Pelosi broke the marble ceiling to become political powerhouse

 

Nancy Pelosi, who is speaking at Trinity College Dublin today, is a woman of many firsts

AS SPEAKER of the House of Representatives from 2007 until 2011, Nancy Pelosi was the most powerful woman in the history of US politics. The millionaire grandmother, who turns 72 this month, will celebrate her 25th year in Congress in June. Tonight, she will address the Philosophical Society at Trinity College Dublin on the theme of the US national motto: E Pluribus Unum.

Ms Pelosi was the first woman to lead a Congressional party, the first Italian-American speaker of the house, and only the second from west of the Rocky Mountains.

In his 2007 state of the union address, George W Bush acknowledged her achievement: “Tonight, I have a high privilege and distinct honour of my own – as the first president to begin the state of the union message with these words: Madam Speaker.”

She didn’t break a glass ceiling, but a marble ceiling in Washington, Ms Pelosi often says.

In a 2010 address to a women’s college, she said raising five children prepared her to go “from the kitchen to the Congress”.

Ms Pelosi’s father, Thomas D’Alesandro, was a Democratic representative from Maryland and mayor of Baltimore, a post later held by Ms Pelosi’s brother, Thomas D’Alesandro III.

When she was a political science student at Trinity College – Washington, not Dublin – Nancy met her future husband, Paul Frank Pelosi. The couple own a lot of property in the San Francisco Bay area and a California vineyard. He also owns a football team.

OpenSecrets.org, the website of the Center for Responsive Politics’, ranked Pelosi’s fortune the ninth largest in Congress, at an estimated average of more than $101 million.

Ms Pelosi says the March 2010 healthcare bill is her proudest achievement in Congress.

“We’ll go through the gate. If the gate’s closed, we’ll go over the fence,” Pelosi said during the fractious winter of 2009/10, when the legislation was vilified by Republicans. If the fence is too high, we’ll pole vault in. If that doesn’t work, we’ll parachute in. But we’re going to get healthcare reform passed for the American people.”

When US president Barack Obama and other leading Democrats contemplated a less ambitious measure, Pelosi mocked their proposed compromise as “kiddie-care”. She stood firm, and the bill passed with a wafer-thin margin.

But Democrats paid the price. A study released last week, and corroborated by the Democratic minority whip Steny Hoyer, concluded the healthcare bill was the main cause of the Democrats’ defeat in the 2010 midterm election. It’s the biggest stick Republican presidential hopefuls use to beat Mr Obama. On Ms Pelosi’s birthday, March 26th, the Supreme Court will begin hearings on the constitutionality of the law.

Ms Pelosi can be gracious to Republicans, as when she accepted the invitation former president George Bush snr to speak at Texas A&M University on February 21st.

She praised the elder Bush for skydiving in his 80s, and recalled with nostalgia the “level of civility” of his presidency.

Ms Pelosi’s relations with Bush’s son George W were less civil. As house speaker, she defeated his attempts to begin privatisation of the social security system. But she also blocked attempts by Democrats to impeach him for starting the Iraq war on false pretences.

In the summer of 2008, after “W” criticised Congress as being ineffective, Ms Pelosi called him “a total failure, losing all credibility with the American people on the war, on the economy, on energy, you name the subject”. Congress had been forced to “sweep up after his mess over and over and over again”, she said.

Ms Pelosi’s successor as speaker, John Boehner, used to slam “Nancy Pelosi’s one-party rule”. During the furious row over healthcare reform, she was portrayed in internet videos as a witch in flames and a 50ft monster smashing the homes of Americans with her big feet.

Washington Postcolumnist Eugene Robinson, who admires Ms Pelosi immensely, described the right-wing caricature of her as an “effete ‘San Francisco liberal’ who knew nothing of America outside her mink-lined cocoon, where the taps ran with Chablis and nourishment consisted of unpronounceable cheeses, served on silver platters by waiters who were certainly gay, and quite possibly married”.

Ms Pelosi shows no sign of slowing down. On Stephen Colbert’s late-night comedy show she used humour to campaign for the “Disclose Act” which would require more transparency from the “Super PACs” (political action committees) that give wealthy individuals and corporations unprecedented influence in US politics.

And she’s defending the Obama administration’s requirement that Catholic hospitals, universities and charities provide insurance that includes contraception for female employees. In Michigan last month, a woman at a Tea Party rally told me Ms Pelosi, who is Catholic, “should be excommunicated”.

Ms Pelosi has implied she has secret knowledge that would disqualify one of her predecessors, Newt Gingrich, from becoming president. Mr Gingrich says the 2008 television advertisement he made with Ms Pelosi, urging the country to address climate change, was “the dumbest thing I ever did”. Rick Santorum, Mr Gingrich’s rival for the conservative vote, used the ad to attack him in Alabama, which holds its primary today.