Nancy Pelosi: Woman about the House

Raising five children could be the perfect training for the first female Speaker in the US Congress
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Nancy Pelosi hasn't merely ascended to the speakership of the House of the Representatives. The California Democrat, who laboured in relative obscurity as a jobbing committee member and party manager until emerging victorious from November's mid-term elections, has turned the moment into a full-blown celebration.

And there is much to celebrate: the Democratic Party's takeover of Congress after 12 years of Republican dominance, the crowning of her own personal ambitions and, above all, the historic significance of having a woman in the Speaker's chair - and also a woman third in line to the presidency - for the first time.

"We've waited over 200 years for this," Pelosi said in one of her many speeches over the course of the celebrations last week. "America's working women, women working at home, whatever they choose to do - they have a friend in the Capitol of the United States."

Before her, lapping up her words, were 500 women wearing modified Rosie the Riveter badges, with Pelosi's face superimposed on Rosie's and the slogan: "A woman's place is in the House... as Speaker."

As she paraded from one exuberant celebration to another, Pelosi showed the kind of person she is. A celebratory mass last Wednesday, held at her alma mater, Trinity University in Washington, emphasised her Roman Catholic roots. The cannoli served at the reception came from a bakery on the street where she grew up almost 70 years ago in Baltimore's Little Italy.

Most strikingly, she was accompanied everywhere by children - throngs and throngs of them, quite a few her relatives. As she accepted the Speaker's gavel in the House on Thursday, she cradled her infant grandson in her arms. (The other five grandchildren were also in attendance, as were her five grown daughters and son.) The celebratory mass was dedicated to the children of Darfur and those uprooted by Hurricane Katrina. As the priest said in his homily, the new Speaker is not only the first woman. She is also the first mother.

Such were the atmospherics of the opening of the 110th US Congress. The realities of running the House and mounting a credible challenge to the floundering Bush administration over the next two years remain to be seen, however. Pelosi, like every American political leader, faces an array of formidable challenges, none more pressing than the deepening disaster in Iraq. Suggest anything too radical, and the President will simply veto it. Suggest anything too expensive, and the cold reality of runaway deficits will kill it in committee, if not sooner.

Pelosi is kicking off her term with a grand populist flourish: an ambitious set of policy proposals she intends to set in motion in the first 100 business hours of the new Congress, starting this week. They include enacting new ethics rules to clean up the stench of Republican-era corruption, raising the minimum wage, cutting interest rates on student loans, allowing the government to negotiate bulk purchase rates from pharmaceutical companies to cut the cost of prescription drugs, getting rid of government subsidies for large oil companies, repealing President Bush's tax cuts for the richest Americans and offering federal grants for stem cell research.

Each of these has an exquisitely political purpose over and above its merits as public policy: Pelosi will effectively be challenging the Bush White House to reject measures that the electorate has indicated time and again that it wants. To be successful, Pelosi is going to have to engage in a delicate dance with her own party, with her colleagues in the Senate and, above all, with President Bush himself.

Last week she, like the President, spoke the conciliatory language of bipartisanship and cooperation. But her truer feelings about the 43rd president are hardly a secret. In May 2004, as the war in Iraq started seriously unravelling, she described him as an "incompetent leader". "In fact," she told her hometown newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, "he's not a leader. He's a person who has no judgement, no experience and no knowledge of the subjects that he has decided upon... Not to get personal about it, but the President's capacity to lead has never been there." The regular meetings she will now be holding with him should be interesting, to say the least.

Politics has been Pelosi's lifeblood since earliest childhood. Born in 1940, her father, Thomas D'Alesandro, was a Maryland congressman and Democratic Party machine politician who later became mayor of Baltimore. She is still fondly remembered there: the street where she grew up is now to be renamed Via Nancy D'Alesandro Pelosi. After university, though, she spent the first part of her adult life as a wife and mother.

She married a rich San Francisco property investor called Paul Pelosi and had five children - an experience that appears to have taught her that nothing else can ever be as daunting. "Am I going to have to use my mother-of-five voice?" she likes to ask when she senses that her audience's attention is straying.

She also used her child-rearing years to develop a formidable reputation as a political fundraiser and networker. And when a vacancy came up in a San Francisco congressional district in 1987, when she was herself 47, she fought for it and won handily.

Republicans looking for a label to stick on Pelosi like to characterise her as some wild-eyed West Coast liberal, pointing to her record in defence of abortion, in particular, to suggest she is not the good Catholic she paints herself to be. In reality, though, Pelosi is far too savvy a political operator to step far outside the mainstream. In her 20 years in Congress she has expended more energy working her way up the ladder than in endorsing any position that might be described as radical. In San Francisco itself, she is viewed, if anything, as almost suspiciously moderate.

More valid grounds for criticism might be found in the way she has managed her new position in the few weeks since the mid-terms. Pelosi mounted an energetic, and futile, campaign to install the conservative Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha as her deputy, ending up with her longtime rival Steny Hoyer of Maryland instead. She also waged a nasty, very public, battle to deny another rival, fellow Californian Jane Harman, the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee. She won, but not before she had proposed one scandal-tainted alternative candidate and finally settled on another, Silvester Reyes of Texas, who appears to have a distinctly shaky understanding of Islamic radicalism and other key topics in his new job. It remains to be seen whether these were just bumps in the road to the speakership, or whether they portend more significant weaknesses in her leadership style that might emerge again and again.

None of it was allowed to mar last week's celebrations, which lasted three full days and culminated in a fundraiser concert featuring Carole King, Wyclef Jean and an octogenarian Tony Bennett still crooning "I Left My Heart in San Francisco". Pelosi herself came back again and again to the idea that hers was, above all, a victory for women. "Today," she said, "we have broken the marble ceiling. For our daughters and our granddaughters now, the sky is the limit."