‘Pelosi’ tracks the career of a powerful, driven politician

As the first woman speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, she’s honed a formidable legislative record and staved off challengers.

Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers
“Pelosi” by Molly Ball, Henry Holt and Co., 368 pp.

Barack Obama was no darling of the right, but in the months leading up to the 2010 midterm elections, Nancy Pelosi was featured in more than twice as many Republican attack ads than the man who was then serving as president. “Pelosi just got a rise out of people,” journalist Molly Ball notes in her sharp, lively biography of the Democratic leader titled, simply, “Pelosi.”

Ball, the national political correspondent for Time magazine, offers several explanations for this effect. Pelosi, who has served in Congress for more than three decades, has long been caricatured as a San Francisco limousine liberal with extreme views. (She has more recently been criticized by her party’s left flank for being too cautious and moderate.) Even her allies say she can be controlling, inflexible, and imperious. As the book makes clear, there’s a more obvious answer to why the first woman to be speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives gets under some people’s skin, and it’s evident in the insults directed at her. Hint: They’re the same ones – “unlikable,” “shrill” – that were frequently lobbed at Hillary Clinton.

Now is a fitting time to consider Pelosi’s career. Despite having long since proven her legislative bona fides, keeping her diverse caucus in line with a mastery that rivals Lyndon Johnson’s, Pelosi was, until recently, taken for granted even by members of her own party. Her willingness to stand up to President Donald Trump changed that. Ball reports that at a reception with congressional leaders days after the inauguration, Trump repeated his debunked claim that he had in fact won the popular vote because so many “illegals” had voted in the election. Pelosi alone spoke up, insisting, “That’s not true.” Since then, several images of her coolly dressing down the president have gone viral.

Some say Pelosi handles Trump like a mother would an unruly toddler. It’s a dicey comparison to make about a woman in power, but Pelosi herself often refers to family, particularly her status as mother and grandmother. Born in 1940, she is the daughter of Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., who served as a Democratic congressman from Maryland before becoming a three-term mayor of Baltimore. Her mother, Anunciata, was his “chief strategist and political enforcer,” Ball writes, but she stayed mostly behind the scenes, keeping house and raising Nancy and her five brothers.

Pelosi, who gave birth to five children in six years and moved twice to accommodate her husband Paul’s finance career, looked as though she “had fallen into exactly the same trap” as her mother, Ball writes. But she began hosting Democratic fundraisers in her  home and involving herself in other volunteer activities on behalf of the party. (The Democratic Party and the Catholic Church are her twin lodestars.) 

By the time she ran for Congress in 1987, she was extremely well-connected. Her victory made her one of only 23 women in the 435-member House of Representatives. (More than four times that number hold seats today.) Right out of the gate, at a time when discrimination and fear were rampant and the government had been slow to act, Pelosi made the AIDS crisis her first fight: She succeeded in providing housing assistance to those with AIDS and in funding vaccine research, among other measures.

Like many women working in male-dominated fields, Pelosi saw over-preparation as insurance against being dismissed. Results-oriented and pragmatic, she “seemed to do nothing but work, with a maniacal level of energy,” Ball writes, and still she was dogged by sexism. With deft political analysis, the author charts Pelosi’s rise in the ranks, her relationships with George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump, and her record – her opposition to the Iraq war and her roles in the 2008 bailout, the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and Trump’s impeachment – all receive extended treatment.

Pelosi, who successfully staved off challenges to her leadership in 2016 and 2018, is an intensely private woman, and Ball, who interviewed the speaker several times, found her “impenetrable.” While this biography doesn’t reveal much about her inner life, one suspects that the speaker would wonder why anyone would care about that anyway, that what matters is what she gets done for the people she serves.

Referring to the climate in which Pelosi first became speaker, in 2007, Ball observes that “the culture wasn’t ready to appreciate the complexity of a woman who was both devoted to her family and a hard-charging, ruthless pol.” How sweet it must be for the 80-year-old grandmother of nine that the culture has finally caught up with her.

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