There was nothing soft about Nancy Pelosi


If you had to consolidate Nancy Pelosi’s entire political career into one image, my vote is for her exquisitely rude applause of Donald Trump at the 2019 State of the Union. The president had signaled that he wanted recognition and technically speaking she had provided exactly what he asked for. She put her hands together and produced a clap that managed to look like a four-letter word, a scalpel made of velvet.

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

The House Speaker announced on Thursday that she would be stepping down from Democratic leadership at the turnover of Congress in January. “The hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus that I so deeply respect,” she told her colleagues in a floor speech. She spoke of the wonder she felt upon visiting the Capitol for the first time as a small child, and how she still considered it “the most beautiful building in the world.”

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

“I sort of wish she’d read those GOP men to their faces,” texted a friend who was also watching Pelosi’s speech. “They DESERVE IT.”

And maybe they did, these colleagues of hers who had demonized her and minimized the insurrection that damaged the most beautiful building in the world. But if she had berated them from the House floor, she would have been using a bludgeon instead of her customary needle, and she certainly wouldn’t have been Nancy Pelosi.

I found myself thinking, in the fifth decade of her career in public service, about what formed Pelosi into herself — her insistence on decorum and politeness on protocol even when it must have masked despair or frustration. The kind of woman who, in the middle of the chaotic and terrifying Jan. 6 riot, was captured on camera calmly strategizing how to conduct the business of Congress despite the “poo-poo” that had befouled the Capitol.

She was a woman of a certain age who came into her political life at a certain time, a girl whose father was her introduction to elected office in a time of patriarchal politics, a mother with five grown children by the time she made her own first run for Congress.

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

She shepherded through the Affordable Care Act, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay act, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The more she accomplished, the more she was reviled by the right. If you can’t beat her, the thinking seemed to go, then make a bunch of sexist, ageist 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 have never said such a thing from behind a podium. 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’m going to punch him out,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for this. For trespassing on the Capitol grounds, I’m going to punch him out.”

Listening to her say this gave you an inkling of how strenuously this woman, the vast majority of the time, must be French-pressing her rage.

It also gives you an inkling of how deeply she believes in good, orderly government. In this private moment, her rage toward Trump was not because he had offended her, but because he might offend the Capitol grounds.

Pelosi is not giving up her seat in Congress, merely her role in Democratic leadership. But her speech was a functional goodbye, a graceful bowing out. In delivering her speech she provided a model for how to say farewell. To her fellow members of America’s congressional gerontocracy: This is how you do it. This is how you make way for the next generation. To the former president: This is how you do it. This is how you enact an orderly transfer of power.

I will miss seeing her behind the dais come January. I will miss her leading by example, and her unfailing politeness, and I will miss the simmering righteousness underneath.

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