Nancy Pelosi possesses the talent of a heavyweight political leader in captivating a big audience, as anyone who was at the Union on Monday night witnessed.
But in her more intimate interactions with Oxford students she also demonstrated the talent of a grandmother, gifted at dealing with inquisitive young people.
Tasked with looking after her between her mid-afternoon arrival and late evening talk, I took her on a tour of the city before dinner at the Union. I was anxious to protect such a conspicuous individual from intrusive crowds.
By the Union a scruffy looking young man in a ragged leather jacket barged in front of her, pointing a camera in her face. While security staff and I were preparing to usher her inside and block the man’s way, Pelosi struck up a conversation.
“So Jake, where would you like a photo then? Is this OK? How about this? Is that enough? It was nice meeting you Jake, you have a great day!” She carries congressional keepsakes with her, giving them out to people she meets, and has learned committee members’ names and stories before she is introduced. “Come see me in my office if you’re ever in Washington!”
As leader of the House Democrats she uses these skills to convince a disparate group of over 200 politicians, each with their own beliefs, to vote a certain way. It is initially hard to tell whether Nancy Pelosi is so good with people because she is a politician, or whether Nancy Pelosi is a politician because she is so good with people. After several hours in her company I came to believe the latter.
Her biggest legislative achievement as Speaker between 2007-2011 was extending health insurance to tens of millions of poor Americans. ‘Obamacare’ was signed into law in March 2010 after a brutal fight on the marble floors of Congress and the TV screens of America. “They spent two-hundred million dollars lobbying against the bill. That’s a lot of money, especially when it goes unanswered.”
The House Democratic caucus is now more than half female, ethnic minority or LGBT. However, she believes unrestricted ‘super PAC’ funding of political advertising is impeding further progress.
“If you reduce the role of money in politics, you’ll elect more women. Women always have an advantage in terms of ethics in government.
“Mostly people trust women more, so they go right at you on ethics. They’ll invent something. Do people want to be mischaracterised so their kids are coming home from school crying?”
A politician frequently vilified by her opponents, she has little time for the culture that dominated Congress upon her arrival in 1987.
In her book Know Your Power she describes how male colleagues were initially polite but uninterested in her political opinions. She got hers across anyway.
“It was shocking to them that a woman would speak in this male bastion. They said ‘it’s not your turn’. We said ‘no, we’ve been waiting two hundred years!’”
On Monday, one student raised the topic of the 2016 presidential race, half-jokingly asking if she was going to become the first female President. Pelosi was surprisingly open in her response. “Hillary Clinton is the full package. She’d be great. I just don’t know if she wants to do it, but I’m hoping and praying she runs in 2016.”
Earlier over dinner she told me that “Hillary Clinton would be President of the United States right now had she voted against the Iraq War. It was a ridiculous false premise, the evidence and intelligence was not there. There was no reason for us to go there, she voted for war and never abandoned her vote.”
The Iraq Resolution split the Democratic caucus in half. She doesn’t want it to happen again. She tightly whipped her troops for the Obamacare vote, which was split almost exactly down party lines – 219 ‘ayes’ to 212 ‘noes’.
“Bipartisanship is a very popular idea in America, and as long as they can make him [Obama] look partisan, they diminish him. He is not really a political president, and that’s what people love about him, but they try and paint him another way.”
Pelosi now has her sights on gun control. She gets more serious, unnervingly beating a steady rhythm on the table.
“We are not giving up. Even though we do not have a majority in the house, we fully intend to build up support. A drumbeat, if you wonder why I’m doing this, across America, to show that something must be done.
“Asking our Republican friends to join our bill, we told them 90% of their constituents support this, and they all say ‘well I haven’t heard from any of them, I’ve only heard from the other side’.”
Although ‘government’ has become a dirty word to many in America, Pelosi does not shy away from defending its importance.
“Government shouldn’t be bigger than it needs to be, but the founding fathers saw that there needs to be a public role. There are people in Congress who are at war with government. They have daily votes on things that do not support clean air and water, food safety, healthcare, social security. There has to be a public role.”
“I sometimes ask them, do you have children? Do you have grandchildren? Do they drink water, eat food, breathe air? What is it that makes you think there should be no referees on the field here?”
“I say to my Republican friends, and I have many, ‘take back your party’. To have this disruption instead of collaboration or compromise, it’s just… you just can’t do that, I can’t believe it.”