Reviewed in this essay:
- Know Your Power: A Message to America's Daughters , by Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States of America
- C-Span Public Affairs Television, 2008 John F. Kennedy Library Forums , "A Conversation with Nancy Pelosi," Date and Time TBA.
- WBUR FM 90.9, Boston, John F. Kennedy Library Forums 2008, "A Conversation with Nancy Pelosi," August 10, 2008, 8 pm.
Everyone knows what a wicked crush I have on Nancy Pelosi. So when the John F. Kennedy Library Forums notified me a couple of months ago that she was coming to speak, well, I was there. I instantly reserved seats and crossed days off the calendar until this past Monday arrived. I drove my Hillary-Loving relative and her friend, planning to get there at least an hour early to get good seats. But as I swung into the drop-off zone we noticed: This place is packed. It was like Kenmore Square during a Red Sox game. I looked over my shoulder and saw the parking lot was nearly full, so I shoved them out of the car to get one of the remaining spots (luckily, no broken bones) and tried to scoot into the lot before the cop told me it was full. Which he did anyway. I cheerily puttered off because I knew how to sneak in from the other side and did so but the lot was overflowing.
So I pulled up to the line of VIP cars parked in the fire lane and intended to just act like I belonged there, but, unfortunately, the other cop guarding the line figured out I didn't (could've been the beard). But what's important about that is, while I was chatting with him his radio crackled with a set of instructions: "We're going to have to push those protesters back." My citizen-journalism antennae tingled. "Gotta go!" he waved to me trotting off as I thought to myself "Yeah, me too!"
I roared out of the lot to the secondary parking, slammed the car to the curb and loped back to where the protesters were demonstrating, checking my camera as I ran. By the time I got there, as you can see from the photo, the top cop and lead hippy were involved in a serious but not heated discussion. I heard the sergeant say, "You'll HAVE to move to the designated zone," and the protester, well, protested. But then after a while, funnily enough, the cop looked around and realized that most of the traffic had been diverted anyway because the front lot was full. So he said "Aw the heck with it. We're good," leaving everyone with smiles.
Our plan to get good seats worked perfectly--me parking the car, one of us at the entrance holding two tickets, the third one inside to find and save seats. Except we ended up in the next to the last row despite being an hour early. And we were lucky. At least half the crowd must have been stuck in the closed-circuit theater.
This was the night of Barack Obama's big birthday bash in Boston, and I guess that meant a lot of Democrat-type people were doing both functions because the introductions of the bigwigs took some time--the most notable of which was a cameo appearance by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Then Speaker Pelosi and her interlocutor Ambassador Swanee Hunt took the stage, at which point:
Nancy Pelosi commanded the room.
I have seen Presidents and Presidential candidates and "he's gonna be" Presidents in that room, Nobel Laureates, literary giants, heroes and villains and Arlo Guthrie, yet never have I seen someone command that room so completely so quickly. Some have wondered how the heck some middle-age California housewife embarked on a career that led her to the second highest Constitutional office in the land but now I know part of it: When she enters a room, she's in control. Another thing she has going for her something you don't often say about a woman, although I have no idea why not. She's got the Gift of Gab. In an informal conversation where time is of little matter, she can tell a great story.
And in this particular case, she had a secret weapon. The custom at the JFK Library is for Forum speakers to start off with either a quote or anecdote about JFK and it turned out, Pelosi had a bucket load of stories. She was a high school girl back when Jack was running for President and since her father had been both Mayor of Baltimore and a Member of Congress from Maryland, she had met JFK both before and after his election. She has even attended the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles. One story she told featured JFK dropping by the table while the family was dining at the then utterly exclusive Romanov's Restaurant in Hollywood. I won't ruin it--she tells the story better than I could. Watch her on CSPAN or listen to her tell it on WBUR.
The light that shone as she told her JFK stories filled that huge room, but it was a deep and penetrating light, it wasn't just the burst of a schoolgirl crush remembered (though I suppose it may have included that). You see, it was not just a high school she was going to back then, it was a Catholic high school. And for American Catholics, 1960 was so so so indescribably significant. As I listened to her stories and read the third chapter of her book, "An Open House," I saw how deeply Catholic she is in sensibility. Not in doctrine, perhaps, being a pro-Choicer, and no doubt as most Americans Catholics do, departing from strict dogma some other ways, but then, there's a difference between doctrine and sensibility. One can feel Catholic without adhering to the strictures of Roman Catholicism, and Nancy Pelosi feels a lot more Catholic to me now than she had when I only knew her from debates in the House of Representatives.
About this time I leaned over to my companions and whispered, "Am I crazy? Isn't she actually beautiful?" Yes, I was told in no uncertain terms not only by my Hillary-loving relative but by her friend and everyone around us who heard my whisper. "Of course, you do have a crush on her," I was told, "but you're still right." I tried to get a picture but I was really at the edge of my little camera's zoom range. Out of twenty-odd photos, this is the only one I could salvage.
Part of both the speaking engagement and the book is boilerplate late-twentieth, early twenty-first century glass-ceiling-breaking feminism. I suppose that's the nominal theme. I found that part boring, but then I'm a guy. A woman, though, would probably find those elements blood-curdling. There's one particular story she told (also on page 137 in the book) about three Congresswomen: herself, Barbara Kennelly of Connecticut and Barbara Boxer of California when she was in the House. It even pissed me off, and I have a Y chromosome. It features those three women and about fifteen male House colleagues at a regular Tuesday dinner and a table conversation about childbirth. I believe I heard the word "idiot" pass Pelosi's lips.
I looked down at my watch and realized I had just had the experience of watching a great movie--an hour and ten minutes had passed and it felt like two minutes. There was only time for two questions from the audience (relayed by the host Swanee Hunt and good thing too because otherwise she'd have had nothing to do). The most intriguing aspect of that was when Pelosi described her great failure as Speaker: Failing to stop the War in Iraq. She went so far as to say that if Gallup polled her, she too would "disapprove" of Congress. Personally, I don't why she feels that way. By virtue of the Constitution, any President is always going to get whatever they want on military matter unless and until Congress can muster a two-thirds majority to either impeach or override a veto. I think she thought she could get that two-thirds, and I suppose it was possible--but it was the longest of long shots under any reasonable projection.
The book, ghosted by Amy Hill Hearth, is more of an extended magazine feature. It's crisp and conversational--much more journalistic than philosophical or even political. It's not the Story of Nancy Pelosi's life, it's Nancy Pelosi telling stories about her life. Since more than half her life she was simply a good Catholic girl, wife and mother, those stories count too even if they don't seem so momentous. It's what they call "a very quick read," a euphemism for large font, double-spacing, less than 200 pages. But it's a fun read and the truth is, you can learn important things about important people by the anecdotes they tell of themselves. If you buy it at a chain or on Amazon you can get it for fifteen bucks or so as I did, making it a worthy purchase. I didn't bother trying to pay full price and getting it signed after the lecture--there had to be 400 people in the line.
There was during this speaking engagement also a fair amount of strangeness. When she switched topics from family to feminism, a very angry man leapt to his feet and demanded that Barack Obama select Hillary Clinton as his Vice President. That was scary. A steely-eyed female Secret Service bolted down the aisle past me as security hustled the guy from the room.
But then began a series of almost laughably un-scary interruptions because it turned out Code Pink had infiltrated the room. They were RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME THE WHOLE TIME AND I WAS TOO STUPID TO NOTICE. Three of them leapt up to make their little scene and ended up 18 inches away from me. I had gotten so disgusted at the camera that I had shut it off and repacked it. So I fumbled like a maniac to get a picture taken before security got them out of there. Honestly, I wasn't looking and had no idea this protester had smiled and posed for me until I looked later. When you're a rank amateur it helps to have help. And as you can see from the bottom photo, there wasn't any big to-do about it. One white-haired security guard just guided them out of the room. Seemed like they knew each other. Don't know about the weirdo guy, but I'm pleased to report that none of the Code Pinkers got arrested because as I was leaving afterward I saw they had all joined their pals in the demonstration. So at the end, everyone was happy. Especially me!!