Though born into a politically prominent Democratic family (her father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., was a U.S. representative from Maryland and served as mayor of Baltimore, as did her eldest brother), Pelosi didn’t hold office until she was 47 years old. A prolific fundraiser and astute politician, she rose through the ranks, leading House Democrats since 2003 — twice as House minority leader and then twice as speaker, placing her second in line to succeed the president. She is the most powerful woman in American politics.
Recently, I sat down with Pelosi at the Lodge at the Presidio, where we talked about her very first words on the House floor, what scared her most during the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and what she means when she says “know your power.”
We are here in the Presidio, this magnificent urban park that was a military base 25 years ago. You were instrumental in this transformation by building community support and passing bipartisan legislation to create the Presidio Trust. Would this be possible today?
It’s funny because I was visiting with Senator [Bob] Dole recently and we were reminiscing [about this]. When we passed the bill, we passed it in the House with bipartisan support. And when we went to the Senate, we were all set to pass it, but one of the senators put a blind hold on it, which means you just can’t pass it. He didn’t have anything against our bill; he wanted something else, but he held up everything.
And Senator Dole, then the minority leader, said to me, “Nancy, I’m going to help you in the next Congress.” Well, we lost the Congress after that so his offer of help was even more meaningful because he was now the majority leader. So we had to start from scratch again in the House in the minority. … People like [Gap founder] Don Fisher were very helpful because we needed both sides. But it was a different world. This was pre-Gingrich. We were very comfortable together. There was opposition, but we were able to overcome it.
We saw a bit of bipartisanship recently with the passage of the infrastructure bill in the Senate. Give us some insight into how things really are in Washington. Is it as contentious and partisan as it appears, or are you able to sit down and discuss things with your Republican colleagues?
It’s more contentious than it seems because, by and large, they [Republicans] don’t believe in science and they don’t believe in governance. So this bill that passed is a wonderful step forward, but it is not green in any respect. It could have been written 70 years ago, and that is a missed opportunity. That’s why we have to have a reconciliation bill. Without the reconciliation bill, this is just abandoning all of our responsibilities to save the planet. But it has some good things in it. It’s bipartisan and that’s a good thing.
You come from a political family but you didn’t launch your political career until you were in your mid-40s, after raising five children. How did you decide to make that first run for office?
I never intended to run for office. Never even gave it a thought. But I did always think that public service was a noble calling and that we have to be involved in our communities. I was active in the Democratic Party as an officer and a chair, and I thought that was the culmination of all things, to be the chair of the California Democratic Party. I was a behind-the-scenes person, promoting other candidates and voter registration and removing obstacles of participation. I’m shy — well, I was back then — and so I asked some people: “Should I?”
One person I spoke to was my youngest daughter, Alexandra. She was going into her senior year of high school and was 16. I said, “Alexandra, Mommy has a chance to run for Congress. But if you don’t want me to, I’m happy with my life.” And she said, “Mother.” Mother — I knew I was in trouble. I said, “I would be gone for three nights, four days of the week when we are in session.” And she said, “Mother, get a life.” I had never heard this expression! “Get a life.” What teenage daughter doesn’t want her mother gone three nights a week?
Paul is a spectacular dad. They get along great. But the fact is: When I decided to go, I was ready. People said, “You care about these issues. That’s why you’re involved in politics, because of the issues. Go and act upon them.” So I did.
“Know how you want to get things done and then connect with people. Be confident enough to be out there, but humble enough to listen and learn.”
You became the first woman speaker of the House at age 66. I have often heard you say: “Know your power.” How did you come to know your power and know you were the right person for the job at that time?
Because I had never really aspired to be in the leadership, I did my work on my committees: intelligence and appropriations. I really knew my stuff. And I always say to people: Know your vision, know your why, know your what, know what you care about so people respect your judgment. Know how you want to get things done and then connect with people. Be confident enough to be out there, but humble enough to listen and learn and work for consensus. I had to do that in my committees. I had that knowledge and therefore judgment, which served me well when I ran.
As speaker, you are the leader of your caucus where there are many disparate interests and priorities. If you had to point to one or two things that allow you to maintain unity among your members, what would they be?
Our values. People always say to me, “You’re so good at herding cats.” It’s not about herding cats. It’s about building consensus. And the unifying thing — despite whatever differences we may have on one subject or another — is our values. The prevailing value is that we are there for America’s working families, for the people, for the children. That’s what gives me so much confidence. At the end of the day, that’s our why. We are here for America’s working families. Sometimes, regionally, we have our differences. We don’t have 218 San Franciscans. But the press exaggerates the differences within our party. As I say, our diversity is our strength. And our unity is our power.
I want to talk a little bit about some of the legislation you’ve been involved with. It’s indisputable that the Affordable Care Act, which extended health care to more than 30 million Americans, would not have been signed into law without your tenacity and leadership. What can you tell me about that effort?
The Affordable Care Act, in my view, is a pillar of health and financial security for Americans. [There was] Social Security in the ’30s, Medicare and Medicaid in the ’60s, and now, more than a generation later, the Affordable Care Act. I was not, under any circumstances, going to let the opportunity pass without the bill passing, and that’s just the way it was. But I will say this: My knowledge of legislation and how you legislate really held me in good stead in passing the bill. I know this stuff. I just know it. I’ve been there over the years for so many negotiations. And I knew we had great talent. George Miller was the chair of one of the committees, education and labor. Henry Waxman, education and commerce — despite its name one of the major health committees — and ways and means, which is another critical committee. Those three. And it’s very complicated. So we just decided: We’re going to get this done. We had a Democrat as president to whom it was a priority, Barack Obama. He was absolutely essential to all this.
I’m happiest when: With my grandchildren.
If I had a magic wand, I would: Make sure that women and girls throughout the world were educated.
The biggest risk I ever taken is: … Every day.
Is there any other piece of legislation that you championed, maybe not as high profile, that is personally important to you?
My purpose when I went to Congress was about HIV and AIDS, and my focus on that was very important to me. My first words on the floor of the House were about AIDS. Some of the members had said to me, “When you get sworn in, just raise your hand and say, ‘yes, you solemnly swear to God.’ That’s it. Nobody wants to hear from a new member.” So Speaker Jim Wright swears me in, and then he says, “Does the gentlewoman from California wish to address the House?” Well, I’m not going to turn that down. I go up there and I thank my father and mother and my family. And I say, “I told my constituents that when I come here, I will say that I’ve come to fight HIV and AIDS.”
So I looked at those guys, thinking, “That was short.” And they’re like, “Oh my God.” So I said, “What’s the matter with you?” And they said, “Why did you say that? Why would you want these people to know the first thing about you is about AIDS?” And I said, “Well, because it is.” And I realized that we had to fight the stigma of AIDS as well as the virus. Our office did remarkable work. Dr. Steve Morin became my lead assistant on that. I got on one of the health committees right away. And we [enacted] a series of things: the Ryan White CARE Act, housing opportunities for people with HIV/AIDS, expanding Medicare to people with HIV. … In every case, San Francisco was the model.
I want to ask you about January 6. Seeing the intruders sitting at your desk, going through your things, chanting your name, was surreal and terrifying for those of us watching at home. What were you thinking when you saw that? What else can you tell us about that day?
Well, when it happened I was presiding. I was on the floor and security just pulled me off the podium and said, “You have to get out of here.” They took me to an undisclosed place.
My concern was not about me because I had security, but I was worried about my members, my staff — and not just our staff, but the custodial staff, the maintenance staff — and the rest of what was happening there. My staff had gone into a room, closed the door, pushed the furniture up against the door and went under the table, silent, for two and a half hours. They couldn’t utter a word while they heard all this chanting and pounding, “Nancy, Nancy!” and, “We’re going to shoot her.” There are two doors that go into this one conference room. One door, then a little space and then another door. They broke the first one down. It was really frightening. When I saw [my staff], when I came back, the most traumatic thing for me was to see the fright in their eyes.
When they took you to that undisclosed place, were you able to see what was going on?
Yes, we were, because we had phones. Chuck [Grassley] and I were there, and Mitch McConnell.
Were you strategizing together?
Well, at the time, we were on the phone with the Department of Defense, saying, “Send us the National Guard.” [We were told] it takes time, it’s not an easy thing. I got to talk to the secretary of defense and the secretary of the army. They had every excuse in the book, and in the meantime, we’re also talking to the governor of Maryland, the governor of Virginia, all of them telling us, “This is what we’ve offered …” It was a dangerous, dangerous situation.
It just looked terrifying.
It was something from hell. It was an assault on the Capitol, the Congress, the Constitution, our democracy.
Many local leaders, from Kamala Harris to Gavin Newsom to Dianne Feinstein, have gone on to forge major, impactful political careers. What is it about San Francisco that makes it such an effective breeding ground?
Well, the people — we’re motivated by purpose. That’s in the air here, whether it’s to save the planet, whether it’s fairness in our judicial system, our economic system. There’s a mission that we are all a part of. And we do have some experience knowing how to do politics. Dianne Feinstein is an icon. An icon. There’s nobody like her; she’s such a leader in terms of women and politics and the rest.
With a schedule like yours, I’m guessing you don’t have a lot of time alone to unwind and recharge. Where in the City do you love to go most for a mental and spiritual reset?
Well, I’m a churchgoer, but that’s wherever I am. But I’m a regular at the Presidio and at Crissy Field. It’s just so beautiful to walk and see the bridge and then walk back and see the City. That’s probably what I do the most. But there are many places of inspiration and beauty. I often feel sorry for my colleagues when I come home and I think: They don’t have Chinatown. They don’t have the Mission. They don’t have Hunters Point. They don’t have the diversity that is so strengthening and inspiring and just beautiful to behold. I always say: In San Francisco, the beauty is in the mix. And that’s what we want in Congress, too.