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Why Is Nancy Pelosi Always Smiling?

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Eventually, her colleagues came out to support her, like Senator Bob Graham, who kept meticulous notes of his CIA briefings. But where was Leon Panetta, her old friend from California? He didn’t warn her, says a source. And she should’ve known, she should’ve known everything that was about to happen.

That’s part of why, when it became clear that the scandal was deepening, Pelosi still didn’t really understand that she needed to deal with it—if her pals hadn’t told her she was in trouble, why should she worry? But events were overtaking her. Before one of her press conferences, her staff had to sit her down and explain that this is what the reporters were going to ask about, and she couldn’t believe it. She was in the middle of getting votes to pass her “historic” climate-change legislation, and now everybody wanted to talk about this? What’s wrong with people?

Her office now says she was simply tired of all the repetitive questions. These days, she still thinks she did nothing wrong. “We have to protect the American people, and our founders said we have to do it in a way that honors our Constitution,” she says, an edge coming into her voice. “And they”—the conservatives—“don’t always agree with me on that, so they come after me one way or another.” She shakes her head. “They know it’s a ridiculous charge.”

It is ridiculous, a lot of what Pelosi has to put up with, barely worth noticing, but that’s government for you. Her next fight will be about the war in Afghanistan, which she thinks we should have been talking about years ago: “It’s a tremendous challenge, exacerbated by the fact that there was no plan for eight years—and nobody denies that,” she sputters. “It’s just—just—ridiculous!” So every week, she’s out there, banging the drum for what she thinks is right, like closing the Medicare drug-benefit “doughnut hole” with ancient representative John Dingell—“This is about older Americans,” she says. “And I say that proudly; I don’t want anyone to think I’m talking about anyone else”—or helping to unveil the new Helen Keller statue in the Rotunda (she took the hand of a blind man and guided him to touch it). “It’s a fight,” she tells a group of education advocates, assembled in the basement of the Capitol to give her an award, about her negotiations on education legislation. “You fight to get it to a certain place, and then it’s zeroed out, and you have to fight to split the difference. And you hope for a high split.” Her voice rises. “It shouldn’t even be. I mean, these are priorities”—the eyes are coming out—“that should compete favorably with anything else going on here.” A big smile: “We are, after all, talking about the education of our children!”

So that’s what she’s going for with health care, too, a high split. She’s knows that this is the moment to accomplish a lot of her agenda—and if she loses some of her members in the next election, well, that’s why she built a majority. The progressives are mad that they’re not going to get a robust public option, sure. But she threw in her good name, and she still couldn’t get it. That’s not a reason to revolt. “There’s a good deal of resentment,” says a congressman. “The liberals are going to go through the seven stages of grief.” But Pelosi loves them, and she’s going to make them take their medicine.

In 2012, or 2016, if she loses the House, well, she might go home. Pelosi doesn’t harbor any national ambitions after the Speakership. She’s not going to be walking the halls like Denny Hastert, or protesting with Lynn Woolsey—she’ll be going to the ballet and the opera in San Francisco with her husband. She worries about getting older, about whether she’ll see her grandkids go to high school.

But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun to do a bit more theater. Last week, at the unveiling ceremony for her new health-care bill on the Capitol steps, she smiled away, reminding everybody that they should celebrate this historic day. On the lawn, a knot of protesters kept shouting at her, distracting from her important purpose. “You will burn in hell for this,” one man yelled into his megaphone, over and over.

She tried to ignore him, but finally shot a withering look his way. “Thank you, insurance companies of America,” she declared, smirking a little.

The mask is back on.


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