In the aftermath of Congressional passage of health reform in March, ABC News Anchor Diane Sawyer asked Speaker Nancy Pelosi whether she was "the most powerful woman in American history." Sawyer didn't just make up the question in a moment of situational hyperbole; it was being asked or asserted by nonpartisan observers and publications like the Economist, and it reflected not just the historic nature of the health bill and the controversy and contentiousness that framed it, but the prevalent image of a larger-than-life politician, the first woman speaker of the House in American history.
Few would dispute Pelosi's power, but her role and persona divide Americans. A heroine among hard-core Democrats, she is a figure of derision and distaste to partisan Republicans and a clear target for the unhappiness a whopping majority of Americans feel toward Washington in general and Congress in particular. The resentment was on full display last week when she was jeered during a speech in Washington and had to yell over the protests of health care activists.
We can expect a wave of books about Pelosi; the first to emerge since her health reform triumph is not by journalists, either of the tell-all or political-beat variety, but by two political scientists from the University of Oklahoma. Both Ronald Peters and Cindy Rosenthal are experts on congressional leadership and history; their book is thus more than a biography of Pelosi, and more than an account of her tenure so far as speaker. Peters and Rosenthal try also to put Pelosi into the broader context of contemporary American politics and Congress.
Pelosi's power and fame (and notoriety) did not come solely because of her strong personality; her two Republican predecessors laid the groundwork for her path to extraordinary power and her polarizing persona. Newt Gingrich's short tenure as speaker managed to redefine the office's modern role, centralizing and enhancing power in a fashion not seen since Joe Cannon early in the 20th century, while also helping to amplify the harsh partisan and ideological conflict that dominates congressional politics. If Gingrich was a larger-than-life figure, regularly the subject of cover stories in newsmagazines, his successor Dennis Hastert could have walked down any street in any city -- except K Street in Washington and Main Street in Aurora, Ill. -- without being recognized. But Hastert went well beyond Gingrich, creating high firewalls in the House to deny Democrats any significant role while trying to create a parliamentary-style majority and also squeezing out a major role for his own party's rank-and-file members.
The upheavals in politics generated by Gingrich's ascendance to the speakership helped Pelosi to emerge as the Democratic leader. The times called for toughness, a partisan edge and relentlessness -- all of which she had, along with a political savvy instilled from her childhood in a Baltimore political dynasty. These enabled her to rise to the top to do combat with Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Dennis Hastert and the other tough, partisan and relentless Republicans. Her ability to organize and build relationships enabled her to win one of the most coveted House seats without any prior elective experience. In the House, she matched her staunch liberalism with her ability to bond with conservative "Blue Dog Democrats," and to seek out a seat on the Appropriations Committee where she could do favors for her colleagues and build support for moving up the leadership ladder. A pivotal moment came when she took on the role of Democratic point person on the House ethics committee to challenge Speaker Gingrich directly on ethical issues.
Peters and Rosenthal deftly describe that background and analyze Pelosi's rise to power, noting her shortcomings while pointing out the qualities -- her "penchant for organizational detail, interpersonal politics, and pragmatism" -- that helped her both reach the top and keep a strong whip hand over a tumultuous and unruly House. The focus on Pelosi's pragmatism will surprise those who think of her as staunchly ideological and rigidly partisan. But the authors emphasize that to attain a majority, she needed to recruit candidates to districts with views sharply divergent from her own (and then protect them from electoral assault); to win legislative victories, she has frequently had to subordinate her own views to find 218 votes.
The authors devote a sizable amount of attention to Pelosi's gender. Their conclusion? She is different from her predecessors in her path to power, the opportunities available to her in her career, her voice and her style of leadership. But she has amassed and used power for political and policy ends in ways that clearly parallel those used by the most powerful speakers before her. "Speaker Nancy Pelosi" is not a breezy read; it has ample anecdotes that take a reader inside the personalities and intrigue in the House, but it also bolsters its points with data and political-sciency analysis. Unlike many scholars, however, the authors write clearly and have a good feel for politics. Anybody who really wants to understand who Pelosi is, how she attained this key post and parlayed it into extraordinary power and influence, and how she manages to operate so successfully in a boiling caldron of partisan and ideological division will come away much better informed after reading this book.
Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.