tending to her personal and political relationships with a shower of little notes and phone calls.
The Ginger Rogers paradox is that without ego and ambition Pelosi would not be a Democratic Party powerhouse, but female ego and ambition quickly earn a woman the dreaded label of “unlikeable.” Throughout her long career, Pelosi has had to achieve like a man while behaving like a woman, down to her daily hair appointment. As Hillary Clinton discovered, that’s not so easy. Love her or loathe her—and she is loathed by both right (San Francisco liberal!) and left (corporate sellout!)—that Pelosi has managed to perform this dance for 33 years in Congress and counting is quite a feat.
Molly Ball’s Pelosi gives us an informative, readable, and detailed—maybe a little too detailed—account of Pelosi’s career and her rise up the ranks from first woman minority whip to first woman minority leader to—finally—twice speaker of the House. It’s full of telling anecdotes that show how far Pelosi’s come and how much America has changed. Who would have dreamed that the high school debater whose team drew the topic “Do women think?” would be running Congress one day? But Ball, a national political correspondent for Time magazine and a veteran political reporter, also shows how Pelosi’s political outlook was set early on:
Like so many American Catholics, she worshipped then-Senator John F. Kennedy… Kennedy’s appeal was lofty and ideological, rooted in patriotism and faith. It would become the model for Nancy’s evolving political orientation—Catholic social justice with a hint of noblesse oblige.
Ball offers a guide to the ins and outs of some important battles, from Pelosi’s opposition to the Iraq War and her crucial role in passing the Affordable Care Act to the clever way she psychologically maneuvered Donald Trump into taking full responsibility for the 2018-19 government shutdown. Now that a revived left accuses Pelosi of cowardice and centrism, it’s useful to be reminded of her strong record as a liberal, and also that that her job as leader was only in part to rack up virtuous wins. It was also to work behind the scenes to marshal votes and count them accurately, to find and exploit legislative loopholes, and to structure deals that would let House Democrats from more conservative districts win their next election. Sometimes, she had to compromise when she could see no alternative. A fierce defender of women’s reproductive rights, she had tears in her eyes when she had to tell her pro-choice women colleagues that abortion would not be covered in the Affordable Care Act. (Barack Obama does not come off well in Ball’s account, by the way, preferring to court Republicans rather than turn to liberal Democrats. Yet Pelosi is reviled by people who adore Obama…I wonder why.)
Ball structures her biography around themes of women’s empowerment and its challenges. She pays attention to things I suspect many male writers would overlook, like the role of Pelosi’s mother’s example in shaping her life path. Born in 1940, the youngest child and only daughter of Congressman Thomas D’Alesandro, later mayor of Baltimore, and his wife, Annunciata, aka Big Nancy, Pelosi was raised for a much more traditional life than the one she came to lead. Her mother set an ambivalent example. A brilliant, energetic woman, she was the power behind her husband’s throne, possessed of a granular knowledge of his constituents and in charge of making sure they had what they needed to keep them in the fold. She wanted to strike out on her own a bit—among other ventures, she invented and patented a beauty device, the first-ever facial steamer (Velvex: Beauty by Vapor). But her husband refused to let her build a business. He wanted her focused on him as “his first strategist and political enforcer.”
Like many women of her generation and later, Pelosi noted the ways in which her mother was constrained and at some level must have decided not to let that happen to her. Still, in the pre-feminist era, it took a while for Pelosi to find her way. Growing up she was the family’s petted and protected Italian Catholic princess. Her parents even thought she might become a nun. Instead, at 23, she married her college boyfriend, Paul Pelosi, and had five children in six years. Take that, Amy Coney Barrett! Interestingly, she followed the pattern recommended by some conservative women: early marriage and motherhood, and then career. This can work if you’re lucky, financially secure, and well-connected, and don’t have your heart set on, say, medical school. But she also followed the recommendation of many feminists, and chose a husband who, unlike her father, was able to let his wife stand in the limelight and shine. It didn’t hurt that Paul made a fortune in real estate, venture capital, and other businesses. Today the Pelosis are worth around $97 million, according to Politifact. Amazingly enough, that makes her only the 24th richest House member.
Motherhood meant Pelosi got a late start in her career, but her years as a wife, mother, and volunteer Democratic fundraiser and party hostess served her well. Some women lose track of themselves in family responsibilities, but Pelosi thrived. The keen organizational abilities for which she would become famous were part of it; Pelosi would often attribute her legendary political management skills to her years of raising all those children. And before you scoff at that feminist platitude, consider that Pelosi got five small children to fold their own laundry. Now that’s leadership. Her big house in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood was perfect for large gatherings, and volunteering honed her skills both at raising money and networking. Pelosi could easily have spent her days as a wealthy Democratic Party activist, important behind the scenes but not formally acknowledged or rewarded. Indeed, when Mayor Joseph Alioto called and asked her to serve on the San Francisco Public Library Commission, she almost declined, saying she didn’t need a formal post. “’You shouldn’t say that,” he said sternly, surprising her. “You’re doing the work. You should get official recognition for it.” One thing led to another, the AIDS crisis lit a fire under her, and in 1987, she was elected to Congress from San Francisco’s 5th district and never looked back.
Pelosi is 80, a lioness in winter. It is not ageist to say it’s a problem that the three top House Dems are she, James Clyburn (80), and Steny Hoyer (81). If you add in Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Dianne Feinstein, and some others, the party does indeed look like a gerontocracy, its mindset shaped by an earlier—much earlier—day, and by decades securely in office with privileges and perquisites and clubbiness shutting out the world outside.
I wish Ball had made more of this insularity, which to my mind helps explain how Pelosi started out as a firebrand, enraged by lack of action on AIDS, and ended up “retreat[ing] to the vineyard in Napa she and her husband owned, where every summer she hosted an elite group of donors for an ideas conference.”
If only Pelosi could wholeheartedly embrace AOC and the Squad, who are bringing vitality and a much needed political and cultural update to a party that seems stale and stuck in the mud. (Of course we can’t know if the Squad will still be hellraisers in 40 years, or if they too will be derided as centrist sellouts, mocked for having fancy houses and big freezers full of pricey ice cream.) A big part of Pelosi’s job is to broker compromises and tradeoffs, to squeeze out a small win from a big defeat, and Ball persuaded me that she is very good at that. At one point, Pelosi tells her left-wing antagonists, “Some of you are here to make a beautiful pate, but we’re making sausage most of the time.” Cleverly said, but a lifetime of sausage-making can wear you down and make you miss the moment. New things look too much like things you’ve seen before. The elder statesmen and stateswomen of the progressive wing of the party have done much good, but they are just not equipped to meet the present moment. Meanwhile, as Pelosi snipes at the Squad and tries to blame them for down-ballot Dems’ poor showing in 2020, Stacey Abrams and other grassroots organizers have managed to find a whole new electorate in Georgia.
Ball thinks the culture around powerful women has changed. After all, Pelosi, in her red coat and big sunglasses, is now a style icon of take-charge, take-no-prisoners womanhood. “She’d grown up in a world where women were supposed to be soft and gentle, but now America loved ‘bad bitches,’” Ball writes. “Pelosi was profiled for a CNN series called Badass Women of Washington. Forceful, confident, determined, unafraid to wield power—even a decade earlier, these qualities in a woman registered as frightening and repellent, but in 2019 the combination of femininity and aggression was greeted with ‘YASS KWEEN.’”
I’m not so sure. Hillary Clinton was demonized as a duplicitous Lady Macbeth barely four years ago and is still political kryptonite—neither Kamala Harris nor Joe Biden mentioned her in their speeches claiming victory on November 7. Just last year, Katie Hill resigned from Congress due to a minor sex scandal that included the dissemination of revenge porn by her ex-husband. Her seat now belongs to a Republican man. During the primaries, Amy Klobuchar was accused of eating salad with a comb and being abusive to her staff, and maybe she was, but I can’t recall a male Senator being judged on the basis of how he ran his office or ate his lunch. Even if everything alleged of Klobuchar is true, countless men have gotten away with worse. Everybody likes a badass until she violates some norm that looks gender-neutral but is not.
That badassery is enjoying a moment at the same time as abortion rights are on the chopping block and COVID is forcing mothers out of their jobs in droves makes me wonder if it’s more of a fashion statement than a sign of feminist triumph. The whole culture has become louder, flashier, more antagonistic, a tendency turbocharged by the appallingly crude and nasty behavior of Donald Trump. And today’s women Republicans are no demure church ladies—they can be bold and spunky too. Look at South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, who likes to be photographed with her hunting rifle and who welcomed to her state the notorious Sturgis motorcycle rally, which led to numerous cases of COVID-19. Did I mention that besides being a stone anti-abortion, anti-mask-wearing Trumper, she’s stunningly beautiful? People are already talking about her as a future presidential candidate. The feminist empowerment that is sauce for Nancy Pelosi and AOC is sauce for their opponents too.