Nancy Pelosi, icon of female power, will reclaim role as Speaker and seal a place in history

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi  speaks to reporters following a border security briefing at the White House, on Jan 2, 2019.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi speaks to reporters following a border security briefing at the White House, on Jan 2, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - There was a brief moment in Nancy Pelosi's life when she worried she had too much power. She had so many titles in the California Democratic Party, including chairwoman, that she told Louisiana congresswoman Lindy Boggs that she was thinking of giving some up.

That was in 1984, and Ms Boggs said, "Darlin', no man would ever think that. Don't you give anything up", Ms Pelosi recounted in a recent interview, leaning forward as she mimicked Ms Boggs' Southern accent.

"And then she said, 'Know thy power.'"

More than three decades later, Ms Pelosi, 78, is all but assured of reclaiming her former title as speaker of the House on Thursday (Jan 3), the first lawmaker in more than half a century to hold the office twice. With the gavel in hand, she will cement her status as the highest-ranking and most powerful elected woman in American political history.

The story of her rise, from the well-mannered daughter of a Baltimore mayor to a savvy legislator and prolific fund raiser who is as much feared within her caucus as she is admired, is in some ways, the story of the women's movement itself.

It is also a comeback story; after losing the speakership eight years ago, she will now usher in a new era of divided government in Washington.

And in the era of #MeToo, Ms Pelosi, a mother of five and grandmother of nine, will be the public face of the opposition to a president who won the White House after disparaging women, paying hush money to a Playboy model and a pornographic film actress who said they had extramarital affairs with him.

But Ms Pelosi, long a target of Republicans who have demonised her as a San Francisco liberal, is also coming to the speakership with self-imposed constraints.

To quell an uprising among Democrats who wanted a younger generation of leaders, she has agreed to limit her term to four years. Some say that could weaken her - a notion she dismissed.

"I'm used to, shall we say, enthusiasms from all elements of the party - I can roll with that," she said.

Republicans do not underestimate her. "She is a skilled adversary and a master at keeping all Democrats in line," said Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

Ms Pelosi knows that this speakership will be defined by how she handles President Donald Trump. The last time she was speaker, from 2007 to 2011, legislative accomplishments made her reputation. She muscled through Bills that bailed out Wall Street and helped arrest an economic free-fall, allowed gays to serve in the military, overhauled the nation's banking laws and expanded access to healthcare for an estimated 17 million people. Many say the passage of the Affordable Care Act is her signature achievement.

But divided government, an unpopular president and wide-ranging, possibly criminal investigations into Mr Trump, his presidential campaign and his businesses have changed her role drastically.

"This is legacy-building time," said Professor Jennifer Lawless, an expert on women in politics at the University of Virginia. "If she can be the person who is remembered for holding Trump accountable, or not letting him put forward facts that are not facts, if she can be the one who just calmly sits there and hold his feet to the fire, in a lot of ways, that's just as important as anything else she does."

Ms Pelosi has long governed with a touch of gender-consciousness. When she became speaker the first time, she surrounded herself with her grandchildren and the children of other lawmakers on the podium inside the House chamber. A woman was in charge.

This time, Ms Pelosi seems to be casting off maternal imagery. "I put on a suit of armor, eat nails for breakfast," CNN quoted her as saying.

One good friend, former Senator Barbara Boxer of California, said Ms Pelosi seemed "very liberated" after surviving the challenge to her speakership, and coming off the meeting with Mr Trump. "They tried to kick her down, and I don't think she ever got down," Ms Boxer said.

A generation of young feminists is taking notice.

 
 

"She's unapologetic about her ambition, she's insulting Trump's manhood and storming out of the White House in orange coat and sunglasses," said Ms Amanda Litman, 28, and a founder of Run For Something, which recruits and supports young liberal candidates. "It's very authentically her in a way that I'm not sure she was able to do in past decades."

A turning point for Ms Pelosi came in 1976, when she got behind the presidential campaign of Governor Jerry Brown of California. She persuaded him to compete in the Maryland Democratic primary, drawing on her ties (her brother Tommy had also been Baltimore mayor) to help engineer his victory, a setback for Mr Jimmy Carter.

"I had no direct knowledge of anybody or anything in Maryland," Mr Brown, wrapping up his second stint as governor, said in an interview. "It was her idea. Just to think of that is a bold move."

Ms Pelosi then was chairwoman of the California Democratic Party and helped organise its 1984 convention. Then, in 1987, Ms Sala Burton, the incumbent congresswoman from San Francisco who was dying of cancer, summoned Ms Pelosi to her bedside and asked her to run to fill her seat.

There were 23 women in the House - 12 Democrats and 11 Republicans - when Ms Pelosi arrived. Ms Boxer, who was then serving in the House, recalled an event where a colleague - she could not recall who - introduced his fellow members.

"He goes through everybody, and then he gets to us and he said, 'And then there's Nancy and Barbara,'" Ms Boxer recalled. "She and I never forgot it."

Ms Pelosi carved out a niche as an advocate for human rights, particularly in China, and for AIDS patients, a significant part of her San Francisco constituency. She sought, and eventually landed, a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee and a national security post on the Intelligence Committee.

She was forceful about her ideas, said Mr George Miller, a retired congressman and close friend, adding, "I don't know that leadership was all that excited" to hear them. At a Democratic retreat after the party lost the majority in 1994, Ms Pelosi planned a presentation on how Democrats in California picked up seats. Almost nobody came.

"She said, 'These boys just don't know how to win,'" Mr Miller remembered.

In 2001, Ms Pelosi was elected Democratic whip, beating her longtime rival, Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, to become the first woman to hold that post. The next year, she was elected Democratic leader, the first woman to lead a party in Congress.

At her swearing in, she distributed buttons that read, "We've waited more than 200 years for this day."

Ms Pelosi was swept into power as speaker in 2007 on a wave of revulsion over President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. But she proved that she could work with Mr Bush when needed; as the country faced economic collapse in 2008, she delivered the necessary votes to pass a Wall Street bailout plan - after Mr Bush's Treasury secretary, Mr Henry Paulson, got down on one knee and begged. ("I didn't know you were Catholic," she wryly said to him.)