Nancy Pelosi proved to be a moving target.
When I began working on a biography of the House speaker two years ago, the deadline to my publisher was Labor Day 2020, with an extension carved out to submit a final chapter right after Election Day. The theory: Early in the election year Pelosi would be supplanted as the leading Democratic counterpart to President Donald Trump by the party’s presidential nominee, whoever that turned out to be. That would leave time and space to assess the most powerful woman in American history. Then election night would settle Trump’s future and the success of Pelosi’s stand against him.
The news didn’t cooperate.
As soon as Trump’s (first) impeachment trial was concluded in February, the most deadly pandemic in a century began to spread in a year that would be marked by an unconventional presidential election and then a post-election chapter of historic disruption. For all of us, 2020 was not the year we had assumed it would be.
Even after Joe Biden became the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, Pelosi continued to be the most prevalent face of her party during a perilous time. While COVID‑19 forced Biden to conduct a virtual campaign for months from his home in Delaware, Pelosi was on Capitol Hill week after week, negotiating trillions of dollars in relief aid with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. She became a ubiquitous presence on cable TV.
On the day of one of our interviews during the summer, the pandemic had all but closed the Capitol. Besides a handful of aides and Capitol police officers, she and I seemed to be just about the only people in the building. My footsteps echoed through the empty hallways.
For that conversation and others, we sat in the speaker’s elegant suite, with its spectacular view of the National Mall and the country’s most famous monuments. That office would become notorious six months later when a mob of protesters stormed the Capitol and one of them, Richard Barnett of Gravette, Arkansas, was photographed with his boot on her desk, grinning. He stole an embossed envelope and left what he called “a nasty note” that called the speaker of the House the B-word.
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From ‘creepy’ to dangerous
Pelosi was long accustomed to being at the center of the news. From birth, in fact, when the arrival of a daughter for the Baltimore congressman made the local newspapers. The Baltimore News-Post splashed a four-column photo of the newborn in her mother’s arms, surrounded by her father and five brothers.
As an adult and a member of Congress herself, she was the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks that started the century, in 2001. She was the highest ranking member of Congress to oppose the Iraq War from its beginning. She was the most persistent congressional critic of China on human rights, challenging both Democratic and Republican presidents on the issue. She was the irresistible force pushing through controversial pieces of major legislation, notably the Wall Street bailout in 2008 and the Affordable Care Act in 2010. She was the top fundraiser and chief strategist who twice led Democrats to wrest back control of the House, in 2006 and 2018.
But nothing had been quite like the year 2020. After Trump was unexpectedly elected in 2016, she had described him to me as “creepy.” Four years later, she saw him as dangerous — “the most dangerous man in our history,” she said. He was a threat to democracy, she thought, and someone who mishandled the pandemic with deadly consequences for the country.
At a time when many Americans felt unnerved by a virus that was spiraling out of control, not to mention an unpredictable president, I realized that I had never seen her emotionally falter. When I asked whether she had added anything to her personal routine to manage the stress, she couldn’t come up with anything, although the tensions of the Trump years already had made her grind her teeth at night and get a mouth guard from her dentist.
“You have to remember; I had five babies in six years, almost to the day,” she finally said. “I’m a strong person.”
Well, maybe one thing. “Dark chocolate ice cream,” she said, the treat that she had counted on for sustenance since childhood. Preferably early in the day, she added. “If it’s too late at night then I never go to sleep.”
Paul Pelosi, her husband of 57 years, had trouble coming up with an example of her struggling during an unsettling time. “It would be absurd to think it isn’t (affecting her), as caring a person as she is, but I don’t know how the hell she does it,” he told me. “I continue to be astounded at her energy, her resilience, her straightforwardness — ‘Don’t agonize; organize.’ She just keeps marching forward. The woman has no idea how old she is.”
(To be precise, she turned 81 in March.)
An unexpected coda
“She’s like a nuclear sub,” Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, one of her closest friends, told me when I asked how Pelosi had managed. “She knows what her mission is.”
As it turned out, the unprecedented events of 2020 didn’t change Pelosi. They crystalized her key characteristics — her ideological spine and her strategic sense — as though her long political career had been preparation for this challenging moment. During it, she displayed the unyielding toughness that already had made her a nemesis of Republicans and a leader of Democrats.
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And my deadline?
The final chapter, on the outcome of the election, had been a scramble to finish amid Trump’s lawsuits and defiant rhetoric. The manuscript was long gone when the Capitol was stormed on Jan. 6, but I was able to add a coda — an appropriate close to this biography. After a day of unprecedented violence in the Capitol, windows smashed and doors battered, Nancy Pelosi gaveled the House to order to complete the official counting of the Electoral College votes.
Susan Page, the Washington Bureau chief of USA TODAY, is the author of “Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power,” published by Twelve on April 20.