Pelosi, dominant figure for the ages, leaves lasting imprint
WASHINGTON (AP) — There are two searing scenes of Nancy Pelosi confronting the violent extremism that spilled into the open late in her storied political career. In one, she’s uncharacteristically shaken in a TV interview as she recounts the brutal attack on her husband.
In the other, the House speaker rips open a package of beef jerky with her teeth during the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection, while on the phone with Mike Pence, instructing the Republican vice president how to stay safe from the mob that came for them both. “Don’t let anybody know where you are,” she said.
That Pelosi, composed and in command at a time of chaos, tart but proper at every turn, is the one whom lawmakers have obeyed, tangled with, respected and feared for two decades.
She is the most powerful woman in American politics and one of the most consequential legislative leaders. Now, at 82, in the face of political loss and personal trauma, she is closing her era.
Pelosi announced Thursday she would not seek a Democratic leadership position in the Congress that convenes in January, when Republicans take control. Pelosi will remain in Congress.
“Never would I have thought that I would go from homemaker to House speaker,” she allowed. On her future, she told reporters: “I like to dance, I like to sing. There’s a life out there, right?”
Polarizing and combative, Pelosi nevertheless forged compromises with Republicans on historic legislation, on health care, roads, student debt relief, climate change and more.
Even former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich, a self-described “partisan conservative who thinks that most of her positions are insane,” said Pelosi had a “remarkable” run.
“Totally dominant,” Gingrich said of her. “She’s clearly one of the strongest speakers in history. She has shown enormous perseverance and discipline.”
Bono, who worked with Pelosi over the years on combating AIDS, said in a statement to the AP after a performance Thursday night in Scotland: “When the story of the end of AIDS is written, Nancy Pelosi’s name will stand out in boldface.”
“I am honored to have learned so much from her grit and grace, and to call her a friend,” he added.
Many fellow Democrats, at one point or another, earned her look of icy disapproval, not just the other side.
“Politics is tough,” she said in 2015, “but intraparty? Oh, brother.”
Pelosi prevailed — for nearly 20 years as House Democratic leader including nearly eight as speaker in two stints — with hard-nosed sentiments like these:
“Whoever votes against the speaker will pay a price.” — to Democrats who resisted her push for a select committee on climate change early in her speakership.
“Nobody’s walking out of here saying anything, if they want to keep an intact neck.” — to negotiators trying to work out a 2007 House-Senate compromise to restrain pork, according to the notes of John A. Lawrence, her then-chief of staff and author of a new insider book on her speakership, “Arc of Power.”
Sometimes, she could snap her lawmakers into line without a word.
A flick of her hand silenced Democrats who cheered when the House first passed articles of impeachment against Donald Trump, for Pelosi was a stickler for decorum. But not always.
She ripped her copy of Trump’s 2020 State of the Union speech, on the dais behind him, on camera. The theatrical protest raised questions about whether Pelosi, in that moment, had become what she despised in Trump.
“He has shredded the truth in his speech, shredded the Constitution in his conduct — I shredded the address,” she said crisply. “Thank you all very much.”
Republicans pilloried her as “Darth Nancy” back in 2006 and the villainization got uglier, complete with gun imagery, as the years passed.
“She was, she is, the personification of the San Francisco liberal,” Lawrence said. “It was made to order for them.”
But “there was a viciousness. The fact that she fit that bill so perfectly — a smart, attractive, effective woman … they knew they could caricature and stigmatize things about her, her appearance and style, in a way that was a very effective dog whistle of misogyny.”
She would never publicly attribute the attacks to the fact she’s a woman, Lawrence said. “She would say, ‘They did it because I’m effective.'” Then “pretend to flick dust” off her immaculate jacket.
“Darth Nancy” was a quaint, faraway insult by the time the pro-Trump mob came looking for her that Jan. 6. Their sign at the Capitol said “Pelosi is Satan.”
Rifling through her desk, they found a pair of boxing gloves. Pink ones.
Pelosi honed the art of aiming high, then disappointing one faction of her party or another without losing core support. Rare is the major achievement that was as far left as the party’s left wing wanted.
But many are the achievements. She settled for an “Obamacare” bill, for example, that did not give everyone the option of government health insurance, but did, over time, expand access to health care.
She crushed toes along the way.
“Her instincts are to find a path and if you happen to be standing in the hole, she’s going to treat you like a running back,” said political scientist Cal Jillson at Southern Methodist University. “If she can go through you, fine. If not, you’re headed to the medicine tent.”
Pelosi faced none of the questions about sharpness that dog Biden, 80 on Sunday. She still races around Congress, in high heels, at a pace people half her age can find hard to match.
But concern had grown in the ranks about the crowd of older Democratic leaders still in charge.
Leon Panetta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, said Pelosi “probably could have spent more time building a stronger bench in terms of leadership in the House and trying to make sure that others could follow in her path.”
Her fundraising prowess was one key to success.
“This is why the Democrats had more money than God,” said Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan. “She was magic, and I don’t think she lost a vote.”
AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.
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