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Why Is Nancy Pelosi Always Smiling?

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The new job was familiar, in fact, though in her telling it had less to do with her father and more to do with her life with her kids. “It felt like an extension of my role as mother,” she says. “From my view, the best thing for my children was for them to live in a world where other children had opportunities, too, where the environment was safe and clean. Back then, there was a tendency for women to minimize what you could bring to the table in intellect and strategic thinking. But men don’t have any secret sauce. So every step of the way, I said to myself, ‘I can do that.’ ” She grins. “And then I knew I could win elections. That’s when I had my breakthrough. I said to myself, ‘You know what? I really know how to do this.’ ”

She crosses her legs. “You know, even being picked as leader of the minority in Congress was a great honor,” she says. “Because they’d never had a woman. Never thought of it. And I’d never have said to someone, ‘Well, isn’t it time we had a woman?’ That would have killed you in terms of votes.”

Pelosi is not thinking about what’s out there, in the hustings. She’s thinking about what’s in the favor file. Votes are what matter. That’s how you keep a majority together. When she asks for members’ votes, she is never strident, telling them what they owe her. (On the other hand, with Paulson and Geithner, she has been known to use some harsh language.) It’s a soft sell in soothing tones—“How are you feeling? How is it looking? Well, you have to vote your conscience,” she’ll say, in almost a whisper. Then she begins to apply pressure behind the scenes. She knows how to get to someone in everyone’s orbit: a wife, a sister, an upper-class donor in the community. This spring, when she heard that new congressman Zack Space, a Greek from a shaky district in Ohio, was balking at voting for the climate-change bill, she quickly got on the phone with powerful donors from prominent Greek-American families, asking them to make a call to him to express their feelings on the subject. Within a day—for whatever reason—he changed his mind.

After all, who brought the new Democratic majority here, may we remind you? Pelosi. She’s the chief fund-raiser of her party: Not only did she personally raise the money for a lot of her members in this Congress, but now she sweats it out every other weekend for the next one, flying commercial to stultifying fund-raisers in Missouri, Wisconsin, Florida, anywhere there is a buck. She’s the best fund-raiser that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has ever had, raising $155 million since 2002, and double the RNCC in September. Each year, she kicks off the party in San Francisco—which, besides being liberal, is rich. “Nancy comes through with candidates for the next election cycle, and you have to give your max contribution to her first,” says a liaison to big donors in the area. That means these donors can only give another maximum payment to the Senate or the national party—not both. “Not everyone wants to do this,” he says. “She makes you.” Money, of course, gives Pelosi an extra dimension of power over her members. “When she helped you to get into office to vote one way and then you don’t,” says a friend, trailing off. “Well, that’s what gets her.”

After all her hard work, she demands loyalty. That’s not too much to ask, is it? And that’s what really upset her about the CIA skirmish last May, what almost became the most damaging moment of her political career. It was such a dirty trick: She’d called for a special truth commission to look at the enhanced interrogation techniques authorized by Bush officials—over the objections from Obama and senators like Harry Reid, who didn’t want to distract from policy priorities—and then word began to circulate, fanned by Republicans, that she too knew about waterboarding as early as September 2002. She immediately denied it, then upped the ante, saying that the CIA had explicitly said that they were not using waterboarding at that time, that they misled Congress. (She did, however, admit that she learned that waterboarding was being used from a staffer in 2003, but didn’t say anything because she felt that it was more important to “change the leadership in Congress and in the White House.”) Then everybody got upset when she basically said the CIA lies, which isn’t exactly a controversial statement, as far as she’s concerned. It was just insane.


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