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Madam Speaker: Examining what drives Nancy Pelosi in her historic career


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: For the first time in our nation's history, two women will sit behind the president of the United States tonight as he addresses the joint session of Congress.

It is a first for Vice President Kamala Harris, but, for Nancy Pelosi, this is now the fourth president she has worked with as speaker of the House. Her personal life and long career is the focus of a new book, "Madam Speaker," by Susan Page.

Susan Page, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

Fascinating here. I think we all thought we knew a lot about Nancy Pelosi, but you managed to find out a lot more.

It's interesting to me. This is someone who not only has great respect from Democrats, but from Republicans. I interviewed former House Speaker John Boehner last week about his book, and he says that she's not only the greatest speaker in his lifetime; she may be the greatest House speaker ever.

Susan Page: You know, she's in the history books because, of course, she's the first woman to ever achieve such a powerful position in American politics.

But the fact is, she'd be in the history books if she were a male speaker because of the things that she has gotten through the House, from dealing with the financial meltdown in 2008, to the Affordable Care Act, to standing up to President Trump.

Judy Woodruff: And, Susan, I mean, you start at the very beginning with her family.

A lot of people associate her, of course, with San Francisco, but she comes from this kind of remarkable Italian American family in Baltimore, her father very powerful in Maryland politics, her mother a formidable figure at a time when women really stayed in the background.

Susan Page: You know, the D'Alesandro family in Baltimore were as prominent as the Kennedy family was in Boston.

Her father was a five-term congressman, a three-term mayor. And her mother, who was known as Big Nancy, because her daughter was, of course, little Nancy, was a remarkable woman, ambitious, restless, smart, liked to play the ponies -- she was a regular at Pimlico -- and someone who trained her daughter in the ways and means of power.

Judy Woodruff: And that is threaded through this entire book, Susan Page.

I was struck that, even when Nancy Pelosi was a stay-at-home mother, which she was for a number of years before she got actively involved in politics, those skills were already starting to come out. I mean, there was -- there's a great scene where you write about how organized she is. She does the laundry and she lets her five children come and get their own clothes from the dryer.

Susan Page: You know, you would think that she learned about how to be speaker of the House from her dad, who was an elected official.

She says the best training she got to be speaker of the House was when she was the mother in the house. She was governing amid chaos. She was dealing with grievances, some of them real and some of them not. She was dealing with shifting alliances among those five kids.

She says that was where she really learn the skills that have served her so well during this remarkable career as speaker of the House.

Judy Woodruff: And then, of course, Susan, she moves on, and she does get involved in politics. She moves up very quickly.

John Boehner used the term killer instinct to describe Nancy Pelosi. But what were some of the methods she used, some of the tactics she used in order to keep moving up and, frankly, prevailing over pretty much every man who stood in the way?

Susan Page: You know, there's a lesson she learned from her father, and it's this. No one is going to give you power. You have to seize it.

That's advice that she took herself. It's advice she's given other up-and-coming pols over the years. You know, she has a -- what one congressional correspondent for Politico once called an iron fist in a Gucci glove.

And that does show two ways in which she wielded power. She has a Gucci glove. She can be very persuasive. She can understand what motivates other members of Congress, how to get them where they want to go. But when she needs to have that iron fist, she gets it out.

And, for instance, pushing through the Affordable Care Act, which she considers her greatest legislative achievement, was a masterful job that most people, including some in the Obama White House, thought could never happen.

Judy Woodruff: And not afraid to stand up against some other powerful people, even in her own party.

Susan Page: You know, she is fearless.

And as much as she stood up to Donald Trump, of course, through his four years, there were also times when she stood up to George W. Bush on the Iraq War. She stood up to Barack Obama when the question was how big to go on health care. She stood up to Bill Clinton on the issue of human rights in China.

She was really comfortable enough with power that she was not afraid to stand up to other powerful people.

Judy Woodruff: Talk for just a moment, Susan, about her relationship with President Trump.

You have some pretty graphic examples in the book of how she dealt with him, how she spoke about him.

Susan Page: You know, I think that President Trump felt that he was -- that she was someone he could make a deal with, especially until the time of impeachment.

But I think she always viewed him as someone who was dangerous to democracy. She told me that, on election night 2016, when she appeared on this show -- it's the opening of the book -- once she learned that -- realized that Donald Trump was going to be elected president, it was like she was being kicked by a mule.

And that famous picture for standing up in a room and around a table that is almost entirely male pointing her finger at Donald Trump, before leading a Democratic walkout of that meeting, that was, by the way, the last time the two of them had a conversation.

The White House put out that picture thinking it made Nancy Pelosi look unhinged. She seized on the picture, distributed it, thinking it made her look like she was in charge.

Judy Woodruff: And what about President Biden? I mean, she clearly was very happy that he won and that President Trump lost.

But how do you see her fitting into what he's trying to do?

Susan Page: I think she is closer to President Biden than to any other president with whom she has served. She says that he's got -- he is so sophisticated, so experienced in matters on Capitol Hill, they can speak in shorthand. She called him a transformative president.

I think that this is -- she sees this as a great capstone to her remarkable political career.

Judy Woodruff: And they certainly share a long tenure in the Congress.

Last thing, Susan, how would you describe what drives Nancy Pelosi? What does she want her legacy to be, do you think?

Susan Page: If you ask her what drives her, she will say it's concern about children. She has a very consistent message about that.

She's a New Deal Democrat, just like her dad. Her dad was close to FDR, so close that he named his second son Franklin Delano Roosevelt D'Alesandro. And the values of the New Deal are values that Nancy Pelosi continues to carry forward in terms of trying to -- trying to help people who are in need, seeing a role for a big government, not a small one.

Judy Woodruff: Well, it's a fascinating read, "Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power."

Susan Page, thank you. Thank you very much.

Susan Page: Judy, thank you.

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