Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi represented me in Congress for roughly a quarter-century, but I didn’t vote for her when first given a chance. In the 1987 special election to replace the late Sala Burton (who succeeded her late husband, the legendary Phil Burton), I voted for Supervisor Harry Britt, the Democratic Socialists of America leader who himself succeeded Harvey Milk after his assassination. San Francisco lost a lot of leaders in that decade from 1978 to 1988, after the political murders of Milk and Mayor George Moscone, the deaths of the aged Burtons, as well as all the lives lost to the AIDS crisis in those years.
No one knew that in Pelosi the city would gift the country with the most “consequential” House speaker, in the words of President Joe Biden, in history. (I should add, I’m proud to have voted for Britt, who died in 2020, but I never voted against Pelosi again.)
While I appreciate Pelosi for her feminist leadership (more on that later), I liked Biden’s tribute, because he didn’t carve her into a special category—most “consequential” female this or that. She competed fairly against men—and kicked all of their asses. That included Republicans. And sometimes, it included Biden.
Possible future House Speaker Kevin McCarthy will wish he had Pelosi as a partner—if indeed he wins the speakership, which is not guaranteed. At least three Republicans have come out against him, and their margin over the Democrats hovers near four.
Pelosi’s greatest stands include fighting for AIDS funding in Ronald Reagan’s Washington, supporting voting rights, helping Democrats win the 2006 midterms with a campaign against Iraq War funding, protecting the Affordable Care Act from weak-kneed Democrats attempts to water it down after the 2010 special election that replaced Senator Ted Kennedy with former Senator Scott Brown (now an asterisk), fighting to protect abortion rights. And so much more.
But some of Pelosi’s most consequential stands—ones that I didn’t always support—included her marshaling congressional backing for GOP priorities. Start with President George W. Bush’s Troubled Assets Relief Program, which bailed out the banks in 2008. When House minority leader John Boehner couldn’t get Republicans to line up behind the bill, Pelosi whipped Democrats. That saddled her party with the political baggage of caring more about banks than about homeowners. I thought she was wrong. But I didn’t know what Pelosi did about whether we were careening toward a new Great Depression. She believed what she was told. Either way, she was a stronger leader than Bush or Boehner.
Boehner turned to her other times, when he was trying to pass essential spending bills and the increasingly bonkers House GOP caucus wouldn’t go along. So did Paul Ryan. Pelosi led when they could not.
If he gets the votes he needs to become speaker, McCarthy will also need a partner like Pelosi. That is, if he wants to do anything more than investigate Hunter Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci, or join Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s crusade to make those detained for their role in the January 6 insurrection the right-wing equivalents of many mini-Mandelas. McCarthy may not want more than that; maybe his ambition begins and ends with holding the speaker’s gavel.
He sounded like that on Sunday, in a riff so garbled it might have come from Georgia Senate hopeful Herschel Walker. McCarthy told Fox News: “Our majority we would have liked to have been higher. They lost in the Senate, they lost in the governors, in the statehouse. But in the house of Republicans we actually won the majority. It’s not the size of the gavel—it’s the power of the gavel of who holds it.” What? I think he’s saying his GOP colleagues did poorly everywhere except in the House races. But Republicans were expected to pick up more than 20 seats, so I’m not sure how the paltry majority McCarthy seeks to preside over gives him bragging rights.
His strange tangent about “the size of the gavel” made me think, again, about former speaker (now legal weed tout) Boehner. When he took the speakership back from Pelosi in 2011, he used an extra-large gavel, which, as ceremony required, the outgoing speaker had to hand to him. Pelosi noted, chuckling, that it “is larger than most gavels here, but the gavel of choice of…Speaker Boehner.” Everybody in the House chuckled; the symbolism was clear. The imposing gavel was apparently a gift from a constituent, and Boehner didn’t use it day to day. Still, it struck me that he needed to wield an imposing gavel as the first female speaker was giving him his power back (temporarily, of course).
Pelosi had that diminishing effect on the men around her, mostly the Republican men, and especially Donald Trump.
It’s no coincidence that the tributes to Pelosi over the last week included two main sets of images: Pelosi surrounded by children as she took the speaker’s gavel for the first time, in 2007, and the last time, in 2019. And then, even more numerous, the photos of her humiliating Trump. Trump, who humiliated so many women—the many women he’s accused of sexually assaulting, the majority of female voters who cast ballots against him—was routinely done dirty by Pelosi. And it’s all captured in pictures.
There she is in her suffragist-white pant suit, clapping sardonically in his face at the State of the Union; there she is in white again the next year, tearing up his SOTU speech. She’s in black presiding over Trump’s first impeachment. She’s in a blue suit pointing her finger at him across a cabinet meeting, and in a blue dress pointing her finger at him in an Oval Office meeting after Democrats crushed him in 2018. And of course there she is in that burnt-orange Max Mara coat, putting on her sunglasses, leaving the White House triumphantly after that 2018 showdown.
The most recent iconic Pelosi images come from her daughter Alexandra’s filming of January 6, when we see Pelosi clicking around in her high heels all over the safe space where she’s being protected, trying to protect others. She cared far more about Vice President Mike Pence’s safety than he did about hers.
I’ve always been struck by Pelosi’s rise, and the way she explains it. Let’s be honest: She came up as chair of the California Democratic Party, which proved her to be a fundraiser extraordinaire. But I’m also struck by her other origin story: the mother of five elected to Congress at age 47, who moved from “homemaker to House speaker,” as she said when she stepped down last week. Of course, being “homemaker” is a privilege denied to most women, who have to work at least part-time outside the home. Either way, it’s still a steep climb out of the home and into Congress, and Pelosi accomplished it on the cusp of 50, when so many women become invisible.
She did not. But upon her assuming leadership, she faced questions about whether she was “too old” to helm the caucus. I wrote about it at the time, because it represented, for me, a new public feminist feistiness for Pelosi. As she told an MSNBC reporter, who asked if she might be too old to run again in 2013:
I came to Congress when my youngest child, Alexandra, was a senior in high school and practically on her way to college. I knew that my male colleagues had come when they were 30. They had a jump on me because they didn’t have…children to stay home. Now, I did what I wanted to do, I was blessed to have that opportunity to sequentially raise my family and then come to Congress.… You’ve got to take off of that 14 years for me because I was home raising a family, getting the best experience of all in diplomacy, interpersonal skills. No, the answer is no.
Now at 82, she leaves the House leadership, presumably in the hands of 52-year-old Hakeem Jeffries. He is her pick; he will have his own stories of exclusion, but in Congress he’s been mostly welcomed and included, because things are better now. Pelosi has reportedly been grooming him to take her job for a while. Our first Black House Speaker will make history. And that’s just one more thing to appreciate about our first female House Speaker: When she took the gavel again four years ago, she promised she’d stay for two terms only. Against the pleas of Biden and others, she kept that promise and now makes way for a new generation (considered “young” only by comparison to octogenarians like Pelosi and her team of Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, but we’ll take it).
If he needs her counsel, Jeffries only needs to look around his caucus to find the experienced back-bencher from San Francisco. If McCarthy needs Pelosi, he’ll be out of luck. I’d venture that her many grandchildren are more beguiling than the prospect of helping McCarthy wrangle the right-wing toddler-maniacs in his caucus. Relax, Madame Speaker. That’s not your job anymore. Enjoy watching the Democrats you mentored come into their own—and the Republicans you occasionally tried to help destroy one another.