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Why Is Nancy Pelosi Always Smiling?

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President Obama with Speaker Pelosi at a fund-raiser in June.  

In any case, this compromise may have been the plan all along. “There could be a larger Kabuki dance going on here between Reid and Nancy,” says a Democratic congressman. “Nancy staked out the strong public-option position, knowing in advance that Reid would come in her direction, and once she saw his light at the end of the tunnel, she moved closer to him.”

Pelosi’s bill will get diluted later in conference, and who knows how reform might actually play out. As a health-care CEO put it to me, “the only thing that keeps an oncologist out of a patient’s coffin is nails.” But national health care, even a watered-down version—what a legacy.

“Not so fast on that, on the legacy,” says Pelosi, taking a seat in a cream-colored chair in her beautiful office, sun pouring into the room from a high narrow window. She breaks into one of her grins. “I said to Al Gore one time, ‘Your work here will be part of your legacy,’ and he said, ‘Um, is there a message here?’ ” Then the smile is gone, and she begins to frown: Pelosi dislikes the perception of hogging credit, and has even decreed that her staff not use the word I when writing for her. “No,” she says. “This is about the health of our country, diet, the way we live, pursuing a more wholesome path. It’s personal. It’s economic. Imagine what would happen if you could have any job you wanted without worrying about needing health care.” She pauses. “And it won’t be my legacy. It will be everyone’s legacy.” She gives a tight smile. “I don’t even think in terms of legacy.” The eyes pop. “I mean, what?”

Suddenly, a door opens, and a beaming servant zooms to Pelosi’s side, stooping to show her the contents of his platter: a delicate bowl, piled high with two luscious scoops of dark-chocolate ice cream.

She was getting frustrated with the progressives and their whining. “Oh, they want to be sainted,” she likes to say.

She lets out something you’ve never heard from her before, at least not on TV: a tremendously long and high-pitched giggle, like one that would come from a girl about a half-century younger. “Hee-hee-hee-hee,” she goes, pushing her chin to the sky. “Oh, no, Michael,” she says, “I don’t want that now. Later, later!”

Chocolate ice cream is the staple of Pelosi’s diet: She doesn’t cook herself, so except for a salad for lunch and whatever an aide hands her for dinner, that’s what she eats. “I think that’s the first time she’s ever turned it down,” whispers her personal assistant, later. “The other day, she came in at 8:45 a.m. carrying a pint of Häagen-Dazs with an inch left in it—she’d eaten the whole thing on the way in. She handed it off to Michael, and then two hours later, she said, ‘Where’s that ice cream? Can I eat the rest of that?’ ” (At one point, when she mentions to me that she likes artisanal ice cream, I joke, “Oh, elitist ice cream,” and she shoots back: “It’s not elite. It’s not elite. It’s just a small operation.”)

Apparently, this is a serious energy booster, because Pelosi maintains a breakneck schedule, turning in at midnight and rising six hours later. She’s been doing that since she became minority whip in 2001, and even earlier, in the seventies, when she had to get up before her kids to read the New York Times. She takes the stairs in the Capitol, never the elevator, with her security huffing and puffing behind. She doesn’t curse, drink, or smoke. She does the Times crossword puzzle for a couple of hours to get a buzz. When she’s starting to get tired, she calls her grandkids, spending twenty minutes on the phone with a 3-year-old, cooing away in a preverbal trance. “That’s her power nap,” says her assistant.

Unlike in the Senate, the majority rules absolutely in the House, and that suits Pelosi. She may not want to be a queen—when members of the Black Caucus called her that once, she said, with typical regal flourish, “I am not an emperor or a queen, but neither am I a fool”—but in reality, the House is hers to rule. If Pelosi wants to put a member on Ways and Means, she just makes the committee bigger. If a member is upset, she can give him a big office budget. If he’s still not happy and she knows he has an interest in NATO, she can prioritize his access to an airplane and off he goes. This has let her create a leadership style that’s less stick and more carrot. She maintains goodwill by feminine touches like presents of flowers, weekly meetings with freshmen, thank-you notes, calls to associates’ sick family members. “Nancy has a minister’s political skills,” says Majority Whip James Clyburn. “She looks for common ground, seeing and feeling things that most people don’t.”


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