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Perspective | There was nothing soft about Nancy Pelosi


If you had to consolidate Nancy Pelosi’s entire political career into one image, I’d vote for her outstanding roaring applause from Donald Trump at the 2019 State of the Union address. The president had indicated he wanted recognition and technically had given it exactly what he asked for. She clasped her hands together and produced a blow that looked like a four-letter word, a velvet scalpel.

This was her way, her brand, her trademark. Decorum wielded like a weapon, politeness like a high burn. “She’ll chop your head off,” her daughter Alexandra once said on CNN, “and you won’t even notice you’re bleeding.”

The Speaker of the House of Representatives announced Thursday that she would step down from Democratic leadership during the January turnover of Congress. “The hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus that I respect so deeply,” she told her colleagues in a speech. She spoke of the wonder she felt when she first visited the Capitol as a small child, and how she still thought it was “the most beautiful building in the world.”

She also said she enjoyed working with “three presidents” during her tenure. The fact that she had overlapped with four presidents was the whole point. She affectionately called Presidents George Bush, Barack Obama and Joe Biden by name. She did not mention Trump, and her silence on the matter was both polite and savage.

“I actually wish she’d read those GOP men to their faces,” texted a friend who was also watching Pelosi’s speech. “They deserve it.”

And perhaps, those colleagues of hers who had demonized her and minimized the uprising that damaged the most beautiful building in the world. But if she had scolded them from the House floor, she would have used a bat instead of her usual needle, and she certainly wouldn’t have been Nancy Pelosi.

I found myself, in the fifth decade of her public service career, reflecting on what made Pelosi herself—her insistence on decorum and politeness over protocol, even if it must have masked desperation or frustration. The kind of woman who, in the midst of the chaotic and terrifying January 6 uprising, was caught on camera calmly strategizing how to run the affairs of Congress despite the “poop-poo” that had befouled the Capitol.

She was a woman of a certain age who entered her political life at a certain point, a girl whose father introduced her to elected office in a time of patriarchal politics, a mother with five grown children by the time she had her own first running for Congress.

The answer to why she “couldn’t read those GOP men in their face” is that the rules for women were different then and to a lesser extent now. Donald Trump can bring a paintball gun up to government standards and protocols, but to fight him Nancy Pelosi could only color within the lines, neatly and carefully, always keeping the big picture in mind.

She piloted the Affordable Care Act, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the abolition of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The more she achieved, the more she was taunted by the right. If you can’t beat her, thought seemed to go, then make a bunch of sexist, age-appropriate memes accusing her of witchcraft. A few days after her husband was attacked in their home by a man with a hammer, Trump told attendees at a rally, “I think she’s an animal.”

Pelosi would never have said something like that from behind a stage. But last month, her daughter released private footage of her mother on the day of the Jan. 6 riots. In the video, shot before the invasion began, Pelosi was told that Trump was planning to come to the Capitol. “If he comes, I’ll beat him out,” she said. ‘I’ve been waiting for this. Before entering the Capitol grounds, I’ll knock him out.”

Hearing her say this gave you an idea of ​​how powerfully this woman has to suppress her anger the vast majority of the time.

It also gives you an idea of ​​how deeply she believes in good, orderly governance. In this private moment, her anger at Trump wasn’t because he offended her, but because he might offend the Capitol grounds.

Pelosi is not relinquishing her seat in Congress, only her role in Democratic leadership. But her speech was a functional farewell, a graceful bow. In giving her speech, she provided a model for how to say goodbye. To her fellow Gerontocracy members of the US Congress: This is how you do it. This way you make room for the next generation. To the former president: This is how you do it. This ensures an orderly transfer of power.

I will miss her backstage in January. I will miss her good example and unfailing politeness, and I will miss the slumbering righteousness beneath.

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