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Why Is Nancy Pelosi Always Smiling?

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That’s important, because Pelosi is leading the most diverse Democratic caucus in memory, a “great kaleidoscope,” as she likes to call it. This is her Congress: She engineered the strategy for taking back the House in 2006 with Rahm Emanuel, a two-year congressman she tapped to be her deputy, and who likes to call her “mommy.” That was a time of some intense giggling, with the two of them—the fancy lady and the potty-mouthed Rahmbo—so ambitious, so driven, that every possible seat that could be occupied by a Democrat is now occupied by a Democrat, which is an opportunity and a challenge. There’s nowhere to go but down. Forty-nine House Democrats are from districts that McCain carried. Twenty-six of the 35 freshmen Democrats are in seats occupied in the last cycle by Republicans. “I mean, every day she is subjected to constant criticism and griping,” President Obama joked about Pelosi at a DNC fund-raiser in mid-October. “And then there’s the other party.”

The other party is very much outside her bubble, barely noticed. “Nancy really doesn’t care about Republicans, because she doesn’t believe the whole bi-partisan thing exists,” says a close associate. “Her attitude is, ‘God bless their souls, but these people don’t believe in global warming. They just don’t agree with us.’ ” She loves Obama, knows that he’s her best hope. “She has a new source of energy, in wanting this young man to succeed,” says Congressman George Miller, a close friend, a bit gooily. But there have been a few rocks here and there. She was getting upset over the summer, says a source, at the way Obama was pandering to conservatives to secure a bi-partisan bill, though her office says she was more concerned with the lethargy of the finance committee at the time. Don’t waste your time, they are not voting with us, she told him. Did someone tell you they would? The president’s attitude was, well, the Republicans are elected, and we’re elected; let’s all make this work together. Emanuel would get the same earful from her: Does the president not understand the way this game works? He wants to get it done and be loved, and you can’t do both—which does he want?

So, in August, she went back to California to take a breather, at her Napa Valley winery. She hung out with her husband, a handsome guy who performs in musicals and likes breaking into song at cocktail parties, and her grandkids, who call her Mimi. “Do me a favor, elect me,” she likes to say. “Do me two, let me stay at home with my grandkids.” She has eight of them, plus four daughters, including politician-in-training Christine and documentarian Alexandra, and a son in environmental advocacy. David Axelrod came to one of her donor events in Napa with his wife, but Pelosi didn’t let on that she was upset with the president. This is a process, she thought, everything is a process. It’s just like dealing with your kids: Count to ten, calm down, don’t yell at anybody, and they’ll come around eventually.

But then the bubble was penetrated, as happens on rare occasions, and something actually did get to her. At the height of the tea-party movement, she was disturbed by the anger, the hate, the talk of Nazis, a census worker found hanging from a tree. On September 17, during her weekly news conference, she cracked. “We are a free country, and this balance between freedom and safety is one that we have to carefully balance,” she said, her voice starting to shake. “I have concerns about some of the language that is being used, because I saw this myself in the late seventies in San Francisco.” She was thinking of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, and the way their deaths rocked San Francisco politics at the start of her career. “This kind of rhetoric was very frightening,” she said, blinking back tears. “It created a climate in which violence took place.”

It was the first time she had shown emotion in public, let alone nearly cried, and she seems almost ashamed now when I bring it up. “Those things happened 31 years ago,” she says nervously. “I said what I said at the time.” Then she draws herself up in her chair. “But the fact is that in all of these debates, we have to talk about ideas, and where we go from there, and not characterize or personalize experiences,” she declares. A look of vulnerability crosses her face. “Perhaps I got too involved in my own experience when I spoke in that way,” she says, trailing off and peering at the floor. “I don’t know.”


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