'Madam Speaker': Susan Page's new Nancy Pelosi biography examines the singular politician
Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House and second in the presidential line of succession, has had an unparalleled political career in America. USA TODAY's Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page’s new book, "Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and The Lessons of Power" (Twelve Books, 432 pp., ★★★ out of four), traces Pelosi’s life and work in a readable, engaging biography that takes us from Pelosi’s Baltimore upbringing through her current term as speaker in the Biden administration.
A central storyline, launched in the first pages, is Pelosi’s response to the election of Donald Trump, the man who would be impeached under her leadership not once, but twice. As Page quotes her, Pelosi’s first response to the shock of Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 was: “How could it be that person is going to be president of the United States?”
Pelosi was born in 1940 to Tommy D’Alesandro and Nancy Lombardi, who grew up on the same street in Baltimore and whose families immigrated from Italy. Politics was the family business, and Nancy D’Alesandro’s father, “Tommy the Elder,” rose from member of the Maryland House of Representatives to become the Mayor of Baltimore for 12 years (a position his son would hold later). Pelosi's mother, “Big Nancy,” an entrepreneur who longed to go to law school, was kept from that work by her more traditional husband but became a formidable political partner with him. While in college – Page notes her subject flatly refused permission for her to access those records – Nancy D’Alesandro married Paul Pelosi, moved to San Francisco and grew their family to include five children.
An intriguing aspect of Pelosi’s life is how she waited until all her children were in school to begin her career, working her way up from positions in the Democratic National Committee to become elected as the House representative from California’s 5th district. Page points out the similarities between San Francisco and Pelosi’s hometown of Baltimore: both port towns “populated by tribes” where “successful politicians had to build coalitions.” This became Pelosi’s signature strength, one she would wield in Congress after becoming elected speaker in 2006, most notably in helping to push through President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Before then, as one of the harshest critics of the Iraq War, Pelosi was an “unyielding” adversary to President George W. Bush until they joined forces at the end of his second term to contain the burgeoning catastrophe of the global financial crisis. Page’s chapter on the controversial bailout legislation, entitled “Meltdown,” is particularly well-rendered, with day-to-day reports on the government’s scramble in fall 2008.
Most readers, however, will perhaps turn more eagerly to the biography’s final section, where Pelosi’s epic battles with Trump take center stage after the speaker’s first private assessment of him to House Democrats: “Arrogance, and a lack of knowledge to the nth degree.” Even those weary of recent events will find insights on the Trump era worth revisiting, especially as Pelosi navigates countering the president with a wave of upcoming progressive liberal representatives who challenge her leadership.
Thorough as "Madam Speaker" is, a reader may wish for more insight into what Pelosi – notably private – called her distaste for “personal, personal things.” Page was not always able to draw Pelosi out, and some prickly exchanges between author and subject are interesting in their own right – especially when an “openly agitated” speaker pushes back on questions about “the Squad.”
Still, "Madam Speaker" provides a valuable overview of a singular American politician.