This story is adapted from “Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power,” which will be published April 20 by Twelve Books. Author Susan Page, the Washington Bureau chief of USA TODAY, conducted 10 interviews with Pelosi for this biography and interviewed more than 150 other friends, family members, political allies and adversaries.
November 8, 2016 – Washington, D.C.
Nancy Pelosi dressed that morning in the colors of the suffragettes, in a white pantsuit and purple top. By the end of the day, she was certain that Hillary Clinton would make history by winning the White House, nearly a century after women had won the right to vote.
As the polls were beginning to close, the House Democratic leader headed to the set of PBS NewsHour in suburban Virginia for an interview.
On the air, Pelosi projected nothing but positivity about what was going to happen. “We will, of course, retain the White House, with the election of Hillary Clinton,” she declared flatly. “It will be close, but we will regain the United States Senate. And we will pick up many seats in the House of Representatives.”
“Why are you so confident about the White House?” anchor Judy Woodruff asked.
“Because I’m confident in the American people,” Pelosi answered.
When Woodruff opened the interview by noting that Pelosi was the highest-ranking female politician in American history, she replied with a smile, “I’m counting the minutes to relinquish that title.” At the end, when the journalist repeated that distinction, Pelosi looked theatrically at her watch and replied, “For the moment! For the moment!”
To the astonishment of Pelosi and just about everyone else in American politics, of course, her moment wasn’t over. When the returns were counted, the new president would be real estate magnate and reality TV star Donald Trump. Like it or not, Pelosi would keep her standing as the most powerful woman in American political history for a while longer, and one whose personal plans, known only to her confidantes, had just been upended. She had intended to step back from elective office once Hillary was in the White House. That idea was instantly shelved.
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She was crushed that Hillary Clinton had lost. The two women had known each other since they met at the Democratic National Convention in 1984, when Pelosi was chair of the San Francisco host committee and Clinton was the wife of the up-and-coming governor of Arkansas. After Bill Clinton was elected president, they had occasionally clashed, notably over Hillary Clinton’s decision to address the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. “She was really against my going,” Clinton told me; Pelosi argued it sent the wrong signal at a time when Chinese American human rights activist Harry Wu had been arrested. But over the years they had worked in concert on Democratic politics and policy, and Pelosi had long been an advocate for more women in public office. They shared a certain kinship. Both women were trailblazers who had been attacked and caricatured by their critics.
In 2016, Nancy Pelosi was delighted by the prospect of turning over the most-powerful-woman mantle to a President Hillary Clinton.
At the time, few knew that Pelosi was making plans for the 2016 election to be her valedictory. (To be fair, some of those close to her questioned whether she actually would have followed through if Clinton had won.) After three decades as a congresswoman from California, nearly half of that time as the leader of the House Democrats, Pelosi said she was getting ready to take a breath, dote on her nine grandchildren, perhaps write her memoirs. At seventy-six years old, she was well past the retirement age for almost every workplace except Congress. With Hillary Clinton in the White House, Pelosi could be confident that the causes she had fought for would be protected, especially the Affordable Care Act that she had pushed through Congress against all odds.
After Nancy Pelosi left the PBS studio, she dropped by the headquarters of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Capitol Hill, then joined a poll-watching party for big donors at Maryland representative John Delaney’s town house nearby. She was on her cell phone, tracking key House races, when she began to get an inkling about what was happening.
She checked in with Pennsylvania congressman Bob Brady, a big-city pol in the mold of Pelosi’s father, who had been a three-term mayor of Baltimore. In their first conversation that night, he was upbeat. Democrats always needed a big edge from the Philadelphia vote to carry the state, and he assured her they would deliver it. In their second conversation, he struck a note of caution. “We’re going to get our vote,” he told her, but “there’s a lot coming in for the rest of the state [that was] not so good.”
“Then he called and said, ‘It’s not going to happen here,’ ” Pelosi recalled, a conversation that took her breath away.
Trump would carry Pennsylvania by less than a single percentage point, driven by turnout in small towns and rural areas and unexpected strength around industrial centers like Pittsburgh. His narrow victories in a trio of manufacturing states that Democrats had counted on – Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania – would give him a majority in the Electoral College, though he lost the national popular vote.
Even more than being disappointed that Hillary Clinton had lost, Nancy Pelosi was horrified over the candidate who had won. The shock and pain she felt that night when she realized Donald Trump would win the presidency “was physical; it was actually physical,” she told me. “Like a mule kicking you in the back over and over again.” Trump’s improbable victory changed his life and the country’s trajectory. It changed her life as well.
Republicans had won the White House and maintained majorities, albeit smaller ones, in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Their unified control of the executive and legislative branches could make it possible for them to deliver on their campaign promises to unravel the landmark health care legislation and to reverse the course President Barack Obama, with her crucial support, had set during the previous eight years on health care, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and more.
“I was like, ‘How could it be that person is going to be president of the United States?’” Pelosi told me. It wasn’t just that the glass ceiling for women in American politics had been left intact. “That was saddening, but the election of Donald Trump was stunningly scary, and it was justified to be scared. How could they elect such a person – who talked that way about women, who was so crude and … to me, creepy.”
She saw him as unfit for the White House. Now she would emerge as his most persistent Democratic foil on Capitol Hill and across the country. By midnight Tuesday, Nancy Pelosi knew that she wasn’t going anywhere. The election she thought would be the end of her career became instead the beginning of its most consequential chapter.
A first phone call with Trump
Early Wednesday morning, when the six-year-old daughter of Nadeam Elshami, Pelosi’s chief of staff, woke up, she asked her father expectantly, “Did the girl win?”
“No,” he told her.
She burst into tears.
Elshami relayed his daughter’s reaction to Hillary Clinton’s defeat when Pelosi’s staff gathered later that morning. That was how a lot of them felt, he said. “Everybody can cry,” he said. “You can let it out now.” But get over it fast, he went on, because they needed to get back to work. “Look, this is where we are. We have a new president. We have a job to do. The leader has a job to do.”
Pelosi reached out to Hillary Clinton the day after the election. “It was a somber and sad conversation,” Clinton told me, “because it wasn’t what either of us expected.”
She also reached out to the president-elect. Pelosi called him at Trump Tower in New York; he was the one who picked up the phone at the other end. He was clearly surprised. How did she get the number? he asked. She thanked him for taking the call and offered her congratulations. She told him she looked forward to working with him, especially where they shared common ground, including the idea of a major federal investment in infrastructure projects.
“Nancy, me too,” he replied. “We’ll get some good things done.” The president-elect praised her as someone who could deliver, “better than anybody.” When Pelosi suggested that the president-elect schedule a session soon with the bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, Trump replied, “Talk to my daughter about it,” then passed the phone to Ivanka Trump. Now it was Pelosi’s turn to be surprised. The House Democratic leader found herself listening to Trump’s thirty-five-year-old daughter, whose résumé mostly involved working on enterprises named Trump, relay her thoughts on childcare policy.
“Don’t forget, I was a supporter of yours,” Trump said at the end of their conversation, a reference to a contribution she had once gotten from him for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, before he was a Republican. “I think you’re terrific.”
For a time, Pelosi would be just about Trump’s only regular opponent who didn’t become the target of a derisive nickname on his Twitter feed. Even two weeks before the midterm elections in 2018, Trump told me that having Pelosi as Speaker of the House wouldn’t be so bad. In some ways, he mused, he might even be better off.
Aboard Air Force One, my USA TODAY colleague David Jackson and I interviewed the president while he was on his way to headline a huge rally in Houston on behalf of Texas senator Ted Cruz, the 2016 rival he had once labeled “Lyin’ Ted.” Sitting at the broad desk in his office on the presidential plane, Trump was remarkably sanguine about the possibility that Republicans might lose control of the House. “I’ll be honest with you, if the Democrats get in, I think I’ll be able to work with them,” he said. “They need me. They don’t want to sit there and for two years do nothing. They want to get things passed.”
But his view of her would change, and radically. Pelosi would become the unyielding counterpart to Trump, consistently able to get under his skin. She had the power to stand up to him and the aplomb to stare him down, the singular figure who would decide whether and when he would be impeached. The photographs of her in action would become iconic: Striding out of the West Wing in a brick-red coat after she had rebutted the president in their first Oval Office meeting in the wake of the 2018 midterm elections, when Democrats won back the House. Delivering an exaggerated, sardonic clap at his State of the Union address two months later. Standing up at the table in the Cabinet Room that fall, jabbing her finger at him before she led a Democratic walkout from a meeting where he had derided her as “a third-rate politician.” Tearing up the text of the 2020 State of the Union he had just delivered as he stood with his back to her, basking in applause from the Republican side of the chamber.
Even after former vice president Joe Biden became the party’s presumptive presidential nominee in 2020, Nancy Pelosi would continue to be the most prevalent face of the Democratic Party during a perilous time. While the COVID-19 pandemic 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 and stimulus spending. She became a ubiquitous presence on cable TV, arguing the Democrats’ case, negotiating with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, doing her best to ignore or dismiss the president’s tweets. Holding the Democratic Party together.
A ‘shy’ politician wary of the limelight
Nancy Pelosi is a tough interview. She is disciplined and precise. She is unapologetic about repeating the same talking points. She isn’t inclined to indulge in speculation, to discuss the what-ifs. She is rarely willing to dish.
In our third interview for this book, I ventured gingerly to ask if she would give me permission to see her high school and college transcripts. I already had interviewed classmates at the Institute of Notre Dame in Baltimore and at Trinity Washington University, and I had spent time on both campuses. At her alma maters, officials expressed pride in their most famous alumna, and they assured me that she had been a perfect student in every way. But because of federal rules and their own policies, they wouldn’t let me see her records without her approval.
When I made the same request of former First Lady Barbara Bush while I had been working on a biography of her, she sent a bemused note to the authorities at the College of Charleston, which had charge of the archives from her former boarding school. “Although I fear she will be unimpressed,” she wrote, “I am giving my permission for Susan Page to have access to my academic records at Ashley Hall.”
That was not Pelosi’s reaction. She looked appalled, as though I had asked to rifle through her closet. She did give me the courtesy of an explanation for turning me down flat.
“I’m a very private person,” she told me. That is not the typical attitude of elected officials; some of them pursue political careers precisely because they revel in the spotlight. “That’s the thing, when people talk about me in public, I’m like – if I go someplace and I don’t have to speak, I’m in my glory. I’m not looking for an audience. I’m as private a person as there is, and a shy one. I’ve had to be in this role – but I don’t intend to go into personal, personal aspects.” In case I had somehow missed the point, she added firmly: “No.”
That said, as I researched and wrote this biography, she did occasionally go into “personal, personal aspects,” although not always intentionally. I am grateful that she agreed to a series of interviews for the book. (I wasn’t sure she would invite me back after the first interview, when I took a bite into the Dove ice cream bar she had offered and sent tiny shards of the dark chocolate shell flying onto her pristine cream- colored carpet.)
The second interview, sans treats, was on the summer afternoon in July 2019 when her dispute with the Squad had exploded; her anger at the four new progressive congresswomen was palpable. The fourth interview fell on the autumn day in November that Trump’s impeachment hearings began in the House. Then, she was almost preternaturally calm. I interviewed her the following spring during the coronavirus pandemic that had all but closed the Capitol, on the day after the House passed a historic $484 billion relief package, and again in the summer.
Occasionally, I would bring artifacts that my research had uncovered, some of them new to her. There were the precise drawings her mother had submitted to the U.S. Patent Office for a device she had invented in the 1940s to give steam facials. Handwritten memos dictated by Pennsylvania congressman John Murtha, the crusty Marine veteran who had run her first campaign for the leadership. Discovered in a file in his archives at the University of Pittsburgh, the notes were preparation for a memoir he never got around to writing before he died.
“Some of the old guys were very hesitant to have a woman as Speaker,” Murtha had said, dictating to an aide who wrote in red ink across a white legal pad. Elected eighteen times to represent Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, Murtha had been a crucial voice in reassuring “the old guys” about her. He listed lessons he had learned from her, about playing the long game and sharing the credit. “Good a political mind as I have ever seen,” he said.
Breaking the ‘marble ceiling’
While she is a devout Catholic, Nancy Pelosi is not generally given to the mystical. Still, she relayed one hard-to-explain moment at her first meeting with a president at the White House as a member of the congressional leadership. She had just won election as Democratic whip in 2001, making her the highest-ranking woman in the 213-year history of Congress.
She suddenly realized that never before in the nation’s history had a woman attended one of these sessions. As President George W. Bush began to speak, “I suddenly felt crowded in my chair,” Pelosi recalled. “It was truly an astonishing experience, as if Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul, and all the other suffragettes and activists who had worked hard to advance women in government and in life were right there with me. I was enthralled by their presence, and then I could clearly hear them say: ‘At last we have a seat at the table.’ After a moment, they were gone.”
A year later, when Representative Dick Gephardt of Missouri resigned as Democratic leader after disappointing midterm elections, Pelosi broke a new barrier, becoming the first woman to lead a party in either house of Congress. In 2007, she made the biggest break in what she called the “marble ceiling,” a reference to Congress’s stately chambers. Democrats had won the House majority and she was elected Speaker, second to the vice president in the line of succession to the presidency. No woman in American history had ever held such a high office.
One of those applauding her rise was Madeleine Albright, the woman who had previously held that distinction. As secretary of state in the Clinton administration, she had been fourth in line. “When I was named secretary of state, I was always introduced as the highest-ranking woman in the American government, in American history at that time,” Albright told me. “And I was very glad to give that title up to her.”
When President George W. Bush arrived in the House chamber to deliver the State of the Union address, on January 23, 2007, she introduced him with the traditional words of welcome for the annual speech. “Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States,” Pelosi said.
When the applause subsided, Bush replied, “And tonight, I have a high privilege and distinct honor of my own – as the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madam Speaker.”
Bush mentioned Pelosi’s father, elected five times to Congress and present for State of the Union addresses himself in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1987, at age eighty-three and ailing, he summoned the strength to return to the House floor one last time to watch his daughter’s first swearing-in. From his wheelchair, he didn’t miss the opportunity to lobby House Speaker Jim Wright to give her a prized spot on the Appropriations Committee, a panel on which he had served. He would die two months later.
Her gender was groundbreaking. Her legislative achievements would be as well. In 2008, during a financial meltdown that threatened to ignite another Great Depression, Pelosi pushed through an unpopular Wall Street bailout – rescuing Bush, a Republican president, and the nation’s economy – even though the GOP didn’t deliver the votes promised from its side of the aisle. Two years later, with Democrat Barack Obama in the White House, she muscled through the Affordable Care Act after almost everyone else doubted it could be done.
Yet Nancy Pelosi was regularly demonized and routinely underestimated.
Sexism was part of it, the sort of reflexive brush-off faced by many women breaking into more powerful roles in business and the military, in arts and academia. There had never been another politician at her level who wore Armani suits and four-inch Manolos.
Some of it also reflected her own particular combination of strengths and weaknesses. She was a master of the inside game of politics. “One of the very best inside political players that I’ve ever seen,” Hillary Clinton told me. But even after decades in office, Nancy Pelosi wasn’t particularly skilled at the outside game. She was never a compelling orator. “A rhetorical clunkiness – heavy on the alliteration – that makes her sound now and then like a compendium of bumper stickers,” a friendly commentator observed. In a television age, she wasn’t as comfortable as former Speaker Newt Gingrich in the back-and-forth combat of the Sunday morning shows. She didn’t project the reassuring, old-shoe mien of former Speaker Tip O’Neill.
Nancy Pelosi typically came across as determined, focused, even fierce – all qualities that helped her rise in a man’s world. Only occasionally would she display flashes of the warmth and humor that her friends described. She was so disciplined that she could seem robotic. She had to work to slow down her breathless staccato. She would sometimes stumble over words, prompting detractors to falsely accuse her of being drunk, although in fact she rarely had a drink beyond a sip of champagne on celebratory occasions. (That included the time Janet Yellen rather than Larry Summers was named to chair the Federal Reserve.) Republicans caricatured her as a loony left-winger, a “San Francisco liberal.”
Unknown to most, she had been seriously contemplating retirement in 2016 when the unexpected election of Trump changed her mind. Now, whatever her shortcomings, she seemed to be precisely the right person at the right time. Tim Ryan, the Ohio congressman who challenged her for the Democratic leadership in 2016, acknowledged that to me in 2020. “Her political instincts – nobody I ever worked with had any better instincts,” he told me. She eventually would command the solid backing of Democrats. Even those who had questioned her leadership in the past came to view her as indispensable in the era of Trump.
President Trump rattled her publicly only once – during a State of the Union address that included the presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh – but Pelosi regularly rattled him. When he stomped out of a White House meeting after a confrontation over funding a wall along the Mexican border, she was dismissive.
“It’s a temper tantrum by the president,” she said.
Here’s how she described her job: “Every day I’m like, ‘Don a suit of armor, put on your brass knuckles, eat nails for breakfast, and go out there and stop them from taking children out of the arms of their parents, food out of the mouths of babies.” She didn’t see all that as particularly remarkable. “I mean, it’s just the way it is.”
Her attitude of politics-as-war fueled the capital’s hyperpartisanship. The Republican Speaker who succeeded her, John Boehner, told me that she didn’t moderate her rhetoric even when he tried to do so. President George W. Bush privately complained to aides that she was unwilling to respond to his outstretched hand. Even Democrat Barack Obama told a senior White House aide that he felt at times as though she was hectoring him. Pelosi only had one gear – full steam ahead – even when the occasion might have welcomed a lighter touch.
That said, it was a trait her allies came to appreciate.
“The one thing that I understood about Nancy fairly quickly was the fact that she was as tough or tougher than anybody in the world,” Obama told me, declaring himself “a booster” of Pelosi. “There are times that I think we underestimate just that kind of being able to grind and grit it out, and she has that kind of capacity.” He called her “as effective as any legislative leader I’ve seen in managing a diverse and often contentious group of folks with a lot of different points of view.”
Boehner told me she was “one of the top leaders that I’ve worked with over my career, no question.” But he added that her unyielding liberal ideology opened the door for the GOP to win back control and make him her successor as Speaker in 2011.
The long and unexpected course of Pelosi’s life prepared her to face down a disruptive president during a critical time. The youngest child and only daughter in a family with five brothers, she had figured out from an early age how to assert herself in a male-dominated world. She had been trained in politics by her larger-than-life father, the mayor known to all in Baltimore as Tommy the Elder. She had learned about the art of granting favors and organizing the grass roots from her ambitious, restless mother, known as Big Nancy. She had risen in the Democratic Party as a formidable fund-raiser from the opposite coast, where the Democratic base was shifting. She had confronted a string of presidents on a variety of issues.
From her first meeting in the White House with Trump, just three days after his inauguration, she would be the figure in the room willing and able to push back at his provocative declarations, the ones she saw as at odds with reality and, eventually, as dangerous to democracy. It was her ability to stand up to President Donald Trump that finally meant Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi would be underestimated no more.
For subscribers: How Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi pushed Barack Obama to go big on health care
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bracing for battle: Inside Nancy Pelosi’s war with Donald Trump