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The Nancy I Knew

By Ethan Wallison

Nancy Pelosi tried to snatch an early victory in the race for party whip in the summer of 1999. Her tactic was essentially a blitzkrieg, a fast sweep of the Democratic caucus that would wrap up the contest before Members left for the August Congressional recess. This was begun almost three years before the post was even to become available. But at the time, Democrats believed they had a shot at the majority, and a vacancy at whip would have resulted. At first, many of her fellow Democrats expressed annoyance that the cart was being placed before the proverbial horse. Pelosi knew this was an argument promoted by would-be rivals who had been caught off-guard. Settling the whip contest early, she argued, would enable everyone to turn their focus to more important tasks.

It was not to be. But the dry run was useful; it revealed that she was close to her goal. In the next Congress Pelosi moved fast, and within months determined that she had the votes. But now she came upon an obstacle more difficult to finesse than the earlier grumbling. It was David Bonior, the incumbent whip and Pelosi's leadership mentor. A victim of redistricting, Bonior had decided not to even bother seeking another term. But so far he had held onto his leadership position. Pelosi wasn't inclined to wait, but she also did not want to offend Bonior by requesting that he step aside. Instead, her campaign engineered the publication of an article in Roll Call in which Members complained about lame-duck Bonior preventing a new generation of leadership from emerging as he wound down his career. (I wrote that article, finding out only later how it had been carefully planned and planted.) Bonior was out before the end of the first session.

Impressive ruthlessness, by my lights. But I suspect Pelosi would never acknowledge the duplicity. She was just as committed to the appearance of pristine righteousness as she was to her own political success, and assumed she could have both. The machinations of 1999 are a case in point. Faced with the complaints about unnecessary "distractions" - complaints she could easily have dismissed - she instead argued that it was not she who put the contest in motion, as her rivals contended. If that was true, the race began itself.

Her vanity kept uneasy company with her sense of propriety, which was situational, and her sometimes inept political operation. At one point, it seems to have occurred to Pelosi and her associates that she could double the amount of money she raised - and thus double the amount she gave - if she opened a second political action committee. It never seems to have occurred to the group that, as a matter of law, this was preposterous. If one could double-up by simply opening another committee, why not ten committees? Or one hundred? Pelosi appears not to have had anyone at the time who could point out the obvious to her. So her machine, based in San Francisco, went ahead with the plan, opening a second PAC that was identical to the first in all but name. And soon that committee was taking and giving money in the usual order. The treasurer of both, former California Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, told me he had phoned the Federal Elections Commission beforehand and was told there was nothing wrong with the arrangement - a dubious story, since not even the commissioners are permitted to provide legal guidance over the phone. The FEC eventually fined Pelosi's original PAC $24,000 for the screw-up. Her committee was also forced to retrieve all the illegal money that had been given to candidates and to reimburse its donors.

I doubt that Pelosi's predecessor, Dick Gephardt, read much of his press, or took the criticisms to heart - political leaders have to be prepared to weather a certain volume of attacks that are genuinely unfair and uninformed, let alone those that are salient. Pelosi was not. Because her intentions were always pure, she assumed that "negative" coverage was driven by malice. On one occasion, she complained bitterly about a blind quote I had included in an earlier article about her campaign committee. Basically the committee had failed to file reports for two straight quarters, and the person quoted - an aide to a political rival - had suggested that perhaps this "oversight" was in fact intentional, since it enabled Pelosi to hide her spending from the opposition. Fairly standard stuff, the kind of lame innuendo that passes for politics in Washington every day. And in truth, it was no different from what Pelosi would herself have suggested of an adversary who had run afoul of the campaign finance rules. But Pelosi felt that her honesty was being questioned - and not so much by the person who was quoted, but by the person who included the quote in the article (which, by the way, was buried by the editors). This turned into an accusation that I was in bed with her rival Steny Hoyer. In a final flourish, Pelosi noted I was "still very young" and had a "long career ahead" of me and would certainly "grow" as time passes, but unfortunately this would all have to occur without the access that I might have enjoyed if I weren't such a jerk. Yes, the tone was more one of pity than of anger. Did I mention that she could be a wee bit condescending at times?

She nursed grudges with intensity, but could be bountiful in rewarding allies. When she became leader, she pushed through the appointment of Max Sandlin to the Appropriations Committee. Sandlin, a moderate Texan, was a sensible choice, since he had been stung by redistricting and the slot would raise his profile and appeal. He was also among Pelosi's most valuable supporters, since he helped her to deflate claims that her appeal was limited to the political Left. But Sandlin hadn't asked for a seat on Appropriations - he had requested the Ways and Means Committee. Since Members spend years building support for an appointment to either of these elite panels, jumping from one list to the other is akin to changing planes mid-flight. It just isn't done. But here Sandlin was, being ushered past all those who had been waiting their turn. And yet, this was not even what made the appointment most notable. As it happens, Sandlin was also the boyfriend of Nancy's daughter Christine - a fact widely known among Democrats. So the move wasn't just disruptive; it also bore the taint of nepotism. Pelosi's exceptionalism could not have been more starkly shown. But in case there were still doubts, she also gave Sandlin a top position in leadership.

It is in this cossetting of allies and banishment of opponents - both real and perceived - that one can see the imprint on Pelosi of her political mentor, the late Phil Burton, San Francisco's Congressman for more than two decades. (Only Burton's widow, Sala, stands between Pelosi and her mentor in the line of succession.) Burton, who was nearly elected majority leader in 1976 - he lost by one vote - separated friend from foe with ruthless determination. You were with him or you were with the enemy, so to speak. The virtue of this tactic was that it forced Members, who are tempermentally oriented toward free agency, to choose loyalty or oblivion. Those who chose loyalty were votes, and votes were power. The downside was that it also created enemies-for-life. The protégé's problem is that, in some important ways, she is not Burton. For one thing, she hasn't a record of achievements that can provide a basis for respect. Members need a reason to care about the choice they are being asked to make, and the best of these is evidence that you actually know the legislative game better than your rivals. Just as importantly, Pelosi hasn't the physically imposing presence and terrifying temper of her mentor. (Having dealt at one point with his impeccably vulgar brother, John, I think I have taste of what Burton's temper was like.) To make the "Burton" work, you have to make lawmakers feel that being on the wrong side is Hell, and not just because you didn't get the committee assignment you wanted. Reports of Pelosi summoning Members to her office and demanding they vote for John Murtha for majority leader make one cringe in embarrassment for her.

Given her weaknesses, it's fair to ask how it could be that she was chosen first as whip and then as leader and now as Speaker by her peers. Certainly, over time, I began to wonder whether she was equipped to lead the Democrats. Yet it was true that, whatever her flaws, she was also charming, gracious and constructively energetic. Her leadership role in the Caucus grew largely from her performance during the Gingrich investigations of the late 1990s, when, as a member of the ethics committee, she became one of Newt's most tenacious and effective foes (in partnership with Bonior). And she had tremendous style and charisma. Members were flattered by her attention. When she was campaigning, she would often drop in on Members unannounced, leaving chocolate and a friendly note if they were not around. The strength of her support network also suggested there was more to her than met the eye. David Obey, the top Democrat on Appropriations and nobody's fool, was her campaign manager.

Still, the true key to her success lay in a confluence of phenomena, beginning with some basic Congressional math. Pelosi started with support from virtually the entire California delegation - almost 30 Members - meaning she was nearly a third of the way to victory before knocking on her first door. Add to that large majorities of the sizable women's and progressive caucuses, and it was simply a matter of picking off a few votes here and there from the remainder.

And there was the timing. Pelosi's candidacy followed on the heels of Rosa DeLauro's defeat in her bid for Caucus Chairwoman. The loss was traumatic for many, because it left Democrats without a woman in leadership - something perceived as a serious problem inside the caucus. Although DeLauro was awarded a significant leadership role, Pelosi's bid for whip took on a kind of messianic significance for many of the women, and even some of the men. There was an air of cultishness that always hung over the core group. Backers such as Lloyd Doggett, an intensely creepy Member from Texas, would occasionally phone out of the blue to marvel at Pelosi's abilities, perhaps after she had "unified" Democrats on one issue or another. Unlike other Congressional leaders, Pelosi seemed to have actual followers. Her inner circle was cliqueish and insular. And its members were suspicious of outsiders, people who had failed to grasp the significance of what was happening. In fact, as the perception grew that I was assisting her opponent (I deny that, by the way), some of Pelosi's supporters came to the weird conclusion that my efforts were being driven by a resistance to women's liberation. "How does it feel to be on the wrong side of history?" Rep. Anna Eshoo, an earnest, leather-faced Californian with a smoker's rasp, asked me at Pelosi's whip-victory party, all malice intended. (I'm sure little girls across America were exuberant upon hearing of this historical development. Just imagine: becoming the second-ranked leader of the minority party in the lower chamber of Congress was now thinkable.) It could be disorienting for someone like myself, who has never caught the aroma of a bra burned in protest. Once, when I was investigating whether Christine Pelosi was working for her mother and not Congressman John Tierney of Massachusetts, who was paying her salary, I received an irate call from the lawmaker himself. "If her name was 'Chris' and not 'Christine,' you wouldn't be working on this." What?

There was no pleasing them. Pelosi declared she had the votes to win the whip contest about one-and-a-half years before the election was held. Thus, articles written after that point carried the tacit message that the race was not over. And in doing so, they could only help her opponent, whose strategy, by necessity, was to insist that Pelosi hadn't collected all the commitments she needed. In fact, as the months passed, Hoyer kept rolling out new endorsements, and from senior members of the Caucus, such as John Dingell. This would have been unlikely to occur if Members believed the race was won. (Lawmakers, who have personal interests at stake in leadership elections, do not typically hang their necks out for losing candidates.) For dragging it out, Hoyer will never be forgiven. But he may yet have the last laugh.

Ethan Wallison is a ten-year veteran of Washington political reporting, most recently with Roll Call, where he was White House Correspondent. He currently lives in Kyiv, Ukraine and blogs at

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