First, I need to share a couple of points just for full transparency. My husband is acquainted with the author of this book and he and I were able to join a Zoom book launch party when it first came out.
But the fact that I drank wine on my couch while Molly Ball answered questions about her writing process isn’t the reason I loved this Pelosi; it’s because it confirmed everything I have believed to be true about Nancy Pelosi and I am JUST SO GLAD someone is laying it all out in plain language.
It’s impossible to follow Congress and not have a sense of Pelosi’s history. Ball takes readers back to Baltimore and the Democratic machine her family ran in the city of Nancy D’Allesandro’s childhood. She was witness to both the overt power of her father’s political offices and her mother’s more discreet behind-the-scenes operations as a Democratic party organizer.
Both of those experiences informed how Pelosi would rise through Democratic politics to become the most powerful woman in American history.
She used the backroom networking skills she learned from her mother and put them to work as a fundraiser for Democrats in California. That took her on a road to hyper-local politics (the board of a library) to state politics (California Party chair) to Congress, just like her father before her.
Pelosi entered politics in spite of being a woman, not because of it. She wasn’t there to stake out power for the sake proving that women can thrive in the boys club of Washington. She had a constituency to serve and that was always her focus. But she also never forgot that being a woman made her “other” in the Capitol and making sure her colleagues didn’t dismiss her was a constant struggle. She recalled being at a dinner with several other Representatives and all the men in the room were discussing their wives experiences with childbirth. They all chuckled and shared stories and never once asked the women at the table – all of whom had given birth themselves – to weigh in. Pelosi tolerated that in social situations much better than in Committee or on the Floor of the House, where she never backed down.
The Pelosi this book describes is very much like the image of Pelosi I have always carried. I observed her from the vantage point of an advocacy professional in the early Obama years and I admired how deftly she managed her caucus during the crafting of the Affordable Care Act. She was negotiating a bill with a lot of competing priorities in a highly charged political environment. It was a challenge for any leader but this challenge was made more difficult by the loss of a bargaining chip: earmarks. Congressional leaders used to be able to buy votes from Members by promising funding for pet projects back at home. That practice fell out of favor after years of being called nothing but pork, which left Pelosi shepherding a bill through Congress without any way to reward her members for taking tough votes.
But, unlike Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan who would follow her in leadership, Ball describes all the ways that Pelosi had spent her career forging personal relationships with the Democrats in the House. They all could speak her her attention to their needs, her capacity to listen, her assistance at fundraising, and the hand-written cards she sent for birthdays, marriages, and deaths. Those relationships were what positioned Pelosi to manage the ups and downs of a nascent law that was as despised as it was needed.
Ball points out that Pelosi’s successes and skills only became truly evident when they were compared to the disastrous Speakerships of her two successors. Boehner and Ryan fought against intransigent Tea Party insurgents and Trumpist separatists. Over and over again, they barely got bills passed and usually only managed passage by offering concessions to Democrats so that Pelosi would deliver the votes in the final hours. Seldom has a minority leader been able to get as much as Pelosi could get for her own priorities.
The book takes us through the first two years of the Trump presidency and Pelosi’s re-asscention to the Speaker’s chair. By now, her strength and calm are familiar hallmarks in an otherwise chaotic Washington. We all think of Pelosi in her red coat, stalking out of the White House as Trump seethes or of her standing in a room of men, the only woman to breach the halls of power. Where in past years, her effectiveness was questions, now there is little dispute that she may be the greatest Congressional leader of a generation.
This is the book to read if you have ever wondered why Democrats keep turning back to this tiny, elegant woman for leadership, if you have ever been tempted to underestimate her, or if you have ever wondered what it takes to thrive in the cutthroat atmosphere of Congress. I highly recommend it, just as I have always highly praised Pelosi herself.