By Molly Ball
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 liberalization in China would inevitably lead to greater democratization.
- 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.
- She was right during the 2008 primary, when she rejected the entreaties of powerful allies of Hillary Clinton — Harvey Weinstein among them — to get behind a plan to use superdelegates to help Clinton take the Democratic nomination from Barack Obama.
- 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.
In “Pelosi,” Molly Ball’s admiring and illuminating new biography of the most powerful woman in American politics, there’s a scene where Pelosi expresses her frustration to Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, over Obama’s doomed courtship of Republican support for health care reform. “Does the president not understand the way this game works?” she asks. “He wants to get it done and be beloved, and you can’t have both — which does he want?”
The House speaker would rather get it done. There’s a pattern in Ball’s book. Again and again, 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.
[ Read an excerpt from “Pelosi.” ]
The arc of Ball’s book is one of triumph. 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 completely 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, 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,” Ball writes.
For a liberal reading Ball’s book — and I suspect it will largely be liberals who will want to read a shining account of Pelosi’s career — a major question is whether the speaker’s strengths are equal to the severity of the dangers bearing down on our country. Even before coronavirus, many on the left worried that Pelosi wasn’t doing enough to constrain Trump, though she eventually came around to impeaching him. Once the pandemic hit, there was growing alarm among progressives that Democrats, in negotiating rescue packages, didn’t insist on the funding necessary to make the 2020 election secure, which could unfold in the shadow of a pandemic that makes in-person voting life-threatening. Congressional Democrats have leverage, Michael Grunwald wrote in Politico, but “they don’t seem inclined to use that leverage to take on Trump.”
In the past, Pelosi has always seemed to have a plan, even if those sniping from outside couldn’t see it. When it comes to Trump, does she still?
Reading “Pelosi,” it’s hard to know exactly how Pelosi sees the threat that Trump poses. Despite meticulous reporting and multiple interviews with the House speaker, Ball, Time magazine’s national political correspondent, doesn’t penetrate her steely exterior, as she herself acknowledges. Pelosi, Ball writes, “is a private person, and her inner life is fundamentally off limits.” To understand her, we can only look to her record.
Parts of that record should comfort those who fear that Pelosi is going soft. One of the book’s most telling anecdotes involves the late congressman Jack Murtha, a grizzled, conservative Democrat from Pennsylvania. An ex-Marine, Murtha initially supported the Iraq war, but in November 2005 he called a news conference to decry it and demand a six-month timetable for withdrawal. “The war in Iraq is not going as advertised,” he said. “Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk.” It was a turning point in the public’s understanding of the war; as Ball writes, “One analyst later dubbed it the ‘Murthquake,’ and antiwar activists credited Murtha with a seismic shift in the public debate.”
Yet as Murtha became a major face of opposition to the Iraq war, Pelosi remained silent, enraging antiwar activists who believed she’d left Murtha out on a limb. Amy Poehler, playing Pelosi on “Saturday Night Live,” mocked her timidity. “What are the Democrats proposing to counteract all this corruption?” asked Darrell Hammond, playing MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. “That’s easy, Chris. We’re going to do nothing,” Poehler said.
“Pelosi let them criticize her even though she knew the truth: She and Murtha had orchestrated the whole thing, and agreed that it had to look like a one-man crusade,” Ball writes. Both believed his withdrawal proposal would carry greater weight if he didn’t seem to be working with the caucus’s left flank.
Here we see one of the more striking things about Pelosi: She’s willing to advance her policy goals at the expense of her own image. Part of the reason Pelosi has been underestimated is simple sexism, but part is that she genuinely seems to care less about how she’s perceived than about what she can accomplish.
Ball describes the Murtha episode as “an illustration of Pelosi’s theory of public opinion.” Pelosi likes to repeat a quotation from Abraham Lincoln: “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” It was a line she invoked to explain her reluctance to impeach Trump, infuriating people — myself included — who believed she was following rather than leading. But Ball has made me think we were misunderstanding Pelosi; the speaker was emphasizing the importance of shaping public opinion before acting, not using public opinion as a reason not to act.
So as I read Ball’s book, I kept thinking that maybe Pelosi’s impeachment hesitation had been a put-on, a repeat of the Murtha play. But it appears it wasn’t — she really did hold out until her caucus gave her no choice. Likewise, her willingness to collaborate with Trump, even if it gives him legislative accomplishments to tout, is genuine. Pelosi, Ball writes, thought she could, “as she had with George W. Bush, work with him on goals they shared even as they fiercely opposed each other where they didn’t agree.” She never aspired to lead an all-out campaign against Trump’s authoritarianism.
Pelosi has always been a progressive; until the last few years, the right used her as the ultimate symbol of left-wing extremism. But her relentlessly pragmatic approach to politics is the polar opposite of, say, the Bernie Sanders approach. Pelosi doesn’t begin by asking what kind of world we want. She asks where the votes are. The speaker is, as she herself has said, a master legislator. “If this book has a thesis, it is that you needn’t agree with Nancy Pelosi’s politics to respect her accomplishments and appreciate her historic career,” Ball says. But you can do that and still wonder if, at this moment, her skill at making the system work is enough to check a man happy to destroy it.
No other developed country is doing so badly.
Graphs of the coronavirus curves in Britain, Canada, Germany and Italy look like mountains, with steep climbs up and then back down. The one for America shows a fast climb up to a plateau. For a while, the number of new cases in the U.S. was at least slowly declining. Now, according to The Times, it’s up a terrifying 22 percent over the last 14 days.
As Politico reported on Monday, Italy’s coronavirus catastrophe once looked to Americans like a worst-case scenario. Today, it said, “America’s new per capita cases remain on par with Italy’s worst day — and show signs of rising further.”
This is what American exceptionalism looks like under Donald Trump. It’s not just that the United States has the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths of any country in the world. Republican political dysfunction has made a coherent campaign to fight the pandemic impossible.
At the federal level as well as in many states, we’re seeing a combination of the blustering contempt for science that marks the conservative approach to climate change and the high tolerance for carnage that makes American gun culture unique.
The rot starts at the top. At the beginning of the crisis Trump acted as if he could wish the coronavirus away, and after an interval when he at least pretended to take it seriously, his administration has resumed a posture of blithe denial.
The task force led by Mike Pence has been sidelined, its members meeting only twice a week. Last Tuesday, the vice president wrote an op-ed essay in The Wall Street Journal about how well things are going: “We are winning the fight against the invisible enemy,” he claimed.
In an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity last week, Trump said the virus is “fading away.” Speaking to The Journal, he said that some people might be wearing masks only to show their disapproval of him and suggested, contrary to all credible public health guidance, that mask-wearing might increase people’s risk of infection. It’s not surprising, then, that many people at his sad Saturday rally in Tulsa, Okla. — where coronavirus cases are spiking — went maskless.
Just a few weeks ago, panicked about occupying my kids through the summer in a shut-down New York City, I thought about taking them to stay with my retired parents in Arizona. Now, as New York gingerly reopens, Arizona has become a hot spot — which isn’t stopping Trump from holding a rally at a Phoenix megachurch on Tuesday. Cases are also soaring in Texas, Florida and several other states. An epidemic that was once concentrated in blue states is increasingly raging in red ones.
When coronavirus cases started exploding on the East Coast in March, there were devastating failures by Democratic leaders. New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, not only forced nursing homes to take back residents who’d been hospitalized for the coronavirus, he barred them from testing the residents to see if they were still infected.
As ProPublica reported, following Cuomo’s order, “Covid-19 tore through New York state’s nursing facilities, killing more than 6,000 people — about 6 percent of its more than 100,000 nursing home residents.” In Florida, which prohibited such transfers, the virus has so far killed only 1.6 percent of nursing home residents.
Given how Cuomo’s errors contributed to New York’s catastrophe, it’s hard to say how much credit he deserves for eventually rising to the occasion. Still, by the time New York’s cases got to where Arizona’s are now, he at least understood that the state faced calamity and imposed the lockdown that helped bring it back from the abyss.
Arizona, Florida and Texas, by contrast, aren’t even doing simple things like mandating mask-wearing. Worse, until last week, the governors of Arizona and Texas prevented cities from instituting their own such requirements.
So far, evidence about the role mass protests over police violence played in coronavirus spikes is mixed, but liberal support for the demonstrations solidified the conviction among many conservatives that strict social distancing rules are a hypocritical tool of social control. The paranoia and resentment that have long been part of the culture of the modern right are now directed at those warning about the ongoing dangers of the pandemic.
Across the country, public health workers have faced death threats, harassment and armed protesters at their homes. No matter how bad things get in red America, it’s hard to imagine where the political will to contain the virus will come from.
So while countries with competent leadership haltingly return to normal, ours will continue to be pummeled. In mid-May, when America’s coronavirus death toll was around 85,000, Trump sycophant Lindsey Graham said that as long as fatalities didn’t go much beyond 120,000, “I think you can say you limited the casualties in this war.”
By The Times’s count, we just hit that number. The war goes on, but Trump has already lost it.
The absurdity of denying Trump’s bigotry.
It’s hard to say what’s a bigger taboo in American politics: being a racist, or calling someone one.
Sure, the Republican Party will occasionally try to distance itself from one of its more egregiously hateful members, like Representative Steve King of Iowa, who lost committee assignments after seeming to defend white nationalism. But mostly, right-wing politicians and their media allies pretend, to the point of farce, that the primary racial injustice in America involves white people unfairly accused of racism. This makes talking openly about the evident racism of our president harder than it should be.
To see how this works in microcosm, consider the House Oversight Committee hearing at which Donald Trump’s former consigliere Michael Cohen testified on Wednesday. Cohen said, in his opening statement, that, in addition to being a con man and a cheat, Trump is a racist. This should be clear to all people of good faith, given that Trump was a leading figure in the birther movement, defended white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville,and claimed he couldn’t get a fair hearing from a judge of Mexican heritage, to mention just a few examples.
But Representative Mark Meadows, Republican of North Carolina, strenuously objected to Cohen’s description, and came up with what he seemed to think was an airtight rejoinder. Meadows, who is white, had Lynne Patton, an African-American woman and longtime Trump employee now at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, stand behind him, and quoted her saying that she would not work for a racist. Checkmate!
In the past, one person who would often publicly vouch for Trump’s non-racism was Omarosa Manigault Newman, the “Apprentice”-star-turned-White House aide. Then Manigault Newman came out with a book calling Trump “a racist, a bigot and a misogynist.” As part of her promotional tour for that book, she released an audio recording of a conversation she had with Patton and another African-American Trump supporter, Katrina Pierson, strategizing about how to handle the fallout should a tape surface of Trump using a racist slur. On the recording Patton, the person Meadows called upon as a character witness for the president, didn’t seem doubtful that Trump could have said such a thing.
Many liberals were agog at this stunt by Meadows; on the left it’s largely accepted that responding to charges of racism by pointing to black friends — never mind black employees — is clueless at best. Some white conservatives, however, seem convinced that you can’t be racist if you have an affectionate relationship with a person of color. And so when Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, called out Meadows toward the end of the hearing, he was so aggrieved he nearly melted down.
The “fact that someone would actually use a prop, a black woman, in this chamber, in this committee, is alone racist in itself,” said Tlaib, who is Palestinian-American. Red-faced, indignant and seemingly on the verge of tears, Meadows demanded that Tlaib’s words be stricken from the record, turned the charge of racism back on her, and said that he has nieces and nephews who are people of color. In a stunning dramatization of how racial dynamics determine whose emotions are honored, the hearing momentarily came to a halt so that Tlaib could assure Meadows that she didn’t mean to call him a racist, and the committee chairman, Elijah Cummings, who is African-American, could comfort him. “I could see and feel your pain,” Cummings told him.
This contradiction is behind some of the madness of our public life right now. Normalizing Trump, which has become a central mission of the Republican Party, depends on denial about what racism is. Not for the first time, Tlaib got in trouble for pointing out the obvious — the president is a bigot, and that in bringing out Patton to exonerate him, Meadows only demonstrated his own gross insensitivity.
On Thursday, Tlaib and Meadows reportedly had a warm conversation on the House floor; according to a CNN reporter, they hugged. I’m glad; given how much she’s been demonized in her short time in Congress, it’s probably in her interest to make Meadows feel better about their earlier exchange. Who knows, if she’s friendly enough, maybe he’ll be able to cite their relationship next time he’s caught saying something awful.
.. Among Democrats, the conventional wisdom is that this can only help Hillary. Bill Clinton remains incredibly popular. People historically rally around Hillary when she seems like a victim—her approval ratings surgedduring the Lewinsky scandal. Besides, the oft-married Trump can’t credibly attack anyone for infidelity, especially given his own past defenses of Bill, whose only sin, in Trump’s estimation, was not cheating with hotter women.
.. having a thrice married, philandering blowhard like Trump trying to beat up on a woman over her husband’s philandering, about which she is if anything the victim rather than the perpetrator, is almost comically self-destructive on Trump’s part.”
.. for the right, the Clinton sex scandals aren’t about infidelity. They’re about sexual harassment and assault.
.. Conservatives are itching to turn the new feminist consensus on sexual violence against the woman who wants to be the first feminist president.
.. Broaddrick refused to talk, however, and she later denied the rape in an affidavit in the Paula Jones case. It was only when she was interviewed by the FBI in the course of Kenneth Starr’s investigation that she changed her story and said the rape had in fact happened. (In the New York Times, she explained the about-face by saying she hadn’t wanted to go public but felt she couldn’t lie to federal investigators.)
.. frustrated with rumors that had begun to circulate about her, she gave several high-profile interviews.