House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been right about a lot. She was right in the early 1990s, when, as a fierce critic of China’s human rights record, she rejected the bipartisan faith that economic liberalisation in China would inevitably lead to greater democratisation. She was right again in 2003 when, as the leader of the House Democrats, she was one of the few party leaders to oppose the war in Iraq. Ms Pelosi was right throughout Obama’s administration, when she struggled to make the president see that his fetish for bipartisanship was leading him to make pointless concessions to Republicans, who would never negotiate in good faith. There is a pattern in Pelosi, Molly Ball’s admiring and illuminating new biography of the most powerful woman in American politics. Again and again, Ms Pelosi is dismissed, first as a dilettante housewife, then as a far-left San Francisco kook, finally as an establishment dinosaur — and throughout, as a woman. She perseveres, driven by a steely faith in her own abilities. And more often than not, she is vindicated. Ms Pelosi was born to a prominent Democratic family in Baltimore, but the San Francisco network of influence that led her to Congress was one she built herself. When she entered the House of Representatives in 1987, women were a rarity in the chamber and absent from leadership. Sexual harassment and belittlement were constant. Twenty years later, she became the first-ever female House speaker. And in 2019, after regaining the top spot in the chamber, she came to preside over the most diverse Democratic caucus in history, one she did as much as anyone to elect.
For the first time in her public life, Ms Pelosi became an icon, lauded for her unparalleled ability to get under Donald Trump’s skin. In one of her first meetings with the president when she was speaker, she helped goad him into taking public responsibility for an imminent government shutdown. Video of her strolling out of the White House in a chic Max Mara coat, putting on her tortoise shell sunglasses with a sly smile, appeared in countless memes. “It was as if America, after years of fixation on her weaknesses, had suddenly woken up to her strengths,” Ms Ball writes. Reading Pelosi, it’s hard to know exactly how Ms Pelosi sees the threat that Mr Trump poses.
Despite meticulous reporting and multiple interviews with the House speaker, Ms Ball, Time magazine’s national political correspondent, doesn’t penetrate her steely exterior, as she herself acknowledges. Ms Pelosi, she writes, “is a private person, and her inner life is fundamentally off limits.” To understand her, we can only look to her record.