This is a Nancy Pelosi biography.

She has one of the most recognizable names in America. Yet far too few Americans have more than the most trivial understanding of who she is and where she comes from. And that ignorance is compounded by a relentless, years-long smear campaign by the Right Wing—a campaign that has only intensified since the 2018 Congressional elections that elevated her for the second time to the leadership of the House of Representatives. As Speaker, Nancy Pelosi has proven to be far and away the most successful leader of the growing national opposition to the Administration of Donald Trump. Journalist Molly Ball‘s terrific new biography of Pelosi makes entirely clear how she has grown into that role and why she is so successful.

Pelosi by Molly Ball (2020) 359 pages ★★★★★

A critical biography of an admirable leader

Don’t imagine that this book is a political puff piece. While Ball clearly admires her subject, she is an honest observer. As Ball writes in an afterword, “I am not a Democrat or a liberal (nor am I a Republican or a conservative).” She is the national political correspondent for Time Magazine, which nobody should ever accuse of being an organ of the Left. In fact, scattered throughout the book are references to the “stiff and stilted Pelosi,” “tightly wound and officious,” and her “inflexibility and hyperattention to detail.” Ball notes too that “she had an extreme need for control and a tendency to hold grudges, using her power to settle personal scores if necessary.” And “she reminded [the Capitol Hill press corps] of a strict teacher or a demanding mother-in-law.” No, this book is by no means puffery.

She ran for Congress at the age of forty-seven

Ball recounts Pelosi’s rise from the working-class Catholic neighborhood in Baltimore where “she was groomed to be a nun.” But it was politics that captivated her as a young woman, not the Church. Her father was in Congress when she was born and became Mayor of Baltimore not long after her eighth birthday. But it was her mother whose behind-the-scenes political work inspired Pelosi. However, she did not herself become a candidate for public office until she ran for Congress at the age of forty-seven, having long since moved to San Francisco with her investment banker husband, Paul Pelosi.

“Dealing with unreasonable egomaniacs”

The personal details Ball relates about Pelosi’s life—as the mother of five children and grandmother of nine—are illuminating. (“Nothing teaches you to deal with unreasonable egomaniacs like having five young children in the house.”) But this biography truly excels in its depiction of Pelosi’s brilliant management of the legislative process in the face of the scorched-earth tactics introduced by Newt Gingrich. The accounts of her work to engineer the San Francisco Presidio‘s designation as a national park, pass the Affordable Care Act, and avoid government shutdowns over budget negotiations, among other legislative battles, are textbook cases in masterful legislative tactics. The result is that this is the best book I’ve ever read about how Congressional legislation actually comes into being.

Critical views of Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer

If Ball is critical of Pelosi, she is even more so about other leading politicians. George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Chuck Schumer, and Donald Trump all come in for criticism, if only through Pelosi’s eyes. Her negative views of Bush and Trump could come as no surprise from this intensely partisan Democrat, but she is at times withering in her appraisal of Obama as well. Pelosi chafed under “the White House’s ineptitude” during her first term as Speaker (2007-2011). “Again and again,” Pelosi complained, “[Obama] would offer Republicans what he thought they were supposed to want, then be shocked they wouldn’t take it.” And on more than one important occasion, Pelosi would struggle to squeeze a bill out of the House on the promise that the Senate would go along, only to find that Schumer had caved to Republican opposition.

In her Afterword to her Nancy Pelosi biography, Ball notes, “It was striking, in my interviews, how many people—Obama administration officials, pundits, fellow members of Congress—volunteered that in retrospect they’d underestimated or underappreciated Pelosi.”

For further reading

For books I’ve reviewed about two important women in politics who are contemporaries of Nancy Pelosi, see:

For a longer-term perspective on the politics depicted in this book, see What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party by Michael Kazin (A stirring history of the Democratic Party).

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