If Nancy Pelosi had listened to her mother she might be a nun today — or more likely a Reverend Mother — but instead she set her sights firmly on politics and is now the most powerful woman in American political history.
Pelosi, who led a US congressional delegation here this week, once recalled her lack of enthusiasm for her mother’s suggestion.
As it turned out, Pelosi discovered there was far more power in the halls of the US Congress. Once elected to represent San Francisco in 1987, she quickly rose through the ranks of the Democratic party.
In 2007, she secured her place in history by becoming the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives, putting her second in the line of succession to the US presidency. It’s a feat she repeated this year at the age of 79 when her party won back control of the chamber.
Pelosi is personally poised, elegant, and charming. Politically, she is driven, determined, skilled, savvy, persistent, and progressive. And when she takes on presidents, like she has Donald Trump, they usually blink first.
Her daughter Alexandra once famously summed up her mother like this: “She’ll cut your head off and you won’t even know you’re bleeding.”
Pelosi has three Irish grandchildren, Liam, Sean, and Ryan, who were baptised in Kilquade church, in Co Wicklow, the home of their paternal grandfather, who moved there from Texas over two decades ago.
“They always remind me of the exuberant spirit of the Irish people,” Pelosi told an Irish-American gathering in Washington last month.
“In fact, they had this toast when they were little that said ‘Dance as if no one is watching, love as though you’ve never loved before, sing as though no one can hear you, and live as though heaven is on earth.’
“So I said to them: ‘Is that a precious toast in your Irish family?’ And they said: ‘No, it’s a poster we saw in Shannon airport.’ ”
Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro was born on March 26, 1940, into a powerful Italian-American family who ran Democratic politics in the state of Maryland. She was the youngest, and the only girl, of seven children.
When she was born, her father was a Democratic Congressman from Maryland and he became mayor of the city of Baltimore seven years later. Pelosi’s mother was also active in politics, organising Democratic women and teaching her daughter about social networking. Pelosi’s brother, Thomas D’Alesandro, was mayor of Baltimore from 1967 to 1971.
Pelosi was involved with politics from an early age. She helped her father at his campaign events and attended her first Democratic National Convention at age 12.
Nine years later, when she was 21, she attended John F. Kennedy’s inauguration when he became president in January 1961.
The young, dashing Kennedy, the first Catholic to be president, made a lasting impact on Pelosi. It was a time of boundless optimism in America and Pelosi believed progressive political leaders could help to shape a more just and equal society.
“The leadership of President John F. Kennedy is not just a memory, but a living force that still asks every citizen to lead,” she recalled in 2011 on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s 1963 assassination.
It was in 1963, too, that Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro married Paul Pelosi, whom she had met at Georgetown University. The couple moved to New York, where they had five children over the next six years.
In 1969, they moved to San Francisco. There, her husband worked as a banker, while Nancy Pelosi raised their children and started a Democratic party club at her home.
She began to work her way up the party ranks in San Francisco and the state of California. In 1976, she was elected as a Democratic National Committee member from California, and from 1981 until 1983 she was chair of the California Democratic Party. Four years later, at the age of 47, after her youngest child had left for college, Pelosi was encouraged to run for the US Congress.
She threw 100 house parties, recruited 4,000 volunteers, and raised $1 million in seven weeks. On June 2, 1987 she was elected to the US House of Representatives.
It was a time when Aids was devastating San Francisco. Pelosi championed the battle against the disease, fighting for health insurance and housing. In 1990, she co-authored the bipartisan Ryan White Act that provided federally funded treatment for low-income Aids patients.
She has been a key supporter of increased funding for health research and for other healthcare and housing programmes. She is also a strong advocate for human rights and the environment. She strongly favours gun control and was one of the House architects of the 1994 assault-weapons ban.
As a member of the House of Representatives, she has served on the Appropriations Committee and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and has held a number of other leadership positions. She was House Minority Whip from 2002 to 2003, and House Minority Leader from 2003 to 2007.
On January 3, 2007, exactly 20 years after arriving in Congress, Pelosi entered the history books when she became the first woman elected Speaker of the House of Representatives when the Democrats won control in the midterm elections.
“This is a historic moment for the Congress, and for the women of this country,” she declared.
“It is a moment for which we have waited more than 200 years. But women weren’t just waiting. Women were working. Never losing faith, we worked to redeem the promise of America, that all men and women are created equal.”
It was vintage Pelosi, with its message of change through persistence and hard work, mixed with a measure of idealism — something her supporters say has imbued much of her politics dating back to the Kennedy era.
Having made history by becoming Speaker, she now sought to make her power count in practical ways for the country.
As Speaker of the US House of Representatives, she set about plotting a progressive political agenda, emphasising good paying jobs and affordable healthcare, and then enforced strict discipline in her often fractious party to implement that agenda.
In the first 100 hours of being Speaker, Pelosi raised the minimum wage, enacted the 9/11 commission report and ended many tax subsidies to oil companies.
“Pelosi is one of the most consequential political figures of her generation,” Time magazine said when it featured her on its cover in September 2018.
But the more progressive her agenda became, the more she became a lightening rod for opposition Republicans. She, in turn, was a strong critic of Republican president George W. Bush and was the most prominent Democrat to oppose the 2003 war in Iraq, believing his rationale was not based on solid intelligence.
After Bush was re-elected in 2004, several Democrats in the House of Representatives wanted to pursue impeachment proceedings against the president on the grounds that he had misled Congress about weapons of mass destructions in Iraq. But Pelosi cautioned against it.
In May 2006, with an eye on the coming congressional elections — which offered the possibility of Democrats taking back control of the House for the first time since 1994 — Pelosi told colleagues that, while the Democrats would conduct vigorous oversight of Bush administration policy, an impeachment investigation was “off the table”.
After becoming Speaker of the House in January 2007, Pelosi continued to hold firm against impeachment, despite strong support for it among constituents in her home state. In the November 2008 election, Pelosi withstood a challenge for her seat from anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, who ran as an independent primarily because of Pelosi’s refusal to pursue impeachment.
Barack Obama, the man Pelosi had unofficially supported over Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, also triumphed in 2008. Clinton and Pelosi have remained friends but their friendship is seen as more cordial than close, although Pelosi strongly endorsed Clinton’s 2016 bid for the presidency.
By 2008, Pelosi’s political clout had become legendary in Washington and she set about powering the young black president’s agenda through the House, working closely with her Democratic counterpart in the Senate, Harry Reid.
Under Pelosi’s leadership, Democrats enacted equal pay measures for women, college aid and stimulus legislation, which included a raft of anti-poverty measures.
But Pelosi’s central achievement has undoubtedly been securing the passage of Obama’s affordable healthcare act, which has insured millions more Americans since it was introduced in 2010. Pelosi herself has called the act “my main mission and best accomplishment”.
But Republicans, who then, as now, still want it repealed, saw it differently and their criticisms of her were often seen as virulent.
Democratic presidents had been pursuing universal healthcare for nearly half a century but now Pelosi worked with the Obama White House to help craft the House version of the Affordable Care Act, in a battle that became high political drama.
In January 2010, Democrats lost the Massachusetts Senate seat vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy, depriving them of their crucial 60th vote to surmount a Republican filibuster that was blocking the act.
Sensing that the party was losing the politics of the healthcare debate, Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel circulated a plan to pull back, passing only a children’s healthcare measure.
Then Pelosi intervened forcefully. She dismissed the president’s fears and rejected his chief of staff’s scaled-back ideas as “kiddie care”. She told the president that this would be their only shot at healthcare because of the large Democratic majorities in both chambers.
At a meeting in the Oval Office, she said, according to two people who were in the room: “Mr President, I know there are some on your staff who want to take the namby-pamby approach. That’s unacceptable.”
Obama sided with Pelosi.
Then she rallied her party behind her and began a marathon two-month session to craft the healthcare bill. Ultimately it passed the House with a 219–212 vote. In Obama’s remarks before signing the bill into law, he credited Pelosi as being “one of the best Speakers the House of Representatives has ever had”. It was a historic win for the Obama-Pelosi alliance. But their alliance was to be short-lived.
In 2011, one year after passage of the healthcare act, Democrats lost control of both chambers to Republicans and soon Obama’s agenda was blocked from progress in both houses.
Pelosi also lost her speakership to Republican John Boehner and once again became Minority Leader of her party in the House.
Some had expected Pelosi to resign in defeat, but those who knew her dismissed the idea. They said she would simply dust herself down, fire up her supporters and craft a plan for victory. And that’s exactly what she did — although it took some time.
By 2019, however, Democrats had reclaimed control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections and Pelosi was back in the driver’s seat, after defeating a move by a group of newly elected young Democrats who wanted generational change.
Among those who rowed in behind Pelosi was Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who said the California congresswoman was the best candidate to take on US president Donald Trump and the Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell.
“Nancy Pelosi is as tough and cagey as McConnell is ruthless and Trump is unprincipled,” Emanuel wrote.
Now Pelosi readied to do battle with Trump and his demand for $5.7bn from the US Congress for a wall against immigrants along the US-Mexico border.
During his campaign, Trump had said he would make Mexico pay for the wall, but having failed to do that he now wanted to pass on the bill to US taxpayers. Pelosi and her Senate ally, Chuck Schumer, however, were having none of it.
Soon the stalemate turned into a contentious 35-day government shutdown, with Pelosi drawing most of the president’s ire for her control over congressional funding. Pelosi countered by painting the shutdown as a “temper tantrum” by Trump.
“I’m the mother of five, grandmother of nine,” Pelosi told reporters. “I know a temper tantrum when I see one.” But Pelosi wasn’t finished yet. When Trump wanted to come to the House to give a speech before doing what she’d asked and reopening the US government, she
effectively cancelled the traditional State of the Union address, for January 29. Within days, President Trump agreed to temporarily reopen the government.
After Congress then passed a funding bill that allocated only $1.375bn for the border wall, Trump declared a national emergency on February 15, allowing him to divert money from other projects to his wall.
Pelosi countered by holding a House vote on legislation to end what she called the “fake national emergency”. When that vote passed, the Senate followed suit with its own vote in a major rebuke for Trump.
One day after the vote, on March 15, Trump was forced to issue his first veto to block the legislation. Congress then needed a two-thirds majority in both chambers to override his veto, but failed to come up with enough votes, so his emergency declaration remains in place. An exasperated Pelosi said of the proposed wall: “It’s like a manhood thing for him.”
But Pelosi knows her next battle against Trump may be her toughest yet, as her party appears increasingly divided between those who want to move it from the middle ground to the left in a bid to deny the president a second term in next year’s election.
“I think our future is strong enough, built on a strong foundation to withstand everything, including the current occupant of the White House,” Pelosi said recently, cautiously adding: “I don’t think for two terms, though.”