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The Other Other Iron Lady

Denver, Colorado* 

Not that she was waiting on it, but today was the day Nancy Pelosi officially won my respect. I figured there were worse ways to inaugurate my 2008 convention than watching the woman-with-the-gavel opine on the issues of the day--even if the appearance promised a heaping spoonful of saccharine. (The billing in National Journal: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will address the 3,000 women who join in the call to be bold and be (very un-)conventional.) I turned out to be right on both counts.

The saccharine was pretty much unavoidable at an event--really more of a pep rally--motivating women to run for office (a hugely worthy goal, no doubt). The portion I saw began with a woman named Ilana Goldman, the president of the aptly-named Women's Campaign Forum, who was there to advance her "six-part plan for female world domination." She came off as part Dr. Evil, part resident adviser while she walked the audience a series of practical steps ("step 2: get your cell phones out," "step 3: think about who you'll nominate") culminating in drafting a woman-friend into some future campaign.

We were finishing up step 6 ("celebrating--if you believe that women should rule the world") when Pelosi strode in for a conversation with Swanee Hunt, a former Ambassador to Austria. The two settled into a set that looked like something out of the Dick Cavett Show--white arm chairs, white area rug, darkened stage--with Pelosi wearing a lime green pants-suit and Hunt wearing limer green. The Speaker looked totally in her element. She'd spent part of the summer promoting her new book, Know Your Power, and this looked like a crowd eager to know theirs.

It was when Hunt began introducing Pelosi that things turned ominous. Suddenly about a dozen of the gadflies who've been trailing Pelosi around the country descended on the front of the theater and unfurled a pink banner, about three feet high and eight feet wide, that read: IMPEACH. The women chanted various pleas for peace and democracy and (and war crimes prosecutions) generally annoyed the audience. If you really strained, you could hear Hunt bleating "ushers, ushers," in her demure NPR voice. She made several failed attempts at finishing her intro.

Finally Pelosi had enough and just swatted Hunt away--about as fed up with her uselessness as with the protesters. "We are a country and party that values freedom of expression," she said in a token nod to the disruption, then went right about her business, a mix of outtakes from her long road to the speaker's chair and reflection on the importance of putting more women in office. (The ushers eventually regained control of the situation and escorted the protesters out.) "When I went to Congress, there were only 20 women ... and [the men] didn't really ask our opinion about many things," she said. She illustrated the point with a story about a dinner with colleagues during her early House days, in which the men riffed at length on the birth of their children without so much as asking the women for input. ("We thought, surely they will ask us what we think, but it never happened...")

At one point Pelosi groused about how she hates when women say things like, "I was out of it for 10-12 years raising children." "No you were not!" she blared. "You were in it!" She said her own experience raising five children had made her into a formidable executive, organizer, diplomat, peacemaker. She should have added "heckler-slayer." From time to time, a left-over protestor would pop up and rage at Pelosi before being hustled out. The Speaker wouldn't so much as flinch. She'd just raise her voice slightly and keep talking, a ritual you suspect she'd performed hundreds of times as a mother, then hundreds more as a congresswoman.

Watching Pelosi hold forth--the matriarch at home with her brood--you couldn't help feeling she wasn't too broken up over Hillary. Sure she talked about how it wasn't enough to have a female Speaker. ("We want more.") And she dutifully paid homage to Hillary's historic run. ("Aren't we proud of the strong, effective race run by Hillary Clinton?"). But the comment that seemed most revealing was more off-hand. It came when Pelosi injected a note of realism into the generally rah-rah affair. "I don't want to drag you into something you don't want to do," she said of running for office. "This is about power. It's not for the faint of heart."  

Achieving more than just a female Speaker may be the long-term goal. But, for the moment, Nancy Pelosi isn't exactly complaining about being the country's most powerful woman.

*All quotes are from contemporaneous, hand-written notes. They may be off by a word or two here and there.

Update: Prose slightly cleaned up.

--Noam Scheiber