Nancy Pelosi: Hero, villain, ice-cream lover

The speaker of the House wears many masks, according to a new profile. And Glenn Beck wants to beat up at least one

Published November 3, 2009 11:04PM (EST)

Nancy Pelosi doesn’t really care what you think of her. Also, she seems to live on a diet of chocolate ice cream. These two points are hammered home many times in New York magazine profile of the current speaker of the House written by Vanessa Grigoriadis, who also seems to attribute nearly mythic significance to the politician’s ubiquitous smile -- her mask, if you will - as a smoke screen for her steely will.

What one thinks of Pelosi’s steeliness largely depends on whether she’s playing for your team. This is a woman who can send her enemies into apoplectic frenzy. The choicer tidbits cited by Grigoriadis include the insult “Mussolini in a skirt,” and a disturbing number of threats to do bodily harm -- Glenn Beck joked (ha! ha!) that he’d like to poison her wine; Joe the Plumber said he wanted to “beat the living tar out of her” and a radio host once said he wanted to punch her in the face. (Not to be outdone, a New York magazine reader chimes in that he’d like to “throw up in her face and says she is the “Penguin to Obama’s Joker.”)

When presented with this laundry list of rhetorical violence, Pelosi responds to her interviewer with serene equanimity in the face of a schoolyard bully. “It’s really sad. They really don’t understand how inappropriate that is. That language is something I haven’t heard in decades.” She really isn’t angry with you, you see, just disappointed in you. But that’s the smiley side talking. And there is most definitely another side. In Grigoriadis’ telling, “She’s a kind of Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, impervious with her power and relishing her ability to attack, dropping bombs like, ‘If people are ripping your face off, you have to rip their faces off.” Note to Glenn Beck and Joe the Plumber: Watch your back in those dark alleys.

These two sides of Pelosi seem to duke it out throughout the profile. On the one hand, Grigoriadis sees “feminine touches” in Pelosi’s governing style -- she sends flowers and thank you notes, remembers to call colleagues' sick family members and tends to use “more carrot and less stick” in bringing people over to her way of thinking (though it certainly helps that her position gives her an awful lot of carrots at her disposal). She is occasionally self-effacing: She dislikes the notion of, in Grigoriadis’ words, “hogging credit” for healthcare reform, insists that her staff not use the word “I” when writing about her, and says that if healthcare reform passes, “It won’t be my legacy. It will be everyone’s legacy.” She talks to her grandchildren as a form of “power naps” and one of her biographers told Grigoriadis that every person he interviewed – including, presumably, her enemies -- thought to bring up her good looks. Most disturbing, we learn that Rahm Emanuel has nicknamed her “Mommy” (as opposed to her grandchildren, who call her “Mimi.”)

Then again, quite a few people have also pointed out that her boss is easy on the eyes, and he, too, has been known to bring up children and family as political metaphors. But unlike Obama, Pelosi seems to care much more about getting her way than being loved. Although her approval ratings have recently taken a “queasy” 14-point nose dive, she doesn’t seem to care. She lives in a “bubble,” according to Grigoriadis -- carries a crappy cellphone, can’t tell Sean Hannity from the rest of the Fox News gang, and is only interested in bipartisanship insofar as she can turn it to her own advantage -- in which paying attention to her detractors is a distraction from her “historic work.” Opponents are to be vanquished, not appeased (says one associate, “Her attitude is, ‘God bless their souls, but these people don’t believe in global warming,'”) and she has no problem dividing the word into moral absolutes. (She recently said of insurance companies, “It’s almost immoral, what they are doing. They are the villains in this.”) In her disregard for public opinion, and her belief in moral absolutes, one can almost hear a bit of an echo here of a certain former president -- which might go a long way toward explaining what makes her critics so batshit crazy. But if one happens to agree -- and I do -- that providing healthcare to men, women and children is a moral absolute and that certain practices of certain health insurance companies are pretty villainous, it’s nice to have a fire-breather in one’s corner. Just because we once elected someone who was certain and, to some of us, wrong, doesn’t mean we have to believe one can’t be certain, and right.

Some have seen Grigoriadis’ version of Pelosi as a “hatchet job,” yet another example of a woman bringing down another woman of the sisterhood. I have to admit, I don’t see that. Yes, suggesting that a person wears a “mask” is one way of saying that person is two-faced. But what politician doesn’t have a public persona? Moreover, the strongest thing that comes out in the piece is that Nancy Pelosi is concerned with getting the job done. It’s also worth noting that when Pelosi came up into politics, during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the world was a very different place for women politicians, even in the liberal bastion of San Francisco. At the time, writes Grigoriadis, Pelosi was “a complicated symbol for some feminists -- she was demeaned by opponents as a rich mom, a dilettante, a Pacific Heights party girl, and they weren’t sure she wasn’t.” Although she came from a political family (both her father and brother served as Baltimore mayors; her father was in Congress as well), things were different for her:

It felt like an extension of my role as mother ... From my view, the best thing for my children was for them to live in a world where other children had opportunities, too, where the environment was safe and clean. Back then, there was a tendency for women to minimize what you could bring to the table in intellect and strategic thinking. But men don’t have any secret sauce. So every step of the way, I said to myself, ‘I can do that.’ And then I knew I could win elections. That’s when I had my breakthrough. I said to myself, ‘You know what? I really know how to do this.’ You know, even being picked as leader of the minority in Congress was a great honor, because they’d never had a woman. Never thought of it. And I’d never have said to someone, ‘Well, isn’t it time we had a woman?’ That would have killed you in terms of votes.

It’s probably no accident, then, that Grigoriadis sees a parallel in temperament -- if not in political ideology -- between Pelosi and perhaps the best-known female politician of the ‘80s, Margaret Thatcher. Pelosi, she notes, seemed almost “embarrassed” about her press conference on Sept. 17, when she was brought to tears while describing the parallels she saw between the hateful right-wing rhetoric of today and the kind she saw in San Francisco in the ‘70s, that culminated in the shootings of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. “We have to talk about ideas and where we go from there,” said Pelosi, “and not characterize personal experiences.” While that’s nearly as perfect an inversion as you can get to the feminist maxim that the personal is political, it’s not hard to understand why an old-school female politician might be wary of showing emotion in public.

To look weak in public, well, that’s Pelosi’s worse nightmare. Hillary might cry to boost her poll numbers, but a powerful woman nearing 70 always keeps a stiff upper lip, never showing more emotion than Maggie Thatcher. And in a way, it works for Pelosi, having the world see only the hard shell, thinking she’s an archetypal female monster with a pasted-on smile. The smile is meant to balance out her aggressive rhetoric, to calm men down, to seem less threatening (it doesn’t work, of course); but it’s also a way of shutting people out of her true emotions, who she really is. But that’s OK -- she’s willing to have people not understand her. If need be, she’s willing to be hated. Not caring makes Nancy Pelosi powerful. She’ll listen to her poll numbers from her staff, but she doesn’t really process them. "I’ll take the hit," she likes to say, waving a hand. “I’ll take the hit.”

We like to describe those who believe the ends justify the means as mercenary. But whatever else you can say about Nancy Pelosi, that woman is a warrior. While all of us would prefer a world in which a woman doesn’t need to paste on a cut-out smiley face to defuse her aggressive ideals, the strategies employed by Pelosi certainly seemed to work well enough make her the most powerful female politician in the country today. Let’s hope she gets us some decent healthcare, too. 

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

MORE FROM Amy Benfer

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Broadsheet Nancy Pelosi