PETER BAKER: Welcome to the Washington Week Bookshelf. I’m Peter Baker.
Joining me tonight, Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today and author of Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power. Welcome.
This book provides readers an in-depth look into the life and legacy of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve as speaker of the House. She battled her way through the world of politics despite being underestimated, second guessed, and criticized by many. Susan, you spoke with more than 150 of Pelosi’s friends and notable figures in politics, including Speaker Pelosi herself, over the span of two years; what surprised you the most?
SUSAN PAGE: You know, one of the big surprises for me with Nancy Pelosi was that we know – if you know anything about Nancy Pelosi, you know that her father was this larger-than-life mayor of Baltimore. Tommy the elder D’Alessandro served five terms in the House of Representatives, then served three terms as mayor of Baltimore, and she very much reflects lessons learned from him. But the surprise was the big role her mother played – her mother, who was known as big Nancy; of course, the woman we know as Nancy Pelosi was known to everyone as little Nancy. Big Nancy was a woman ahead of her time. She was ambitious and restless. She wanted to go to law school, although that never managed to work out. She designed machines and patented them. She designed a machine to give women facials and marketed it as Beauty by Vapor. And actually, she – I found the patent applications for this – one of my kids found on eBay an actual Beauty by Vapor machine manufactured by Nancy D’Alessandro and he bought it for me for my birthday last year – and by the way, it still worked.
MR. BAKER: I was struck you have a scene in there where there’s a family portrait that’s now hanging in a Baltimore restaurant and the note next to it says, don’t mess with the picture; Nancy Pelosi might impeach you. (Laughs.) I was struck by a number of things in the book, though, but reading it this week at the same time I’m reading John Boehner’s memoir, which just came out – Boehner, of course, was the Republican speaker who served between Nancy Pelosi’s two times in that chair – and there’s some real similarity there in some ways. He complains about what he calls the knucklehead caucus in his Republican Party, the people who are pushing him away from compromise, and she talks a little bit about that in your book too with the pressure she feels from the left, the Squad and so forth, people that she complains about to you who care more about looking pure than actually getting things done. I know she doesn’t like that comparison, but I thought that was really striking.
MS. PAGE: Yeah, John – I interviewed John Boehner for this book; he thought that comparison was not only right, but hilarious – the right-wing knuckleheads had given him so much trouble, and now he’s watching people he would have – he would describe as left-wing knuckleheads doing the same for her. When I interviewed her, I – I had 10 interviews with Nancy Pelosi for this book and some of them just happened to fall on days when big things were happening. One of them was a day when her dispute with the Squad over their vote on an immigration bill really came to a head, came to a boil in the Democratic caucus, so she arrived at this interview all wound up about that and she said that they – that she thought that the – well, while she tries usually not to be publicly critical of other Democrats in Congress, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the Squad, in this case she compared them to children posing for holy pictures – (laughs) – showing – trying to show how pure they are, where other people are in another corner of the room figuring out how to actually legislate, and I think that shows you something about her view. It’s not that she disagrees with them so much on policy, it’s not that she minds that they’re passionate about the things they care about; it’s that she thinks they’re naive about how you can actually get things done.
MR. BAKER: Well, sometimes she gets herself in trouble, of course, as well, right? Earlier this week, as we discussed on the main show, she came under fire for her comments following the conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s killing. Let’s take a look.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice, for being there to call out to your mom. How heartbreaking was that, call out for your mom? “I can’t breathe.” But because of you and because of thousands – millions of people around the world who came out for justice, your name will always be synonymous with justice.
MR. BAKER: Susan, you talked a little bit about this on the main program, but what does that tell us about Nancy Pelosi at this stage of her career?
MS. PAGE: Well, it tells us that she still has the strengths and weaknesses she had at the very beginning of her career. Obviously, tone-deaf remarks: George Floyd did not sacrifice himself for justice; George Floyd was murdered by a police officer. And so, obviously, even her – you know, even her friends cringed when they heard what she said, and she tried to clean it up with a tweet afterwards, but Nancy Pelosi has always been not very skilled at the parts of politics that you see like the big speech or the impromptu remarks, and she’s always been incredibly skilled at the things that you don’t see like the meetings where deals are cut or the process of getting some reluctant member of Congress to vote for a bill even though he or she may not want to. That’s where Nancy Pelosi shines the most.
MR. BAKER: You know, she’s exercised such control over her caucus for so many years, but I was struck by one thing in your book which says that in 2006, when they were running for the midterm elections trying to capture the majority, she would call House Democrats and tell them not to sponsor bipartisan legislation with Republicans because she didn’t want the Republicans to be able to burnish their credentials ahead of the vote. And I was struck by that because we often talk about how is Washington not bipartisan anymore? And Mitch McConnell often gets a lot of criticism for that, but it seems like it’s not just Mitch McConnell, right?
MS. PAGE: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. I mean, on the one hand, it worked; Democrats regained – in her view. Democrats regained control of the House in 2006. On the other hand, it fed this partisanship that has just made the Capitol so dysfunctional. Nancy Pelosi didn’t create that partisanship, but she is very skilled at negotiating in it. And she views politics as a kind of warfare. She said that she gets up every morning, eats nails for breakfast, and puts on armor – and that’s great, if she’s on your side of the battlefield. You appreciate a leader like that, but it doesn’t do very much to kind of ameliorate some of the things that have just really plagued our politics for several years.
MR. BAKER: Well, we see that playing out right now over this question of whether there should be a 9/11-style commission to investigate the attack on the Capitol on January 6th. And you know, I talked just today, actually, with Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton, who led the Iraq Study Group, one of the last of these big, bipartisan commissions we’ve seen in Washington. And one thing they said is a commission like this has to be really, truly bipartisan. And up until now Pelosi’s version of it hadn’t been, right? It had been stacked with Democrats, and the Democrats got the main power. Now she’s begun to make some concessions to the Republicans. Do you think there’s going to be a commission then?
MS. PAGE: I do not. And I actually interviewed Speaker Pelosi about this last week – not for the book, obviously, but for USA Today with my colleague Ledge King. She thinks that the issue is not – she’s given in on things like how do you issue subpoenas and will the membership be equal. Under her new proposal, the membership would be equal between Republicans and Democrats.
But the real sticking point is the scope of the inquiry. She wants the inquiry very much focused on the events of January 6th, when the Capitol was stormed. And Republicans want to include other protests, other civil unrest, including civil unrest associated with the George Floyd protests from last summer that were largely peaceful but did have some incidents of violence and looting. And that is a – I just – it is hard for me to believe that that issue is going to get resolved. I think that she said – she told us last week that in that case, if they can’t get a commission established, she can go ahead and appoint a select committee. But of course, that doesn’t have quite the gravitas that a 9/11-style commission would have.
MR. BAKER: You discuss in the book how the 2016 election impacted Pelosi’s plans, saying that the election she thought would be the end of her career became instead the beginning of its most consequential chapter. So how did that moment change her legacy?
MS. PAGE: (Laughs.) Well, you know, it changed everything. She had – unknown to most people she was making plans to step down in 2016 because she knew, like so many of us did, that Hillary Clinton was going to win the election. And Hillary Clinton would then protect the Affordable Care Act and other Democratic priorities. And of course, Hillary Clinton famously did not win the election. Donald Trump did. That night, when it became clear to Nancy Pelosi that Trump was going to win, she said – she told me she felt like she was being kicked by a mule. And she decided by the end of that night that she was not going anywhere, that she was going to stay there, stay in town, stay in the leadership. And she, of course, became the face of the Democratic opposition to Donald Trump.
MR. BAKER: Well, now she says this might be her last term. What do you think of that? Is this going to be her last term? And if so, does she have a successor in mind?
MS. PAGE: Yes, I think this is likely her last term. Certainly, there’s a lot of eagerness among House Democrats – as much as – as much respect as she commands – for a new generation of leadership to take hold. So I do think it’s likely this is her last term. There’s going to be no shortage of candidates to succeed her. These are – this is the Democratic Party after all, representing different wings of the party. I think one of the most likely contenders, frontrunner is a hard word, but one possible contender is Hakeem Jeffries, who’s been – from New York – who’s been a member of the leadership, is close to Pelosi, is well liked. And, by the way, just as she broke new ground as the first woman to become speaker of the House, if elected he would break new ground as the first person of color to lead a party in a chamber of commerce – Congress, and even serve potentially as speaker of the House.
MR. BAKER: We’ll have to leave it there for tonight. Many thanks to Susan for talking with us about her new insightful book on a consequential woman in Washington. It’s a terrific read. Go out and buy it tonight.
And thank you for joining us. Make sure to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter on our website, where you’ll get an early preview of each edition of Washington Week. I’m Peter Baker. Good night.