A vignette: President Obama, the most powerful man in the world, has gone to visit Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, in her Congressional office. They are both Democrats, the young President and the veteran Congresswoman, so this is a friendly gesture. He sits in her chair — the one that has its back to the window, with the sweeping House of Cards view of the Washington Mall, down towards the Lincoln Memorial. She asks him — politely but firmly — to move. It’s her chair. Her position. He has to choose another place to sit.
This event is mentioned approvingly in Molly Ball’s new biography of Nancy Pelosi. We are meant to be impressed by the speaker’s sense of self and propriety — she is, after all, America’s most successful elected female politician and hey, Congress and the White House are co-equal under the Constitution.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
But oh dear: where is the emotional intelligence here? Could she not have just plopped herself down on a sofa. On the floor, even? Did it really matter so much?
There is something about Nancy Pelosi that captures in vivid fashion the failure not just of the Democratic party but of many modern democratic politicians to realise the threat that — post Obama — populism posed. They thought they could carry on as normal. They thought they could keep the same rules, the same perks, the same dignity. And folks would go on voting for them. Getting out of their chairs.
Pelosi is not an interesting book in its own right because — as the author all but acknowledges — Nancy Pelosi is not a particularly interesting person. It is best read as a study in (unintentional) irony. Almost everything it wants us to admire leaves us less than admiring.
It is meant to be a success story — the battles of a woman who didn’t begin her career until she was 47 and eventually reached high office and national importance. It is actually a story of how a political movement went awry. How the US Democrats, at pivotal moments in their post-Clinton history, took themselves ever further into the wilderness, or the upper atmosphere — sometimes into outer space: enabling George W Bush via Gore’s vapidity, then losing Congress so that Obama couldn’t govern effectively, and finally allowing a man uniquely unqualified to be president to win because Hillary Clinton literally couldn’t be bothered to travel to the state of Wisconsin to campaign.
Molly Ball’s Pelosi spans all of this because Nancy does. Our eponymous heroine gets to Washington DC in 1987, with Reagan still in power. She is still there today. In spite of efforts by the Left of the party to topple her she was re-elected for this Congress as Speaker of the House of Representatives, which, as we are constantly reminded, makes her the most senior elected woman in the nation: occasional White House invitee, target of presidential ire and sexist unpleasantness. But above all… well, that’s kind of it.
She calls herself a ‘master legislator.’ She gets things done in the corridors of Congress. She knows the numbers. She even impeached the president. But does she reach the parts of America that need to be reached? Does she energise? Does she galvanise? After all these years of getting to know her, do Americans think, “ah Nancy, don’t always agree with her but she speaks plainly to me and my concerns”?
A brief taste of Pelosi gives a clue. As so often in the book, the prose is designed to make us say ‘wow’ but leaves us mouthing, ‘huh’?
She had been up until 2 a.m., calling colleagues, tweaking this clause and that, refreshing herself as she did so with a watermelon-lime seltzer. At seventy-eight, she found her preternatural energy undiminished. She never drank alcohol, rarely had caffeine that wasn’t from her beloved dark chocolate and didn’t need more than a few hours’ sleep per night.
To be blunt, she’s a freak. She ain’t normal. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem for the Democratic party and for other decent, hard-working western politicians wondering how populism could have happened when they are all so busy and disciplined and up all night.
It’s all so tight and prinked and holier than thou. Obama succeeded because he lodged himself in the imagination of a nation that wanted — yearned — to be good. But outside that brief and passionate spasm of symbiosis between party and nation, the Democrats have played it cool, played it distant. Culminating in the loss to Trump.
And it’s not about policies. Although she represents a district in lefty San Francisco, Ms Pelosi has been perfectly happy at various junctures to face down the Left of her party. She has fallen out pretty spectacularly with ‘the squad’ of ethnically diverse Left-wingers who have dominated much of the coverage of the most recent congress. She is not an extremist or a fan of unfocused dreamers: she is a doer of deals.
So what went wrong? Her life — like the life of her party — has simply diverged from the life of the nation. She is rich (from her husband’s business.) She holidays in Hawaii in the winter and her Napa Valley vineyard in the summer. She lives in a mansion in San Francisco and a riverside penthouse in Washington DC. She travels in private jets. She knows the in-set. The Hollywood set.
Does she know about life in Baltimore, where she was born? Perhaps she reads about it. I am convinced by the book that she genuinely wants it to be better and works hard to make it so. But like her party, she has taken a one-way trip to what seemed like a better place. We are not in Baltimore anymore.
So when the populists came, Nancy Pelosi had no defence. And now, more dangerously, she and her ilk takes pleasure in Pyrrhic victories, apparently genuinely thinking them real and substantial. The book begins with an endorsement from Senator Amy Klobuchar: “If you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.”
This is not really true, is it? She has landed some blows to be sure: an encounter at the White House where she spoke sharply to him on camera and he looked foolish, the tearing up of his State of the Nation speech while sitting behind him in was also quite a thing, a meme for the faithful. She gets under his skin, as Molly Ball rightly points out. And all the more so because she and he used to be pally — and he thought they could be when he came to power.
But all of this is failure because all of it is on his terms. Tearing up speeches in public is Trumpism. She has fallen into his trap. It takes Pelosi and her party to a place where he wants them: a place where nothing is normal, everything hyper-partisan. She is wealthy and entitled and cross: all meat and drink for the populist president.
Again, the point here has nothing to do with policies, and everything to do with style and connection with normal people who are — even in modern America — willing to be brought politically to a safer place. With Joe Biden, and more importantly with his vice president and with a new Congressional leadership coming from the younger generation, it is entirely possible that the Democratic party re-invigorates itself and re-establishes its place in the nation.
But they have to give up their chairs. They have to read Pelosi, thank her for her service, and move on.