Quite apart from the sympathy and horror every decent person feels over the attack on her husband, I for one am going to miss the old gal, as Nancy Pelosi slowly passes from power, with the announcement on Thursday that she will step down from House leadership. She’s had a good run, growing from a back-bencher to be a giant in the politics of her time. And as any comparable figure should, she leaves behind a trail of tokens—remarks and phrases and images—that future generations, if they’re moved to do so, can trace to find what there is to find of the real Nancy Pelosi.
Among these many tokens, let’s think of three. The most famous is the deathless remark she made not long before the House of Representatives passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in March 2010.
“We have to pass the bill,” she said, “so you can find out what’s in it.”
The sentence belongs on her monument, if she gets one. It was her answer to complaints that the ACA, as it quivered its way by peristalsis through the lower intestines of congressional subcommittees and closed-door mark-ups, had grown too cumbersome, too complicated for ordinary people to comprehend its effects or even its intentions.
She chose to answer the complaint by agreeing with it—and adding an implicit shrug: “What d’ya expect?”
The remark was so honest and transparent and true—”saying the quiet part out loud,” we’d call it today—that her publicists in the press quickly tried to explain it away. Pelosi, they said, was merely making a point about the tide of public opinion, which ran against the ACA: Only when the bill had become law could the mass of little people be dazzled by the glories revealed within, and then change their opinion of it, from skepticism to gratitude.
But that explanation never stuck. With a single stroke, a mere 14 words, Pelosi summarized and exposed decades of congressional decrepitude, and moreover identified herself as a satisfied creature of it. The reflexive secrecy, the grandiosity, the servility to parochial interests, the endless longueurs that lulled the public to sleep, followed by blind, frenetic fits of legislative activity before the public’s attention could be roused—she was at once the master of this broken system and its servant, utterly complacent, utterly uninterested in its reform. Her party was rewarded in the next election with a group defenestration, losing their majority and 63 seats.
Pelosi does not strike an observer as a complicated personality. As with all gifted politicians her quest for power won’t tolerate psychological nuance or depth. But other facets of her character have been exposed at odd moments. She is famously the product of a political family. Her father and brother were both mayors of Baltimore in the ancien regime, when urban machines practiced a purely transactional politics that had no patience for ideological flights of fancy. To this day she remains more Baltimore than San Francisco, more party boss than party ideologist. The disdain she feels for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s squad of left wingers is undisguised. Her understanding of politics is sounder than theirs.
And yet, along with President Joe Biden, she has become an emblem—neither is articulate enough to be called a “spokesman”—for Catholic politicians willing, sometimes eager, to abandon the faith of their fathers and to cut their consciences to fit the fashions of an ever-evolving liberalism.
This became clear in a press-conference colloquy in 2013 between Pelosi and the eminent (and dogged) political journalist John McCormack. At the time the trial of the abortionist Dr. Kermit Gosnell was underway, despite the best efforts of the mainstream press to ignore it. McCormack asked Pelosi if there was a “moral difference” between Gosnell’s killing of 25-week-old babies outside the womb and the killing of 25-week-old babies in the womb by other doctors under the logic of “late-term abortions.”
Pelosi doesn’t do “moral difference”—unless it is the moral difference between caring Democrats and selfish Republicans, a distinction she is happy to milk until the poor heifer collapses in exhaustion.
So in response to McCormack she reached first for the ad hominem.
“You’re probably enjoying that question a lot,” she said. “I can see you savoring it.”
Then she made an argument from authority—her own.
“I want to tell you something,” she said, according to the CNN transcript. “As the mother of five children, my oldest child was 6 years old the day I brought my fifth child home from the hospital, as a practicing and respectful Catholic, this is sacred ground to me when we talk about this. I don’t think it should have anything to do with politics. And that’s where you’re taking it and I’m not going there.”
The nonsequitur was pristine, completely unconnected to the subject at hand. It wasn’t much more than a jumble of words, amounting not to a moral case but a moralizing camouflage, an attempt to throw a flash-bang into the briefing room and get the hell out as quickly and painlessly as possible. But give her this much: As a “practicing and respectful Catholic,” she has at least retained the grace to be unnerved by the pro-choice position her ambition has required of her.
When rubbed the wrong way, she can summon her own kind of clarity. My favorite instance, and our third and final token, was related in a recent biography by Molly Ball. In August 2014, during yet another crisis on the southern border, a Republican congressman named Tom Marino took the House floor to chide Pelosi, then the minority leader, for ignoring it—a sign of her weakness, he said.
“I did research on it,” Marino said. “You might want to try it, Madame Leader. … That’s one thing you don’t do.”
Outraged, Pelosi flew across the floor toward Marino, arms raised.
Now, we all have our readymade insults for people we find contemptible—from chucklehead to asshole and beyond. We tend to describe the opposite of what we see ourselves to be.
Pelosi uncorked her own favorite.
“You,” she shouted at Marino, “are an insignificant person! You are an insignificant person!” Her colleagues, according to Ball, had to pull her away.
What a picture it makes! It is how I prefer to remember her, the first woman elected speaker of the House, a colossus in the politics of this century—ferocious in her pant suit, the back vents of the jacket flapping, the padded shoulders heaving, the tiny fists balled in anger and hoisted skyward. The image defines her long struggle against the great enemy insignificance, and more important, against all the little people who are themselves insignificant, and whose ranks—unhappily but finally—she now joins.
Andrew Ferguson is a contributing writer at the Atlantic and nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.