To look weak in public, well, that’s Pelosi’s worst nightmare. Hillary might cry to boost her poll numbers, but a powerful woman nearing 70 always keeps a stiff upper lip, never showing more emotion than Maggie Thatcher. And, in a way, it works for Pelosi, having the world see only the hard shell, thinking she’s an archetypal female monster with a pasted-on smile. The smile is meant to balance out her aggressive rhetoric, to calm men down, to seem less threatening (it doesn’t work, of course); but it is also a way of shutting people out of her true emotions, who she really is. But that’s okay—she is willing to have people not understand her. If need be, she’s willing to be hated. Not caring makes Pelosi powerful. She’ll listen to her poll numbers from her staff, but she doesn’t really process them. “I’ll take the hit,” she likes to say, waving a hand. “I’ll take the hit.”
In the bubble, she’s who she is: a noodgy, content golden-ager who has remained young at heart. In person, she’s attractive, the monster’s odd doppelgänger: One of her biographers, Vincent Bzdek, says that every male legislator he interviewed for his book Woman of the House commented on her good looks, without prompting. She’s not often a diva, not a screamer. “Nancy is about forward momentum, never looking back, never thinking about the past,” says a friend. “If you try to talk to her about regrets, she just looks at you and says, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ ” It’s much more fun to giggle, especially with Obama. A photograph of the two of them sits on a mantel in her office, his birthday present for her 69th. In it, he has on his resolute Mount Rushmore face, but she is smiling, and not with her bug-eyed, automaton smile—he picked a picture with the chocolate-ice-cream smile.
After all, for Pelosi, vote counting is something you do with people you love. She’s the seventh child and only daughter of Thomas “Big Tommy” D’Alesandro Jr., a slick dresser who wore diamond rings on each of his pinkies and began representing Little Italy in Maryland’s House of Delegates at 22, followed by five terms in Congress and three as Baltimore’s mayor. (When asked about his rival in one election, D’Alesandro said, “I don’t know [who he is], but it’s some no-good son of a bitch, that’s all I can tell you.”) Nancy’s childhood home functioned as D’Alesandro’s auxiliary office, with a portrait of FDR in the living room, copies of The Congressional Record stored under her bed, and an open door for constituents searching for jobs, permits, stop signs. The kids manned the front desk, Mom stirred a pot of stew for the hungry, and the blessings that constituents received were written on index cards, then organized into a “favor file.”
For the most part, Pelosi is in a bubble, where much of what passes for politics doesn’t penetrate
After graduating from Trinity College, a girls’ school in D.C., Pelosi married a financier, with whom she then moved to Manhattan—“I love the way the adrenaline just comes up through the ground in New York,” she says—and then San Francisco, when her husband was offered a job at a bank that was lending to tech companies beginning to spring up in Silicon Valley. She began to host Democratic fund-raisers in her home to meet the new community. “Moving to San Francisco at that time, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for her to trip, but she’s as straight as can be,” says Marc Sandalow, author of Madam Speaker, another biography of Pelosi. Jerry Brown, a high-school acquaintance of her husband’s, needed help running against Jimmy Carter in the 1976 primaries, and Pelosi offered to set him up in Maryland. He carried the state, and she was awarded a seat on the Democratic National Committee for her efforts, quickly rising through the ranks by formidable fund-raising skills and helping to organize the 1984 convention in San Francisco. She ran for national party chairman, but withdrew when she realized that she didn’t have the votes. It’s the only election she hasn’t won in her political career. “People tell me that I was the best-qualified candidate,” she grumbled at the time. “But some of them tell me it’s too bad that I’m not a man.”
But being a woman soon became an advantage. In 1983, Representative Phillip Burton, an architect of the city’s powerful coalition of blacks, environmentalists, gays, and working-class voters, died suddenly of heart failure. He was replaced by his widow, Sala, who soon fell ill with colon cancer, but tapped Pelosi before she died. In the election, Pelosi was a complicated symbol for some feminists—she was demeaned by opponents as a rich mom, a dilettante, a Pacific Heights party girl, and they weren’t sure she wasn’t—but squeaked by in the primary by 3 points. “But Nancy wasn’t a plum picked off a political tree just because someone died, and came to Washington to figure it out,” says Representative Anna Eshoo, a close friend. “Nancy knew who, she knew how.”