“Welcome to the House,” Nancy Pelosi says to a group of surprised tourists in the majestic National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol Building as she breezes past them on her way to her office on a rainy Monday morning in mid-February.
Pelosi nods and smiles to the visitors, repeating a warm greeting that has extra oomph coming from the indefatigable Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The woman who will turn 80 on March 26 is moving fast enough on her spiky blue heels to avoid being stopped for a photo or a chat, but not so fast that she can’t make eye contact with a few people.
“We love you, Nan-ceee.” A high-pitched salute from a young female fan echoes through the Greek Revival chamber as one of the most accomplished and iconic figures in American politics darts down a marble hallway in the building where she has worked as the Democratic representative for San Francisco for 33 years.
The crowd reaction in the Capitol is typical for Pelosi sightings these days. She made history in 2007 when she became the first woman elected to the powerful post of House speaker, which made her the highest-ranking female elected official ever. But this sharp-tongued grandmother of nine has reached a new level of celebrity stardom amid the 24/7 media circus that is the Trump administration. She has emerged as his staunchest opponent in government.
“Nancy Pelosi is the perfect character in the Donald Trump story,” says Jeff Zucker, CNN chief and WarnerMedia chairman of news and sports. “She knows how to play him better than anyone else.”
Pelosi’s formidable power — as speaker she is second in line to the presidency — is broader than her battles with Trump. She is a beloved figure among many Democrats for her role as a pioneer and strategist in pushing the party forward.
“She stands alone in terms of Democratic, practical, principled, effective leadership,” says Rachel Maddow, host of MSNBC’s liberal-leaning “The Rachel Maddow Show.” “She is just an incredibly, incredibly effective, principled politician who has a track record that you’d stack up against anybody else in Democratic Party politics over the past 50 years.”
In just the past 18 months, Pelosi has led Democrats to victory in the 2018 midterm elections, fought off a challenge from the liberal flank of her party to reclaim the speaker post and waged a five-month war with Trump and his Republican allies over impeachment.
In Washington, Pelosi is everything that Trump is not — an expert in the legislative process, a prodigious fundraiser for fellow members of her party, a believer in what she calls the “noble calling” of public service and a sophisticated dealmaker who understands the art of the compromise. She’s the savvy insider who feels duty-bound as a patriot to battle what she sees as the president’s radical agenda and ethically bankrupt practices.
Adored by many — particularly in Hollywood — and loathed by others, Pelosi has seen her words and deeds become the stuff of a thousand memes.
“I have real problems with this president because he doesn’t tell the truth, he doesn’t honor the Constitution and he’s harming children,” Pelosi says during a lengthy interview with Variety in the Capitol. “My whole message is about children. Anybody who hurts children — I’m a lioness. Watch out.”
Katie McGrath, co-CEO of Bad Robot and former aide to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, sees Pelosi’s prominence as crucial in the realpolitik of the Trump era. McGrath and her husband, filmmaker J.J. Abrams, have been strong supporters of the speaker.
“For her to have the speakership at this moment in history is such a vital balance in the force of what the entire nation is challenged by in this president,” McGrath says. “She’s wildly empathetic, effective and fierce. That’s the greatest definition of a public servant.”
Now Pelosi’s focused on winning back the White House in November, using the same message that scored for Democrats in the midterms as the Super Tuesday primaries accelerate the thinning of the herd. She downplays suggestions that the pack has been too big and unruly in the early going, to the detriment of the eventual Democratic nominee who goes up against Trump in November.
“Hopefully as we winnow down the number of candidates, that big distinction between the two parties will be [evident] there,” Pelosi says. “It has to be. Because our country cannot withstand another four years of Donald Trump. The courts, the press, the environment — everything is …”
|Joe Pugliese for Variety|
Pelosi trails off, and her eyes dart around an office filled with mementos of her personal and professional accomplishments. Then she shifts gears to accentuate the positive, tapping her large brooch that features an American flag and the motto “One Country, One Destiny” (a phrase, she explains, that President Abraham Lincoln had sewn into the lining of his jackets during the Civil War).
“The greatness of America is such that we will withstand what [Trump] has done and move on from that. I feel confident about our ability to do that,” she says.
Longtime friends and colleagues say that with Pelosi, what you see is what you get. She’s warm, charismatic, funny and kind. She’s also relentless when in pursuit of a goal, tough as nails and a fierce negotiator. Away from the House floor, she has a full life as a mother of five, a grandmother and a wife to her husband of 56 years, San Francisco-based real estate developer and investor Paul Pelosi. She also has a passion for entertainment and the performing arts.
The speaker is a big music buff who even took two of her grandsons to see the band Metallica in Central Park in 2016. She often brings her children and grandchildren to Broadway shows and events in D.C.
Pelosi especially enjoyed the 2018 Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” — “I must have watched it 15 times on planes,” she says, expressing her happiness that star Rami Malek won an Oscar last year. She’s a Netflix subscriber who was greatly impressed by “The Crown.” But most of her TV watching is devoted to sports, when she’s not in the stands as a season ticket holder of the San Francisco Giants and the San Francisco 49ers.
“I think the arts will be our salvation as a country,” she says. “It’s a place where people can do something together. Communicate. Laugh. Cry. Be inspired. The poet Shelley once said, ‘The greatest force for moral good is imagination.’ Imagination allows you to put yourself in other people’s shoes so you have an understanding. The arts do that for us. I’ve been saying this for years, but now even more so, the arts will set us free.”
Pelosi is extraordinarily attentive to her friendships and professional relationships, particularly the 218-plus members of the House Democratic Caucus. Most weekends, she gets on a plane to attend a fundraiser or civic event to lend her star power to another House Democrat. When she’s involved with glitzy fundraisers, she always brings a rising Democratic star or two along to give them vital exposure. She has cultivated a network of influential supporters and fans in entertainment.
Damon Lindelof, showrunner and executive producer of HBO’s “Watchmen” and “The Leftovers,” and his wife, Heidi, were impressed by how Pelosi worked a Democratic fundraiser they hosted at their Los Angeles home in February 2017.
“The first thing she did was walk into our kitchen and introduce herself to the caterers and waitstaff and thank them,” Lindelof says. “This was not done for show. It was genuine gratitude.”
Pelosi’s virtuosity with the phone is legendary. When the fate of legislation is on the line, she “robo-calls” members on both sides of the aisle to get a sense of how votes are shaping up. She calls each of her children every night, without fail.
David Zaslav, president-CEO of Discovery Inc. and a close friend of the Pelosis, got a call from the speaker on Jan. 15, the day she signed the articles of impeachment against President Trump. She was phoning to chide Zaslav for not mentioning that his birthday was approaching when they had dinner with a large group a few nights before. “I said, ‘Nancy, you’ve got a lot on your plate. You’ve got to hang up the phone.’ And we talked for 45 minutes,” Zaslav says.
Director-producer James L. Brooks has become a trusted friend of the Pelosi family after getting to know the speaker in 2007, when he was involved with a push for legislation to mandate that health insurers give mental health problems equal weight to physical concerns.
Brooks describes himself as largely “apolitical” and had never been a big donor to Pelosi or other Democrats. But Pelosi met with him and helped guide him through the legislative thicket. “She called me one night from Saudi Arabia when it was midnight her time and she’d just come from dinner with the king,” Brooks recalls. “She was calling me, who she barely knew, to update me on the progress of the bill. It knocked me out.”
Whereas Trump has been largely shunned by the entertainment industry since his election, Pelosi gets a standing ovation at events such as the Kennedy Center Honors and Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammy Awards party, where she is a regular.
Davis observes that at this year’s event, on the heels of the impeachment process, Pelosi got not just a standing but a “roaring ovation.”
|Joe Pugliese for Variety|
Davis has known Pelosi for years, having met her through a mutual friend in San Francisco, Jo Schuman Silver, producer of the city’s long-running “Beach Blanket Babylon” comedy musical revue. Pelosi is a wonderful dinner party guest (“You can put her with anyone — Streisand, Tim Cook, Jay-Z and Beyoncé — and people love her company,” Davis says) but an even better leader.
“I think we’re very fortune to have somebody like Nancy provide the leadership and the plan to get this country back on track again,” Davis says.
That sentiment is shared widely among Democrats in Hollywood.
“Nancy Pelosi is a hero here. She is both the staunchest defender and the most effective advocate for our democratic values and institutions,” says Jennifer Lin, managing partner at the Los Angeles-based political consulting firm Gonring Lin Spahn, which works with a slew of deep-pocketed Hollywood donors. “She works harder than any member on the Hill.”
Pelosi watchers note that the perpetual drama in D.C. has forced her to become a better public speaker. And she has proven a quick study at crafting moments that go viral. Two years running she’s stolen the spotlight from Trump at the State of the Union address by crafting split-second moments that went viral when she knew the TV cameras were trained on her reaction.
In 2019, she gave the president a backhanded clap and an insouciant smirk worthy of a 20-something on Instagram. This year, anger at Trump’s “manifesto of mistruths,” as she put it, and the theatrics he injected into the 75-minute address to the nation drove her to dramatically tear up her copy of the speech as she stood behind him.
“If there was anything that we saw as a weakness in her first term as speaker, it was that she was not adept at the public-speaking role. There were gaffes,” says Cindy Simon Rosenthal, retired director of the University of Oklahoma’s Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center and co-author of the 2010 book “Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics.” “But she’s really mastered that now in a way that completes the package.”
As the leader of the opposition party, Pelosi felt a responsibility to indicate her disapproval of the president’s actions. Friends of hers say she was irate that Trump used Congress as the setting to bestow the Medal of Freedom on conservative radio firebrand Rush Limbaugh. She saw the speech as the formal kickoff of his reelection campaign — complete with chants of “Four more years” from his GOP allies — and she was not going to miss the chance to give America her interpretation of it.
“He used the Congress as the backdrop for a reality television show when he had absolutely no reality in his speech,” she says. The decision to rip up her copy was not impulsive. She was reading ahead and dismayed by page after page of “falsehoods.”
“Suppose I went down to the White House and said, ‘Hi, I brought my staff and we’re going to write a bill sitting on the floor of the Oval Office.’ I mean, really,” she says. “Do your stuff in your office, and let the people make a judgment about whether [individuals] as despicable as the two of you should be giving [and getting] the Medal of Honor in the House chamber.”
As a matter of political strategy, Pelosi is facing scrutiny of House Democrats’ decision to go forward with the impeachment of Trump following the whistleblower’s report last summer that Trump held up military aid to Ukraine for political purposes. Some observers see the process as having backfired on Democrats by encouraging Republicans to rally around the president.
“It’s hard to believe, but because of impeachment, Donald Trump’s ratings actually went up,” says Frank Luntz, veteran pollster and political commentator. “The Democrats did something no one else could have done — they turned Donald Trump into a victim. He may still be angry with her, but [Pelosi] made his current popularity possible.”
Pelosi bristles at the suggestion that partisan concerns played a part in the House’s move to bring articles of impeachment against Trump. It was an issue of enforcing the law and the spirit of the Constitution.
“He gave us no choice,” she says. “He was in such violation. He made Nixon look like a babe in the woods compared to what he did. Violating our Constitution. Undermining our national security and jeopardizing the security and integrity of our elections.”
Pelosi praises the “moral courage” that it took for House Democrats to investigate the Ukraine situation and ultimately make the case that the president crossed legal and ethical lines in the effort to persuade Ukrainian officials to investigate a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter Biden, who had business dealings in the country.
Despite the fact that Senate Republicans (with the exception of Utah’s Mitt Romney) voted to acquit Trump, Pelosi says the case for impeachment laid out by the House is an irrevocable part of Trump’s record.
“He will never be vindicated,” Pelosi says. “He can say all he wants about acquit this or that. He’ll never be vindicated.”
Despite the widening of the partisan divide along with the double whammy of impeachment and an election year, Pelosi has high hopes for getting substantive legislation passed. The need to invest in the nation’s infrastructure is an issue that Trump has campaigned on in the past. In Pelosi’s view, infrastructure goes beyond roads and bridges to include safe-water concerns and the expansion of broadband access — something the entertainment industry is eager to see as the streaming wars ensue.
“At least on the basics of infrastructure, there seems to be some common purpose” with Republicans, Pelosi says. “Now we have to agree on how to pay for it. We could have paid for it instead of giving tax cuts to the richest, because [infrastructure spending] would have brought money back into the system.”
Pelosi points to the passage of the U.S.-Canada-Mexico Trade Agreement, which made it through the House in December and the Senate in January as a sign that Democrats will not be obstructionist to President Trump’s agenda just because it’s an election year.
“People ask me ‘Would you rather pass a bill or have it as an issue in the campaign?’ I’d rather improve the lives of America’s working people,” Pelosi says. “That’s why we did the trade agreement. Many people said to me ‘Don’t you give him that victory.’ Even if [Trump] gets a collateral benefit as we’re giving a big benefit to our workers and farmers, then we’ll do it.”
A generation ago, Pelosi went from the kitchen to Congress — that was one of the slogans she used when she mounted her first electoral run in 1987. There were 23 women among the House’s 435 members when she arrived and only two more in the Senate. Today, as the nation marks the centennial year of women earning the right to vote, the House counts 101 women, and the Senate has 26.
Pelosi was born into a political dynasty — her father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., represented Baltimore in the House for eight years, followed by 12 years as the city’s mayor during his only daughter’s formative years. Her brother, Thomas D’Alesandro III, also served as mayor of Baltimore from 1967-71.
But Pelosi had no ambition to seek elected office. She trained all of her energies on raising her five children — four daughters and one son — in her husband’s hometown of San Francisco.
Nancy Pelosi was, however, active in Democratic politics as a volunteer and a fundraiser, her success at which led her to become chairman of the California Democratic Party in the mid-1980s. When Sala Burton, the previous occupant of San Francisco’s House seat, died in February 1987, Pelosi was pressed to run in a special election to fill the vacancy. She was reluctant — she had firsthand knowledge of the harsh realities of politics — but was persuaded by the sense of obligation to her party and the sense of urgency surrounding the HIV and AIDS crisis at the time.
“My first words on the floor of the House the day I was sworn in were, ‘I’ve come to Congress to find a cure and treatment for HIV and AIDS,’” Pelosi says. “In our community at that time we were so sad. We were having more than one funeral a day.”
The deep satisfaction of being able to generate resources and support for such a devastating crisis was energizing. Pelosi dug into her work on the Appropriations and Intelligence committees. After Al Gore lost the 2000 presidential election, she was frustrated but well positioned to push for an overhaul of Democratic strategy for winning national elections, and she began to move into leadership positions in the House.
When the Democrats reclaimed control of Congress in the 2006 elections, Pelosi cracked the marble ceiling with her historic (and hard fought within the caucus) election as Speaker in January 2007, which she held until the GOP returned to the majority in January 2011.
“I always thought we would have a women president before we would have a [female] Speaker of the House,” she said, noting the importance of the “pecking order” for members to rise through the ranks in Congress.
There’s no doubt among Congressional scholars that Pelosi has earned her place in history as one of the most effective Speakers ever to wield the gavel. The volume of significant legislation passed under her first stint in the job (from from January 2007-January 2011), culminating with the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) in 2010, was unquestionably impressive, says author Rosenthal.
“The scholarly history of her era will treat her very well,” Rosenthal says. “She’s shown herself to be President Trump’s most formidable adversary. She will also go down in history as someone who fought to protect the institution of Congress as a co-equal branch of government.”
Pelosi earned a reputation for being willing to throw a verbal punch or two during the George W. Bush administration. She once said of President Bush in relation to his strategy in Iraq, “The emperor has no clothes,” and later suggested he was incompetent. In a 2006 interview for “60 Minutes,” Lesley Stahl criticized Pelosi for contributing to the erosion of civility in Congress with her statements about Bush and others.
Pelosi didn’t apologize then and she doesn’t apologize now for what she sees as the importance of speaking her mind to America. “In this arena, you’ve got to be ready to take a punch and you’ve got to be ready to throw a punch,” Pelosi said Feb. 9 in a Q&A with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in Washington, D.C.
Popular as she is among Democrats, Pelosi has challenges beyond Trump and the GOP on the horizon. The left wing of House Democrats, embodied by the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman from New York, briefly mounted opposition to her returning to the speaker post last year. Some liberal activists have embraced Shahid Buttar, a Democrat who is running against Pelosi in her district for the second election cycle in a row. In 2018, Buttar commanded 8.5% of the vote in California’s 12th Congressional District, compared with 68.5% for Pelosi.
“We’re not looking to keep Pelosi because there’s a progressive running against her who supports Medicare for All and the Green New Deal among other things,” actor Susan Sarandon tweeted about Buttar on Feb. 22.
|Joe Pugliese for Variety|
Longtime Pelosi supporters say they have no doubt she will remain a strong and effective leader even at a time of restlessness among different flanks of Democrats.
“Speaker Nancy Pelosi has had, at a minimum, hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars spent against her over many decades. Yet she stands stronger than ever — internationally, nationally, locally — in her personal home, and in the United States House of Representatives,” says Cindy Horn, who counts herself and her husband, Walt Disney Studios chief Alan Horn, as friends of the Speaker. “We need Speaker Pelosi’s extraordinary leadership skills now more than ever. And they will undoubtedly prove to transcend political tides for generations to come.”
Pelosi downplays the impact of the strain between liberals and moderates within the party. Ever the pragmatist, she is adamant that the lesson of Democratic victories in 2018 is that the party needs to appeal to mainstream America — voters in Electoral College swing states — to win in November.
The prominence of Ocasio-Cortez and other young lawmakers with bold ideas is “a good thing — it energizes the base,” Pelosi says. “It’s not the way of the Democratic Party to put anybody down. But you can’t do anything for people unless you win.”
Pelosi was strongly considering ending her storied run in Congress after the 2016 presidential election. She was “gutted,” in the words of one source, by Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. She was equally disturbed by the subsequent Republican assault on Obamacare, after she worked so hard to make landmark healthcare reform a reality. Those two events have given her renewed energy for her work in the most trying of times.
The speaker’s tireless work ethic is one of the qualities that people most admire about her. Another factor is her lack of pretension. “There’s no airs about her,” says Brooks. “She’s fun.”
In conversation, Pelosi displays a level of candor and authenticity that is hard to find in politicians, who seem to be perpetually in campaign mode when they come to Hollywood. “Nancy doesn’t treat this town as an ATM,” says an entertainment industry veteran. “She always tries to connect with people on a human level.”
Jim Gianopulos, chairman-CEO of Paramount Pictures, saw that side of Pelosi after he and his wife, Ann, hosted a fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee at his Brentwood home in 2014. Pelosi recruited then-Vice President Joe Biden to attend, which made it a hot ticket for Hollywood donors.
Late that night, after all the pitches and proselytizing was done and the checks had been collected, the Gianopuloses found themselves sitting at their kitchen table with Pelosi, Biden and former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
“We all talked about our families and our backgrounds. We talked about the state of the country and the state of the world,” Gianopulos recalls. “She is an amazing woman. Her effectiveness as a political leader is matched with a wonderful personal kindness.”
Pelosi could have easily retired from Congress in 2017 without compromising her legacy as a political pioneer. But she stayed on for what became the fight of her life out of her love of country and her commitment to progressive ideals. As the 2020 Democratic primaries kick into high gear, she is laser-focused on one big goal: getting a strong Democratic message out and getting voters to the polls on Election Day.
“We have the most dangerous person in the history of our country sitting in the White House,” Pelosi says. “That’s different from what happened in 2016. People thought Hillary would win so they didn’t all turn out. Nobody could possibly think that somebody like Donald Trump could be elected president of the United States. But if you don’t turn out, those who do turn out will call the shots.”
Claudia Eller and Adam B. Vary contributed to this story.