10 AM. The vaulted Gothic sanctuary of Washington National Cathedral in the nation’s capital. Three thousand mourners attend the funeral of Dorothy Height, a civil rights legend who was the leader of the National Council of Negro Women and a role model for several generations of American women. The event stops traffic in D.C. and is televised live. As political icons past and present gather for the service, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi threads a path through the early arrivals to greet her own role model, former Louisiana congress-woman and ambassador to the Vatican Lindy Boggs. As the two women embrace, Pelosi’s somber face breaks into a smile; then she takes her place of power in the front row. Here is the lineup: President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden, Speaker Pelosi.
The elected officials are seated to reflect the Constitution: Pelosi is second in the line of succession should the president become incapacitated. In the House of Representatives, she’s numero uno, leader of the majority that turns out the bills that become the laws we live by. As the first woman to hold the speakership, Pelosi not only broke through what she calls the Capitol’s marble ceiling but also instantly integrated the Democratic pantheon, joining such mighty male leaders as Texans Sam Rayburn and Jim Wright, Bostonians John McCormack and Tip O’Neill. When President Obama’s health care bill passed in March, becoming the most controversial and far-reaching change in recent times, a major columnist called Pelosi the most powerful woman in American history.
As speaker, she has tamed what one Democratic representative terms the “raucous caucus,” uniting 255 fractious House Democrats—conservative Blue Dogs, moderates, progressives—to pass energy and climate-change bills, two supplementals to fund the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and a $154 billion jobs package. This summer she pulled off the financial-reform bill, wrangling her members into line—only 19 Democrats voted against it, and three Republicans crossed party lines to support it—while her Senate counterparts struggled to find the votes. The bill expands the regulatory powers of the Federal Reserve and creates a consumer—protection bureau; it also gives more power to the Securities and Exchange Commission while limiting the autonomy of the banks. The speaker got what she wanted: everything on the Obama agenda. At a time of Congressional gridlock, Pelosi knows how to turn the lights green. Yes, she has a 77-seat majority. But no, that doesn’t guarantee those votes. Still, she gets them . . . over and over. “Damn it,” complained a Republican after yet another Pelosi-backed bill passed. “Every time she gets the bill to the floor, she gets the job done.”
Her success has also made her a lightning rod. As the representative from San Francisco (a district that includes the hippie haven of Haight-Ashbury and the Castro, the spiritual center of the gay-rights movement), Pelosi is the Far Left Incarnate to conservative Republicans. Talk show host Sean Hannity says she comes from “an extremely safe liberal district where radicalism is popular . . . which suits her agenda, which is radical.” During the 2006 elections, when the likelihood of a Democratic majority in the House ensured that she would ascend to the speakership, Hannity urged listeners of his syndicated radio show to come out and vote for the Republicans, because “there are things in life worth fighting and dying for, and one of ’em is making sure Nancy Pelosi doesn’t become the speaker.” When she won, the GOP discovered a new money magnet. The website firenancypelosi.com, with her image against flames, has raised more than $1.5 million. House Minority Leader John Boehner, who ceded the gavel to her in 2007 with a hug and a kiss, calling the historic moment a “cause for celebration,” last March stood in the well and snarled “Shame on you!” in her direction.