The First Major Biography of Nancy Pelosi Sets the Record Straight

Reporter Molly Ball on what went into telling the life story of the highest-ranking female elected official in U.S. history

Photo illustration, source: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Love her or hate her, there’s no denying Nancy Pelosi is incredibly good at her job. For more than a decade, she has ruled House Democrats, leading them through three administrations and myriad catastrophes, often orchestrating events and legislation without even revealing her involvement. Now in her second stint as speaker of the House, she remains the highest-ranking female elected official in U.S. history.

Yet even as she became the most powerful woman in U.S. politics, Pelosi has struggled to get the public to see how competent she is. That’s partly because she doesn’t care as much about her reputation, which is routinely shredded in Republican congressional ads; the “coin of the realm” in her book is votes, not approval ratings. And boy, does she know how to “count votes,” a skill that TIME correspondent Molly Ball explains in Pelosi, the first biography written with the California congresswoman’s participation.

GEN caught up with Ball ahead of the book’s May 5 publication to find out how Pelosi gets it done, what she’s focused on in the stimulus packages, and where she really falls on the liberal-moderate spectrum.

GEN: You started reporting on Nancy Pelosi for a TIME cover story that came out in 2018. She had previously been kind of peeved she’d never been on the cover before, despite being the first woman speaker of the House in 2007. Did that story make her more amenable to participating in your book, and did it make you more interested in doing a book on her?

Molly Ball: Well, she must not have hated the profile too much, because she did cooperate with the book, and it is the first biography with which she has cooperated. I’m obviously very happy about that. It enabled me to get a much fuller sense of her.

I was proud of the profile. She’s really the first politician I’ve covered who really felt big enough for a book. You profile a mayor or a governor and you don’t necessarily feel like you could do 300 pages on it. She’s the first character I really thought, this is a person who deserves to be the subject of a book, and I hope the book is worthy of her.

What was Pelosi like interpersonally when you would meet her for an interview? What do you think the perception of her is publicly and does she match it?

I write a lot in the book about the negative perceptions of her, and she certainly is not the sort of screaming she-demon you would see in a lot of Republican campaign ads. She’s a pretty formal person. I think coming from the 1950s, and her general political style, she’s not the most interesting interview, frankly. When you see her interviewed on television or hear her on the radio, she tends to repeat a lot of talking points. She tends to speak in slogans. She’s obviously very articulate and intelligent. But I don’t think personal communication, at least politically, has been one of her strong suits.

I don’t want to make it sound like she’s a robot. I mean, I’ve interviewed plenty of politicians who were sort of stiff and robotic because they were so terrified of saying the wrong thing. She’s thoughtful, and I did eventually get to a point with her where I felt like she had let her guard down a little bit. You talk to people who are personal friends of hers, and she’s exceedingly gracious. She always remembers the names of people’s spouses and parents and what’s going on in their lives. She has an incredible memory for that kind of thing. She just doesn’t give a lot of herself.

You write that in recent years, she started to advocate for herself a little bit more in the press, to do a little PR for herself and how good she is at the job.

Yes. But I think you have to understand what the point of that was for her, because she’s a person for which everything is always oriented toward a result. She’s operational, as one of her mentors described her.

So, her frustration with being misunderstood wasn’t just like, “Hey, that makes me feel bad.” And for years I think she neglected her national public image because she felt like it didn’t matter to her goals, and her goals are to run the House and pass legislation and, she would say, improve the lives of America’s children.

I think the breaking point for her was when she realized she couldn’t accomplish her goals if she didn’t fix this perception problem, and that nobody was going to do it for her. The Democratic Party had sort of collectively decided that she was a liability. And everybody from the Obama apparatus to her own members in tough districts saw her as a burden.

I think it also plays into her feminism. There’s a natural modesty she has as a result of everything from her faith to her upbringing to the time she comes from. But I think also for women in particular, you get to a point in life where you realize that a lot of the shame associated with immodesty or bragging doesn’t seem to apply in the same way to men who are allowed to go out there and talk about how great they are. There is an element for her, and for a lot of women in politics, of reclaiming that right to advocate for yourself. So I think she did reach a point where she said, “You know what, I don’t care if they call me entitled and arrogant. I need to tell people what I’m good at.”

A lot of political insiders will say, “Nancy Pelosi is good at counting votes,” or, “Nancy Pelosi knows how to count to 218,” the number of votes needed to pass a bill. I’m not sure the average American really knows what that means. I think it sounds like she just asked people, “How are you going to vote?” and tallied it up. So, what does that actually mean?

I’m so glad you asked that, because I think a major part of the project of this book is helping people understand how the system works. It obviously is a lot more complicated than simple counting.

I think another common perception is that it’s about horse-trading. That somebody wants something, and somebody else wants something, and they find a way to accommodate each other. She’s very good at that. She’s very good at compromise and making deals. She’s very good at persuading people their interests are aligned with hers in a particular way.

But I ended up concluding that more than any one particular skill, it’s really an incredible understanding of human nature, understanding what people care about, understanding what motivates people on an individual level. And she does have such an incredible memory for people and knows which way their district voted, knows what issues got them into politics, knows where they stand on this, that, and the other.

And the other thing about the House is there’s 435 members. In the Senate, where there are only 100 members, you can really focus on each individual member. But the House really runs as a set of constantly shifting blocks. You have formal caucuses and interest groups, and you also have informal alliances. You always have to know who somebody is friends with and what group they fit into and how you can get the group on board.

You also write that one of the things Pelosi does well is not really promising anyone anything, but just listening to what they have to say so they feel heard.

Yeah. She amazingly, for a person as occupied as she is, always seems to have time for her members, and she will listen until she wears you out. And at some point you’re done talking. She would sometimes refer to these as therapy sessions or prayer sessions, where she sort of sat with a group of people as they vented all of their anguish and feelings about a particular piece of legislation. And eventually she would sort of outlast them.

But she hears what people are saying. She’s the kind of leader who would always go into a meeting knowing what she wants to get out of it, having a plan for how she wants the discussion to unfold. But that doesn’t mean everything is top-down and that she’s going to do things her way and you just have to come around to it. She takes input from people. But as you mentioned, she won’t promise things she can’t deliver. I think this is something a lot of leaders do wrong. She understands that in the long term, people will be more loyal to you if they know you’re being straight with them.

People do think of Pelosi as a horse trader, as an incredible operator, and obviously that’s part of what she has to do. But when it comes to something she considers a values problem for her, there’s nothing her staff can do worse than ask her to compromise on it. Why is there that gap in perception about her?

Well, it’s interesting, because there are different perceptions of her, right? I think a lot of people on the left view her as overly compromising, especially these days, and a lot of people on the right view her as this rigid, shrill partisan. So it is funny that those are sort of opposite perceptions from opposite sides, and they can’t really both be true, although there are certainly elements of truth to both of them.

But her effectiveness as a leader, I think, is that she does start from a very firm set of values and convictions. She does not have any ambivalence about where she stands on things. One of her former staffers told me it made her very easy to work for, because she had a sort of very straightforward decision matrix, and once you got to know how she thought about issues, you could pretty much always predict where she was going to land on them. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t compromise. She’s always negotiating. But she knows where she stands, and then she can figure out how to meet the other side, if not halfway, as close to her side as possible.

Right. It almost seems like Pelosi’s too liberal for moderates and too pragmatic for liberals at times, especially young liberals like AOC. What do you think is the tension there?

Well, I think that’s a testament to her effectiveness, and it doesn’t come from seeking out some sort of middle ground, but she is kind of in the center of her party. Although I would also argue that having been in Democratic politics for 30 years — a crucial 30 years in which the party really reoriented itself in a pretty remarkable way — she’s been part of shaping that, not just reflecting it.

I think she is a liberal, but she wants to get things done. So that’s going to inflame the liberals who would rather stand on principle, even if it means the thing doesn’t get done. It’s also going to inflame those who are not liberals, because she doesn’t agree with them.

The overarching theme of the book seems to be how often Pelosi is critically involved in things where she doesn’t publicly seem to be involved. Anything that happens in the House, she has played a role in, and possibly orchestrated, even if it doesn’t seem like that. Do you think that’s accurate?
Yes.

And what would you say she’s doing right now? What are her biggest priorities in the stimulus packages that she is working overtime to get done?

Well, you know, this isn’t her first rodeo, for one thing. She has played a role in saving the country from economic collapse before. Particularly if you look at the TARP that she worked with George W. Bush to enact in the fall of 2008 during the financial crisis. I think the approach is very similar, that she has put the country ahead of partisanship.

In both instances, you’ve got an unpopular Republican president who she is helping politically by helping them get things done, because she feels the times demand it. She feels the country is in crisis, and no matter what short-term political advantage might accrue from refusing to help bail out the country and the White House, it wouldn’t be right. At the same time, I think she demands respect, and she demands to be part of the negotiation. She feels like the Americans put Democrats in charge of the House for a reason and they deserve to have a voice.

Do you know what she’s thinking about voting rights this year—potentially people voting in November under ongoing pandemic conditions? What is Pelosi working on there?

I don’t know the details of every piece of legislation the Democrats have worked on in the House. There are hundreds of bipartisan bills the House has passed that are sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk. Many of them have to do with things like election security, because of course election security was big long before the pandemic upended everything. She has advocated for mail-in voting and other avenues to ensure people have access to the ballot even if we’re still under these conditions in November. But this keeps getting given up in negotiations. So it’s clearly not her top priority, at least when it comes to these particular bills.

What is her relationship like with Mitch McConnell?

I think they respect each other as tacticians. I don’t think there’s any personal warmth between them. I think she has a lot of disdain for what she views as his sort of nihilism. She will employ every tactic in the book, but she believes it’s for the greater good. Whereas I think she sees McConnell as only politically focused and not focused on the good of the country. And she believes it’s all about money. She believes the Republicans are really motivated by doing what big business wants.

Talk to me about her relationship with Joe Biden when he was vice president. How did they work together, and how does she feel about him now?

They like each other. I don’t think they’re particularly close. Biden was never in the House. He was elected directly into the Senate. So his role in the Obama White House, when he was involved with legislation, was much more in the Senate than in the House. I don’t think there’s any dislike, but I don’t think it’s a particularly close relationship there.

Was there someone Pelosi seemed to favor in the Democratic primary?

A lot of people spent a lot of time trying to read those tea leaves. I asked her the question as well, and she did not want to endorse or appear to be endorsing a candidate. She’d always say how nice it would be to have a woman president.

She certainly does believe as a matter of political strategy that the Democrats need to run to the middle. She doesn’t think running on a far-left platform is going to win the Electoral College. She says that when you are talking about taking away people’s health insurance, they view that as, the word she used with me was “menacing.” That might work great in San Francisco, but not in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and those are the states we have to win.

Impeachment: It seemed like Pelosi had to be dragged into doing it, and it went the way it went. What is she feeling about it now?

I think she feels somewhat vindicated, really. I think it’s pretty far in the rear view at this point. And what she said from the beginning was, “This is going to be divisive. It’s going to take a lot of time and energy and result in nothing.” So, she felt it had to be done on the merits, as well as because her caucus had moved to that position. But she was clear from the beginning this wasn’t going to accomplish anything. And for somebody who’s always relentlessly focused on results, I think she did not see the point.

In the afterword of the book, you write that you’re not a conservative or a liberal, or a Republican or a Democrat. What do you think is the role of the political reporter in 2020? Some people say reporters shouldn’t even vote. Others say they should disclose where their biases lie. What do you think of that debate?

It’s interesting but kind of academic. Everybody makes different choices, and there are all kinds of different reporters who cover politics in interesting ways. The choice I’ve made for myself is to be as neutral as I can, because I think there’s a real value in trying to present the truth in a way that is not propagandistic or advocating for a particular outcome.

When you talk to people at a cocktail party about this book, what is the thing you find yourself wanting to tell them about? What’s the anecdote you were the most surprised by or most eager to pass along?

God, I miss cocktail parties, don’t you?

Let’s say a Zoom cocktail party.

Right. There are a few lesser-known Nancy Pelosi stories I really cherish. The one I wish more people knew about is the time she went to Tiananmen Square in 1991 and challenged the Chinese regime. It was an incredibly bold thing to do. She was a relatively new congresswoman, and she was there on Chinese state-approved tour, and one of the people with her, which I always find hilarious, was Cooter from the Dukes of Hazzard, who was briefly a Democrat in Congress.

They told the Chinese authorities they were too tired to see the Great Wall, and then they snuck out the back of their hotels, snuck into Tiananmen Square, and unfurled a banner some activists had given them that said, “To those who died for democracy in China.” The Chinese police went after them and actually beat up some of the journalists covering it that they tipped off to the event. Not only that: They still went to their dinner with the Chinese foreign minister that evening, which must have been incredibly uncomfortable. I think there’s a confrontational side to her that’s particularly remarkable in a woman from her generation but that people don’t necessarily associate with her public persona. She’s a very bold person.

And then the other story she tells about herself, which I find hilarious, is about when she’d just moved to California with her husband and four very young children and a fifth on the way. They were staying with her mother-in-law, which she deeply disliked — not the mother-in-law but the situation. They were frantically looking for a house that could accommodate their large brood. They had been striking out for months but finally found the perfect place and asked the owner why it was available. She said, “Oh, we’re moving to Washington. So my husband can work in the Nixon administration.” And at that moment, Nancy Pelosi said, “We’re not taking it.” She said, “I refuse to live in a place that’s been made available by the election of Richard Nixon.”

There’s a pretty deep partisan loyalty there and also a stubbornness and willfulness. She was willing to live with her mother-in-law for months longer just to not have that be the case. One of her daughters says everything you need to know about Nancy Pelosi is contained in that story.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Director at Medium working with authors and books. Formerly a staff writer and editor at Time.

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