A few weeks ago, on a Thursday around noon, Nancy Pelosi whirls through the second floor of the Capitol in a sea-foam pantsuit with lots of gold jangling on her arms. The Speaker of the House, the highest-ranking woman in government and third in line to the president, is about to walk the pink-painted halls of her private chambers to another series of closed-door meetings with the Democratic caucus about the health-care bill. Today, she’s set up a powwow of progressives in one of her conference rooms, and another for the Blue Dogs down the hall, but first she has some smiling to do. The Nancy Pelosi smile, as you may have noticed, is a thing to behold, mostly released in conjunction with serial spasms of eye-widening, an odd tic that is likely meant to connote sincerity and optimism (wide-eyedness and all that). Her smile, too, is very big and very quick, coming out of almost nowhere like the Cheshire Cat’s, then disappearing without a trace, often replaced by a wholly unnecessary grimace, a look of vast disappointment at some slight, threat, or sign of disrespect—either real or imagined.
Smiling, then, is what she does as she whips into the Capitol’s 180-foot Rotunda dome that abuts her office, where a hundred or so nervous high-school pages in ill-fitting blue blazers and gray slacks shuffle their feet under a painting of the surrender of General Burgoyne, waiting for her to catapult into the center of a ceremonial photo. Next, she beelines for her office balcony, the one with a killer view straight down the National Mall to the Washington Monument, where she joins her college interns for another portrait, chatting with each about his hometown: “Puerto Rico? My college roommate was from there! My husband and I went on our honeymoon there!” For the most part, they’re from California, where Pelosi, 69, began to make her home 40 years ago, after a stint in Manhattan and a childhood in Baltimore as the daughter of the mayor. “You’re the one who lives next to Phil,” she squeals, talking to a skinny blonde. “Oh my God, is his houseboat something! I’ve been there—both before and after it sank.”
Then she’s on the House floor, banging the gavel in a monthly moment of silence for the armed forces before making her way out, squeezing shoulders here and there, whispering in a few ears. “Speakers in the past tended to be untouchable people, but Nancy Pelosi is around,” says José Serrano, a congressman from the Bronx. “She’s not hiding. If you disagree with her, she’s there for you to disagree with.” He guffaws a little. “Of course, she doesn’t come around to talk to you about sports or the weather. She’s trying to get something she wants.”
She’s rounding a bend, low green heels tapping away, when, suddenly, a gaggle of nuns appears. Apparently, the U.N. decreed a couple years ago that today is the International Day of Non-Violence, and these tiny women from Mother Teresa’s order, peering out from under white habits with blue trim, want to wish the Speaker “happy peace.”
The House chaplain, Daniel P. Coughlin, steps forward to make introductions. “I told the sisters you are a good Catholic from the Catholic state of Maryland,” he booms, turning to Pelosi.
The smile gets very, very wide. “Oh, yes,” she says, clasping her hands together. “Let me say, I had the joy of hearing Mother Teresa speak in San Francisco at a cathedral. And she sounded like an angel from Heaven—so beautiful. It was very thrilling for all of us.”
“Happy peace, happy peace,” say the nuns.
“Thank you,” says Pelosi, releasing another smile—but then her lips turn down and there’s a flash of slight contempt, as she thinks, perhaps, of the people who stand in the way of peace, and fairness, and all that is good in the world. “Sisters, please pray for us,” she says, eyes widening to the size of over-easy eggs. “Pray for us to do the right thing!”
The way that Pelosi always thinks she knows the right thing to do can be very annoying to a lot of people. To conservatives, she’s the devil: “Mussolini in a skirt,” “Nancy Botox,” a “domestic enemy of the Constitution.” In August, when she and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer wrote a USA Today editorial calling town-hall shouters “un-American” for stifling national debate, a radio host said he’d like to punch her in the face; Joe the Plumber wanted to “beat the living tar” out of her; and Glenn Beck brought out a cardboard cutout of her likeness, then pretended to drink wine alongside it: “I wanted to thank you for having me over here in wine country,” he cackled. “By the way, I put poison in your—no, I look forward to all the policy discussions we’re supposed to have. You know, on health care, energy reform, and the economy. Hey, is that Sean Penn over there?” She’s a high-handed lady who needs to be “put … in her place,” as the National Republican Congressional Committee said when she questioned General McChrystal’s advice on Afghanistan. “It’s really sad. They really don’t understand how inappropriate that is,” Pelosi shot back, smirking a little and trailing a hand in the air. “That language is something I haven’t even heard in decades.”