Madam Speaker review: how Nancy Pelosi bested Bush and Trump

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John Boehner, a Republican predecessor, concedes that Nancy Pelosi may be the most powerful House speaker in history. Pelosi provided George W Bush with the votes he needed to prevent a depression, as Republicans balked. She helped make Obamacare the law of the land.

Pelosi repeatedly humbled Donald Trump. Already this year, she has outlasted his acolytes’ invasion of the Capitol and helped jam Joe Biden’s Covid relief through Congress. Hers is an “iron fist” wrapped in a “Gucci glove”, in the words of Susan Page and John Bresnahan of Politico.

This latest Pelosi biography traces her trajectory from Baltimore to DC. Geographically circuitous, Pelosi’s ascent was neither plodding nor meteoric.

Page delivers a worthwhile and documented read, a running interview with her subject together with quotes from friends and foes. Andy Card, chief of staff to Bush, and Newt Gingrich, a disgraced House speaker, both pay grudging tribute to the congresswoman from San Francisco.

In the same spirit, Steve Bannon, Trump’s pardoned White House counselor, is caught calling Pelosi an “assassin”. He meant it as a compliment.

Page is Washington bureau chief for USA Today. She has covered seven presidencies and moderated last fall’s vice-presidential debate. She also wrote Matriarch, a biography of Barbara Bush.

Madam Speaker makes clear that the speakership was not a job Pelosi spent a lifetime craving but it is definitely a role she wanted and, more importantly, mastered. She understood that no one relinquishes power for the asking. Rather, it must be taken.

Pelosi took on the boys club and won. Ask Steny Hoyer, the No2 House Democrat. Her tire tracks cover his back. As fate would have it, their younger selves worked together in the same office for the same boss.

Catholicism and the New Deal were foundational and formational. Thomas D’Alesandro Jr, Pelosi’s father, served in Congress and as mayor of Baltimore, a position later held by her brother. Pelosi is a liberal, albeit one with an eye toward the practical. Utopia can wait. AOC is not her cup of tea.

As a novice congressional candidate, Pelosi was not built for the stump. She chaired the California Democratic party and the finance committee of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Her specialty was the inside game. No matter. In a spring of 1987 special election, Pelosi reached out to Bay area Republicans. They provided her margin of victory.

Once in Congress, Pelosi became the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee and climbed to join the party leadership. Fundraising skills and attention to detail helped.

Pelosi also made common cause with unusual suspects. Page records her friendship with the late John Murtha, a gruff ex-marine and congressman from western Pennsylvania – God and Guns country.

Murtha furnished Pelosi with ammo and cover in opposing the Iraq war. He also managed her quest for the speakership. After Murtha lost to Hoyer in an intra-party contest in 2006, the Pennsylvanian announced his retirement.

Among Murtha’s notes found by Page was one that read: “More liberal than I but she has ability to get things done and she’s given a tremendous service to our Congress and country.” Another one: “Able to come to a practical solution.”

Page’s book chronicles Pelosi’s capacity to judge talent. She took an early shine to a young Adam Schiff, another east coast transplant, but held a dimmer view of Jerrold Nadler, a long-in-the-tooth congressman from Manhattan’s Upper West Side and chair of the judiciary committee.

A former federal prosecutor, Schiff wrested his California seat from James Rogan, a Republican. Nadler could not control his own committee. After a raucous hearing in September 2019, the die was set. Schiff, not Nadler, would be riding herd in Trump’s first impeachment. Seniority and tradition took a back seat to competence.

Context mattered as well. Pelosi’s relationship with Bush was fraught, yet she squashed Democratic moves to impeach him over Iraq – a move Trump actually advocated. She had witnessed Bill Clinton’s impeachment and concluded that harsh political judgments were generally best left to the electorate. Impeachment was not politics as usual. Or another tool in the kit.

Trump was different. Practically speaking, draining the swamp translated into trampling norms and the law. Bill Barr, his second attorney general, had an expansive view of executive power and a disdain for truth and Democrats. His presence emboldened Trump.

For more than two years, Pelosi resisted impeachment efforts by firebrands in her party. She acceded when Trump’s Ukraine gambit became public. He had frozen military aid to Russia’s embattled neighbor, seeking to prod the country into investigating Joe and Hunter Biden.

Nancy Pelosi rips up a copy of Donald Trump’s speech, after his State of the Union address in February 2020. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Trump made the personal political and vice versa. Pelosi had a long memory and kept grudges. But this was different. After Biden’s election victory, Pelosi called Trump a “psychopathic nut”. A mother of five and grandmother to nine, she knew something about unruly children.

Pelosi is not clairvoyant. She predicted a Hillary Clinton win in 2016 and Democratic triumphs down-ballot four years later. Instead, Clinton watches the Biden presidency from the sidelines, the Senate is split 50-50 and Pelosi’s margin in the House is down to a handful of votes.

To her credit, Pelosi quickly internalized that Trump was a would-be authoritarian whose respect for electoral outcomes was purely situational: heads I win, tails I still win. Populism was only for the part of the populace that embraced him.

Hours after the Capitol insurrection, at 3.42am on 7 January 2021, the rioters were spent, the challenges done, the election certified.

“To those who strove to deter us from our responsibility,” Pelosi declared: “You have failed.”

Biden sits behind the Resolute desk. Pelosi wields her gavel.