ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
Tonight we are doing something fun, strolling over to the Washington Week bookshelf with Molly Ball, national political correspondent for TIME Magazine and author of the newly released book Pelosi. Her in-depth look at the speaker’s life provides insights and revealing details about how Nancy Pelosi became one of the most powerful people in American politics.
As Ball writes, Pelosi was deeply shaped by her childhood in Baltimore. Her father was Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. He was a congressman and the city’s mayor. Her mother, who went by “Big Nancy,” was a force in the family’s political life, too. But she made her own career in San Francisco after marrying Paul Pelosi and became a big player in state politics. Eventually, she was elected to the House in 1987 and quickly rose in the party’s ranks. In 2006, she led Democrats back to power and became the first woman to ever ascend to the speakership. And after the 2018 midterm elections, she reclaimed the gavel.
Joining me now is Molly Ball. Congrats on the book. Thanks for being here.
MOLLY BALL: Thank you so much.
MR. COSTA: Let’s start there, that final shot, 2018 – Democrats win and she faces some unrest with younger Democrats. What did you learn about how she navigated her own party right after they won back power?
MS. BALL: Well, it was really – it’s really a comeback story, right, because the Democrats had spent eight years in the wilderness, in the minority. It was not a fun time to be in Congress, especially in the minority in Congress, and there was an increasing level of angst in the Democratic ranks about Nancy Pelosi in particular. She spent the better part of the decade being the centerpiece of Republicans’ election strategy, starting in 2010 when they spent $70 million on attack ads specifically about Nancy Pelosi and then repeated that every two years on the assumption that that was working for them. And that’s not to say that that was unfair, right – politics ain’t beanbag, and they decided that that was working – but it – but what it meant was that many Democrats felt that she had become a toxic figure, she had become polarizing, she was sort of a burden to them. And so despite the fact that, you know, nobody ever questioned her ability to actually run the House and to, you know, do negotiations, get big legislation through, her public image, her external image, was a source of angst, and then also just the fact that she and her two lieutenants – the top three leaders of the Democrats in the House – had been there by the time 2018 came around for 15 years, and that was blocking any younger members from moving up that ladder and achieving their own ambitions in the House. So by 2018 there were a lot of doubts about whether she could get that gavel back, but what we saw was that she actually used that as an opportunity to demonstrate her legislative skills, to demonstrate her deal-making skills, to demonstrate the ways that she had of calling on various, you know, levers of power to bring people into her camp, and it ended up showing exactly why she was suited for the job because she was able to negotiate with all the different factions of the caucus and, whether through the carrot or the stick, to get pretty much everybody back on her side.
MR. COSTA: One of the things I really enjoyed learning in this book was about her early days in Baltimore because we’ve all heard the legend about Pelosi’s rise. Tommy D’Alesandro, the mayor, the congressman, I actually visited with Speaker Pelosi once in her office, she showed me a picture of her father listening to Churchill speak to Congress on the wall of her office. It’s always the father, but as you show in this book it’s the mother, “Big Nancy,” who was there inspiring her and in some ways shaping her own view of women in America and leadership.
MS. BALL: That’s right, and I really did want to refocus people’s attention on her mother. You know, Nancy Pelosi’s a mother herself. Motherhood has been a big part of her life, and from the very first time I interviewed her she took pains to talk about her mother’s influence as well as her father’s. Obviously, it’s natural that there’s been so much focus on her father and his career. She went into the family business. Her father, as you said, was a congressman and the mayor of Baltimore, a legendary figure in Baltimore politics, but Nancy Pelosi also grew up – Nancy D’Alesandro at the time – grew up seeing her mother be stifled by her father, and she’s very frank about that. She talks very frankly about the fact that her mother had a lot of ambitions she wasn’t able to realize simply because she was a woman. She wanted to go to law school. She wanted to have a career in business. She needed a man’s signature to do some of these things, and her husband simply would not let her. So you know, a big part of Nancy Pelosi’s personality is the desire for independence, the desire to make her own way and to have control over her own life.
She also gets a lot of her personality characteristics from her mother, who was a very fiery, perhaps even hot-tempered person. There are family legends about her standing up to various men, at one point even punching a poll worker in the face. So a lot of the grit and the tenacity and the toughness that Nancy Pelosi is so known for she seems to have gotten from her mother, and so I did want to sort of bring her mother back into focus a part of the center of her story.
MR. COSTA: What about the speaker’s Catholic faith? It’s so part of her political persona. Where does that come from? Obviously, her parents, but – at some level, but what do you make of how she carries her faith in her public life?
MS. BALL: You know, her faith is very real, very devout. When she says she’s praying for the president, that’s not a joke or a flippant turn of phrase; she really does pray. And she used to say that – well, she does say that when she was growing up there were three loyalties in the household: the American flag, the Catholic Church, and the Democratic Party. She was really born into all three of those institutions, those loyalties. At the same time, throughout her rise, as she rose through the ranks and became more prominent, she clashed with the church, often painfully for her.
She has always been in favor of reproductive rights, saying she’s personally opposed to abortion but believes in a woman’s right to make that choice. That put her at odds with the Catholic Church. And there were a series of high-profile confrontations between her and the church over that issue. It actually put her at odds with her own family. Her mother and father and brothers did not share that view of a woman’s right to choose. So it’s been a sort of fraught and tortured relationship throughout her life. But it is still a loyalty she carries very deeply.
And I think it’s deeply informed a lot of her views on social justice. She’s departed from the church also on gay rights. But she believes that her belief in the humanity and dignity of every person comes from her faith. And that’s also where she gets her view of the equality of the LGBT community.
MR. COSTA: Another thing I learned from this book, Molly – it makes you wonder about why – is her position on China. And it made me wonder what could have been with her and President Trump, because you detail how early in her congressional career she’s taking tough stands against the Chinese Communist Party on human rights. She’s been a China hawk in her career. Yet we haven’t seen her, at least in many instances, come together with President Trump on that front, for a variety of reasons. Did that stand out to you, how she’s handled China over the years?
MS. BALL: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s a lesser-known element of her career, but one that was very important to her rise to prominence in Congress. And it’s a real passion of hers. You know, she was always interested in international human rights, again, coming from this sort of social justice perspective. She attended – she worshiped John F. Kennedy, like so many American Catholics, and attended his inauguration in 1961. But she says that – you know, the famous line from that speech, ask not what America can do for you, that wasn’t what made the deepest impression on her. It was the line after that, when he said: Ask not what America can do for you but ask what together we can do for the – for the fellowship of man. I’m probably messing up that line.
MR. COSTA: Betterment of man. Betterment of man, right?
MS. BALL: But the point being that she came to this issue from the perspective of human rights. And she was skeptical of the evolving bipartisan idea that the economic liberalization of China would inevitably lead to a better human rights and democracy situation. And we have certainly seen her proved right in that regard. So, you know, this was a stance that put her at odds with presidents of both parties, including some high-profile clashes with Bill Clinton and his administration when he went back on his promise to her to condition China trade on human rights. She actually stood up to the Chinese authorities, put herself in potential physical danger by going to Tiananmen Square and protesting in 1991. So this has been a long-time passion of hers.
But she has not been able to find common cause with Trump on this issue, or with other issues where Trump has sort of talked like a Democrat – whether you’re talking about infrastructure spending, or prescription drugs, or whatever else. And part of that, I think, is just the physical relation – the personal relationship between the two of them has been so poisoned that they’re no longer able to even speak to each other.
MR. COSTA: Molly, finally, I know every American who follows politics knows what Speaker Pelosi looks like, they know what she sounds like. But you’ve sat down with her for interviews, you’ve spent time with her. What is she actually like when you’re sitting down with her over a coffee, or I know she loves chocolate? What is she like that we don’t see when the camera’s on, or she’s passing through the hallway?
MS. BALL: You know, she’s a pretty formal person. She does have her quirks. The very first time I interviewed her, it was the middle of winter and it was 20 degrees outside. And we were in little Italy in Baltimore. And she had chocolate ice cream for breakfast, despite that. But at the same time, you know, she’s a creature of her upbringing in the 1940s and ’50s, of the church, of a very sort of proper mindset. And she doesn’t give a lot away. That highly disciplined, highly composed exterior that you see in her public appearances, she doesn’t drop it that much, even around her closest friends.
So you know, she is one of those politicians that I think you learn more about from watching what they do than from listening to what they say. And it was really – I felt like I got to know her and understand her the best from researching her career and watching the various things that she’s done over the course of her political and personal life. I did learn a lot from interviewing her. And I’m grateful that she gave me a number of interviews. But she is not going to be remembered, I think, as one of history’s great political orators. Communication has never been her strongest suit. And it’s really the things that she’s done that I think give the greatest insight into who she is.
MR. COSTA: Molly Ball, the book is Pelosi. Terrific book. Again, congratulations, Molly. Thanks for being with us.
MS. BALL: Thank you very much.
MR. COSTA: And that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. Our new bookshelf, we’ll keep this series going. Let us know on our website if there’s a book or author we should be paying attention to. But in the meantime get this podcast on our website or wherever you get your podcasts. And while you’re there, check out our Week-ly Washington Week quiz. I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us, and we’ll see you next time.