Nancy Pelosi, liberated and loving It

She has gone from being one of the most powerful women in the world — second in line to the presidency — and one of the most formidable speakers in American history to a mere House backbencher

By Maureen Dowd

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Nancy Pelosi on a balcony of the Canon House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington on January 17, 2023. “It’s just the time, and that’s it. Upward and onward,” Pelosi said of the end of her leadership role. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)
Nancy Pelosi on a balcony of the Canon House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington on January 17, 2023. “It’s just the time, and that’s it. Upward and onward,” Pelosi said of the end of her leadership role. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Published: Sun 22 Jan 2023, 5:56 PM

It’s not a pretty sight when pols lose power. They wilt. They crumple. They cling to the vestiges. They mourn their vanished entourage and perks. How can their day in the sun be over? One minute, they’re running the world, and the next, they’re in the room where it doesn’t happen.

Donald Trump was so freaked out at losing power that he was willing to destroy the country to keep it.

I went to lunch with Nancy Pelosi at the Four Seasons to find out how she was faring now that she has gone from being one of the most powerful women in the world — second in line to the presidency — and one of the most formidable speakers in American history to a mere House backbencher.

I was expecting King Lear, howling at the storm, but I found Gene Kelly, singing in the rain. Pelosi was not crying in her soup. She was basking as she scarfed down French fries, a truffle-butter roll and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts — all before the main course. She was literally in the pink, ablaze in a hot-pink pantsuit and matching Jimmy Choo stilettos, shooting the breeze about Broadway, music and sports. Showing off her 4-inch heels, the 82-year-old said, “I highly recommend suede because it’s like a bedroom slipper.”

Fans dropped by our booth to thank Pelosi, and women in the restaurant gave me thumbs-ups, simply because I was sitting with her.

“I wonder, Maureen, girl to girl, I keep thinking I should feel a little more, I don’t know,” she hesitated, looking for the right word. Over the course of our conversation, she said the word was “regretful,” and she thought about it in church and during morning and night prayers, but she just wasn’t feeling it. “It’s just the time, and that’s it. Upward and onward. I’m thrilled with the transition. I think it was beautiful.”

Her daughter Alexandra Pelosi, a documentary filmmaker, assured me that it’s not an act. “I can tell you, in my 52 years of being alive on this Earth, I have never had the kind of weekend I’m having right now,” she said last Sunday. “My mother is at peak happiness. I’ve never seen her like this. It’s like she’s floating through the air. It’s fascinating for my kids because they don’t know this person.

“I think you want to enjoy being old. I don’t think you want to spend your final days fighting with Kevin McCarthy about how many seats you get on Appropriations,” she said.

Before I could broach the humiliating spectacle of McCarthy abasing himself to the loonies on the far-right and being tortured by preposterous Matt Gaetz, Nancy Pelosi brought up her successor.

She looked at me, her brown eyes widening, and said, “I’m sad for Kevin that he couldn’t do that in a way that brought a little more dignity to the House of Representatives. It’s strange.” She added, “What happened was inexplicable.”

The woman is, as her friend and fellow California lawmaker Anna Eshoo said, “satin and steel.” I tried to keep a straight face at Pelosi’s satiny solicitude. She had, after all, called the Jello-spined McCarthy “a moron” in 2021 after he criticized the Capitol physician’s mask mandate.

I dryly asked the devout Catholic if she was praying for McCarthy, the way she once prayed for her nemesis Trump.

“Yeah, I was, because I was praying for the House,” she said. “It was just stunning that he wouldn’t be ready. You know what your challenges are. Just be ready. What they were seeing, whether they realized or not, was an incredible shrinking speakership.

“Really, in order to even honor — ‘honor’ isn’t the word — in order to recognize some of the requests that were being made, you have to have the leverage to get the job done. They were undoing his ability to do what they were asking him to do. That was most unfortunate. I don’t want to see the job turn into something else. It has to be the speakership.”

Did she give McCarthy any advice?

Yes, she said; before the first vote, when he seemed confident, she told him, “Get it done.”

But for four long days — days in which McCarthy was brought low by the ugly forces he had helped unleash — he couldn’t get it done.

“Well,” she observed, popping another chocolate in her mouth, “you do have to know how to count.”

I asked Pelosi to compare working with President Barack Obama and President Joe Biden.

They were both “Senate-centric,” she said, but “they connected with the American people in different ways.”

“Obama in a more Obama-esque way” — here she waved her hand over her head — “and Joe in a real regular-Joe way” — here she waved her hand over her heart. “Both of them are quite wonderful. I always say to people, ‘You have to know your ‘why.’ Why do you think you should be the one? What is your vision?’ And you have to know your ‘what’ — how to get it done.’ They’re both good at that.” In the case of Obama’s signature health care plan, it required all Pelosi’s legislative legerdemain to provide the “what” to his ”why” and power it into law.

Even Pelosi’s old sparring partners have bowed before her mastery of politics. She was regarded by many on the Hill as an Armani dilettante when she arrived in Congress in 1987, an affluent San Francisco housewife with a frozen smile, a well-connected daughter of a former Baltimore congressman and mayor. But she is finishing up her career as “one tough son of a b…,” as former Speaker John Boehner told me. He calls the first Madam Speaker the best speaker of the modern era; he even cried at her portrait-unveiling at the Capitol last month.

She knew how to raise money and get her candidates elected, he said, and “she held her caucus together in an unbelievable fashion.” He added, “When push came to shove, she just whipped them in line. I don’t have a mean bone in my body. All right? I just don’t. She does.” He chuckled with admiration for his old adversary.

Abigail Spanberger, a Democratic lawmaker from Virginia, saw the steely side of Pelosi after she co-sponsored legislation to bar current members of Congress and their families from trading individual stocks. Spanberger claimed that Pelosi stalled until the bill was moribund. (It has now been reintroduced.) Pelosi — whose husband, Paul, holds a fortune in stock — argued that lawmakers should be able to participate in the free-market economy.

Eshoo recalled the time in 2019 that Nancy Pelosi (in an interview with me) brushed back AOC and the Squad, saying that they might rule on Twitter, but in the House, “They’re four people, and that’s how many votes they got.”

The part of Alexandra Pelosi’s HBO documentary about her mother that got the most attention was film from Jan. 6, when the speaker said about Trump, moments before the mob in the hallways screamed for her blood, “If he comes, I’m going to punch him out.” It was a raw moment for Nancy Pelosi, described by Eshoo as “a lady with both an inner and an outer refinement about her.”

Nancy and Alexandra Pelosi say they’re not sure whether she actually would have thrown a haymaker if he had invaded her turf. “Perhaps we’ll never know,” Alexandra Pelosi said. As speaker, Nancy Pelosi did offer a master class — with a fiery orange coat, wagging finger, dramatic ripping and sarcastic clapping — in how a woman could spar with Trump. His nickname for her, “Nervous Nancy,” did not hit the mark because, as Eshoo said, at critical moments, “she never blinked or had a white knuckle.”

Alexandra Pelosi agreed: “I’ve never seen her crack. It’s in her DNA. She doesn’t cry. She doesn’t whine. She doesn’t throw tantrums. Her motto is, as the Marines say, ‘Embrace the suck.’”

I asked Nancy Pelosi how the savage attack on her husband of nearly 60 years had affected her decision to step down. The beating with a hammer by a QAnon believer left him looking like Frankenstein under his dashing hat, Alexandra Pelosi said, and with an incapacitated hand that the doctors thought he might lose. His daughter said he has handled it gracefully because he’s “a really cool cat.”

“I was probably going to go anyway,” Nancy Pelosi said. But, she added, “say we won by 20 votes and it was a big thing, I might have stayed. It’s true that I had two thoughts in mind when I went to the floor: to stay or not to stay. It was time to move on.”

Alexandra Pelosi has always been outspoken about the personal sacrifice for the family that her mother’s public service entails, given all the demonization; the daughter teased her parents that her mother had turned their last name into a curse word.

“It’s a miracle that this kind of thing never happened sooner,” Alexandra Pelosi said. “We were always worried. It’s like your worst fear coming to life.”

Now that Nancy Pelosi has made way for fresh leadership, does she think Biden should do the same? He would be 86 by the time he finished another term. (Chuck Grassley was just reelected to the Senate at 89 and fractured his hip this month.)

She said Biden “has done a great job” and will make his own decision on whether to run again. She said he will have to weigh the pros and cons: “Is age a positive thing for him? No.” But she said that age is “a relative thing,” noting that she met recently with centenarian Norman Lear, and he was sharp as a tack. On the plus side, she said, “I think Jill is ready to go, for him to run.”

When I asked other women in journalism what they thought I should ask Pelosi, they all said the same thing: “How does she do it?”

She climbed to the top in a “Boys will be boys” universe while raising five kids she bore in six years. She said she had many 20-hour days as speaker, days that were often scheduled in 5-minute increments, according to aides, and she still tirelessly works and travels around the globe. And while she doesn’t drink, she and her husband like to socialize. And on top of all this, she manages to stay meticulously groomed, wearing masks that matched her outfits during the Covid-19 siege and sticking with her stilettos to briskly walk the Capitol’s marble floors, even as women who are 20 years younger phase out their high heels.

“You’re a freak of nature,” I told her.

She agreed: “I’m not saying everybody’s like me because I am a little bit freakish. I have to say I really feel quite blessed in that regard.”

In her daughter’s documentary, there’s a funny scene where Pelosi does housework while she listens to a pandemic briefing from then-Vice President Mike Pence and members of the Trump administration. She is clearly not impressed with their strategy on Covid. After fulsomely thanking Pence, she puts him on mute and asks Alexandra Pelosi, who’s behind the camera, “Am I a b… or what?”

Nancy Pelosi laughed when I asked about it. “I did my rugs,” she said. “I did my kitchen. I made my bed. And he’s still talking.”

She credits her energy to Italian genes and dark chocolate. She has even started using her famous sweet tooth to avoid uncomfortable questions.

When I told her I had pulled a muscle doing yoga, she smiled. “See? I keep away from all exercise.” She power walks, but her daughter said that turns into “walks while taking power calls.” Alexandra Pelosi once saw her mother on an exercise bike, eating chocolate ice cream out of the container while talking on the telephone and lightly cycling.

When a Fox News reporter asked Nancy Pelosi in the hall of Congress recently about how the president has handled the classified document kerfuffle, she nibbled on a cookie, indicating she couldn’t talk because her mouth was full. It evoked the days when Ronald Reagan would pretend he didn’t hear tough questions because of the whirring blades of Marine One.

When Pelosi came to the House in 1987, determined to sound the alarm about AIDS, she said the men in power would dismiss the women with remarks such as, “Why don’t the women just make a list of the things they’d like to see done and give us the list?” She revealed that she still feels the sting of sexism — “a thousand nicks a day, even though people may not realize it or intend it” — and slyly said of the men who tried to hamper her political rise, “Poor babies.” She’s planning a memoir “to set the record straight.”

As we left the Four Seasons, Pelosi showed me a turquoise ring she was wearing given to her by Afghan female artisans and said she “would like to see Congress be a stronger voice for women in the world.” She also said she would like to help the women in Congress in any way she could.

Won’t she still be a celebrity, even without her old title, big staff and wide balcony?

“I was a woman of great power, and now I’ll be a woman of great influence,” she said. “Whatever that happens to be.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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