Pelosi Partisanship

I just finished reading Molly Ball’s excellent biography of Nancy Pelosi. How do I know this is a good book? Let me give you my Pelosi litmus test. Of the various anecdotes in her political career, there is one that trips up sloppy biographers, the TARP vote (Troubled Asset Relief Program). This was the Bush administration’s bank bailout, and I’ve frequently seen an important fact get missed in the accounts of that historic moment.

A classic example of a source that misses an important detail is PBS’s documentary mill Frontline. You can watch their Pelosi biopic, Pelosi’s Power, here. At the 28.44-minute mark, they get to the TARP vote and portray it as a moment when House Democrats put country over partisanship and voted for the bailout when the Republicans caved to populist opposition.

Ball’s biography includes an important detail that too often gets left out. After pledging to Bush to support the bill, Pelosi went to the House floor to give a bitter speech denouncing the bailout as this terrible thing they have to vote for because Republican mismanagement of the economy forced them to do so, not exactly the moment of statesmanship that it’s often depicted as in lesser detailed accounts.

Ball’s biography drives home with anecdote after anecdote the vicious partisanship Pelosi practiced. Long before she was an elected official, she wore a Democratic jersey like a superfan. Here’s one when she was still in her 20s, soon after she moved to San Francisco from New York:

At the Pelosis’ apartment in Midtown Manhattan, Paul was homesick for the West Coast. His father had just died, and he’d been offered an exciting job as an investment manager in his hometown of San Francisco. Their fourth child, Paul Jr., had just been born. Pelosi agreed to move on two conditions: that she could continue to get the New York Times every day and that she would never have to stay in someone else’s house. As Paul knew, she prized having her own space.

It was on the plane west, Pelosi holding four-week-old Paul Jr., that her husband informed her that there had been a change of plans. They would not be staying in a hotel when they got to California. They would be staying with his newly widowed mother. Surely, Pelosi did not want to hurt her mother-in-law’s feelings, he said; besides, it was just for one night. She had no choice but to go along.

One night turned into four months. Pelosi tried to make the best of things while frantically house hunting, but it was impossible to find a suitable rental in San Francisco with four young children. Finally, she found it: a big, elegant house, already childproofed, with a swing set and a sandbox in the spacious backyard. As Pelosi’s heart soared, she asked, out of idle curiosity, why the house was on the rental market. It turned out the owners were moving to Washington. “My husband has been appointed deputy secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare,” the owner said proudly, “so we’ll be going back east to join the Nixon administration.”

Pelosi told the stunned real estate agent that the deal was off. As unhappy as she was at her mother-in-law’s house, she refused to live in any place that had been, as she put it, “made available by the election of Richard Nixon.”

It’s like the place had cooties for having been the home of a Republican. Ball documents that Pelosi never developed a greater tolerance for the other side as she grew older. I highly recommend this book.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.