Time magazine national political correspondent Molly Ball applies her expertise and insight to Nancy Pelosi’s rise to Speaker of the House of Representatives through sweeping political change, Obamacare, Fox News, the Tea Party and Donald Trump.
The story ain’t always pretty. Yet the picture Molly Ball paints in her intimate book is that of a woman remaining in charge with fascinating style and grace. Ball’s nuanced portrait of Nancy Pelosi offers a master class in grit and dealmaking. O Magazine said of this bestseller, “Molly Ball…captures all the facets of Madam Speaker: steely combatant, peerless number cruncher, master of details.”
Ball’s book spends quite some time detailing Pelosi’s pre-political life: Her father, US Representative Thomas D’Alesandro, was also mayor of Baltimore. Her mother, Annunciata, was a campaign veteran and political operative. Nancy married Paul Pelosi in 1963 and moved to his home town, San Francisco, where they had five children in six years.
In the course of her crusade, she would put herself in physical danger and take on two presidents, including one from her own party, as well as Big Business interests, including some of her own donors and constituents.Molly Ball
Ball recounts that Nancy Pelosi became friends with Congressman Phil Burton. After his death, Burton’s wife Sala won his seat. Dying of cancer in 1986, Sala asked Pelosi to run for her office and endorsed her. Ball intriguingly describes Pelosi’s reluctance. However, at 47, an age when many careers in elective office are winding down or over, Pelosi’s began.
Elected to Congress in 1987, she would serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 2007 to 2011 and Minority Whip from 2011 to 2019. She became speaker again in 2019.
The US House of Representatives
Ball spends some time on Pelosi’s fervent support of her gay constituency. She states that for Pelosi, AIDS was both a civil rights and a public health issue. Pelosi memorably organized the display of the AIDS Quilt on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
“One of her favorite aphorisms, repeated to newer colleagues to this day: ‘Representative is not just your title. It’s your job description’.”Molly Ball
Ball offers a fascinating overview of a Democratic Party that seems unimaginable in today’s climate. In 1987, she writes, the Democrats’ “big tent” held conservative southerners, liberal northerners and a Black caucus. But things were changing. At the time, C-SPAN let little-known Congress members grandstand to an empty chamber but on television, CNN, the then-new 24-hour news channel, covered Washington in a “more minute-by-minute, incremental” fashion.
Ball notes with outrage – an outrage Pelosi shares – that, in 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act – guaranteeing parents and caregivers time off from their jobs – with no woman present, not even the law’s author, Representative Pat Schroeder.
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks shifted the US political climate. Americans rallied in support of President George W. Bush. Ball explains Pelosi’s strong principles in revealing why she voted against Bush attacking Iraq. Democrats elected Pelosi minority whip, in charge of wrangling votes for bills and third in line to be speaker, the majority party’s top job. Ball admires how Pelosi raised an astonishing $7 million for congressional candidates in 2002.
As Ball recounts, the right-wing media targeted Pelosi for speaking against the Iraq War. In 2004, the GOP swept the House, Senate and White House.
Ball takes a deep dive into the differences between 2019 and 2007. For example, upon becoming speaker in 2007, Pelosi insisted that Democrats would work toward common agreement. Bush tried to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but Pelosi wouldn’t budge. The US economy tanked in September 2008; Pelosi hated bailing out big banks. Ball breaks down how Bush’s tax cuts for the rich and his Iraq War wiped out the budget surpluses Clinton had left in the national treasury.
“Pelosi played a pivotal role in saving the US economy from near-certain catastrophe. She bailed a Republican president out of a mess of his own making, for the good of the country, at enormous political risk.”Molly Ball
The bailouts, according to Ball, set the stage for Barack Obama’s 2008 victory, a Democratic sweep and, at the same time, the rise of the Tea Party.
The Affordable Care Act
Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act extended health care to 31 million people. The media praised Obama and the Senate, but, as Ball points out, ignored Pelosi’s essential contributions. Republican Paul Ryan, who was then Speaker of the House, repeatedly tried to gut Obamacare and, Ball relates, always failed.
Ball’s diligent research unearths the Republican “Fire Nancy Pelosi” campaign. The GOP hated Pelosi’s campaign fundraising success. A third of Republicans were freshmen Tea Partiers with no idea how Congress worked. Ball suggests that Pelosi knew the newest GOP Speaker of the House John Boehner couldn’t get anything done without votes only she could deliver. In this era, Pelosi was a pivotal figure. She kept the government open while protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Ball offers a harbinger of today’s Senate when she writes of how Senate leader Mitch McConnell even then made every bill a partisan issue. Still, Pelosi’s Democrats passed Obama’s Iran deal; in Ball’s estimation this was his greatest foreign policy accomplishment.
Ball dissects how Donald Trump agreed to protect 800,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigrants, but then reneged, casting Democrats as the enemy. And she raises one of the most heroic moments in Pelosi’s career: She spoke in the House for eight hours on behalf of immigrants and DACA. Congress passed a Democratic-friendly budget, but with no protection for immigrants.
While Trump blundered and raved, it was Pelosi who was giving Washington a master class in the art of the deal – from what ought to have been the most powerless position in congressional leadership. Molly Ball
After the 2018 midterms, Democrats had 89 women in the House. In one big issue fight, Pelosi wouldn’t compromise on opposing the wall along the Mexican border; Trump shut down the government. When she became Speaker again in 2019, Pelosi went on to lead the House to pass many bills that McConnell’s Senate refused to take up.
Nancy Pelosi, Ball discloses, understood that the public opposed the idea of trying to impeach Trump, and she approached it reluctantly. Attorney General William Barr’s misleading summary of Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference allowed Trump to assert exoneration. But, when a whistleblower reported that Trump allegedly blackmailed Ukraine’s leader to invent dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden, Pelosi knew she had no choice but to proceed. Ball identifies going ahead with impeachment as the most serious decision of Pelosi’s time in government.
Nancy Pelosi is an old-school liberal icon and spent her career battling the GOP and forces of what she regards as inequitable conservatism. In today’s climate of ruthless partisanship, it’s unlikely readers on the Trump end of the political continuum will open this intelligent overview of 30 years of United States’ politics. That is unfortunate, because Pelosi’s career – in Ball’s astute telling – offers rich lessons in the political processes valuable to any student of United States’ history, regardless of political orientation.