Why Is Nancy Pelosi Always Smiling?

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in her office at the Capitol, October 28, 2009.Photo: Marco Grob; Makeup by Ann Miller

A few weeks ago, on a Thursday around noon, Nancy Pelosi whirls through the second floor of the Capitol in a sea-foam pantsuit with lots of gold jangling on her arms. The Speaker of the House, the highest-ranking woman in government and third in line to the president, is about to walk the pink-painted halls of her private chambers to another series of closed-door meetings with the Democratic caucus about the health-care bill. Today, she’s set up a powwow of progressives in one of her conference rooms, and another for the Blue Dogs down the hall, but first she has some smiling to do. The Nancy Pelosi smile, as you may have noticed, is a thing to behold, mostly released in conjunction with serial spasms of eye-widening, an odd tic that is likely meant to connote sincerity and optimism (wide-eyedness and all that). Her smile, too, is very big and very quick, coming out of almost nowhere like the Cheshire Cat’s, then disappearing without a trace, often replaced by a wholly unnecessary grimace, a look of vast disappointment at some slight, threat, or sign of disrespect—either real or imagined.

Smiling, then, is what she does as she whips into the Capitol’s 180-foot Rotunda dome that abuts her office, where a hundred or so nervous high-school pages in ill-fitting blue blazers and gray slacks shuffle their feet under a painting of the surrender of General Burgoyne, waiting for her to catapult into the center of a ceremonial photo. Next, she beelines for her office balcony, the one with a killer view straight down the National Mall to the Washington Monument, where she joins her college interns for another portrait, chatting with each about his hometown: “Puerto Rico? My college roommate was from there! My husband and I went on our honeymoon there!” For the most part, they’re from California, where Pelosi, 69, began to make her home 40 years ago, after a stint in Manhattan and a childhood in Baltimore as the daughter of the mayor. “You’re the one who lives next to Phil,” she squeals, talking to a skinny blonde. “Oh my God, is his houseboat something! I’ve been there—both before and after it sank.”

Then she’s on the House floor, banging the gavel in a monthly moment of silence for the armed forces before making her way out, squeezing shoulders here and there, whispering in a few ears. “Speakers in the past tended to be untouchable people, but Nancy Pelosi is around,” says José Serrano, a congressman from the Bronx. “She’s not hiding. If you disagree with her, she’s there for you to disagree with.” He guffaws a little. “Of course, she doesn’t come around to talk to you about sports or the weather. She’s trying to get something she wants.”

She’s rounding a bend, low green heels tapping away, when, suddenly, a gaggle of nuns appears. Apparently, the U.N. decreed a couple years ago that today is the International Day of Non-Violence, and these tiny women from Mother Teresa’s order, peering out from under white habits with blue trim, want to wish the Speaker “happy peace.”

The House chaplain, Daniel P. Coughlin, steps forward to make introductions. “I told the sisters you are a good Catholic from the Catholic state of Maryland,” he booms, turning to Pelosi.

The smile gets very, very wide. “Oh, yes,” she says, clasping her hands together. “Let me say, I had the joy of hearing Mother Teresa speak in San Francisco at a cathedral. And she sounded like an angel from Heaven—so beautiful. It was very thrilling for all of us.”

“Happy peace, happy peace,” say the nuns.

“Thank you,” says Pelosi, releasing another smile—but then her lips turn down and there’s a flash of slight contempt, as she thinks, perhaps, of the people who stand in the way of peace, and fairness, and all that is good in the world. “Sisters, please pray for us,” she says, eyes widening to the size of over-easy eggs. “Pray for us to do the right thing!”

The way that Pelosi always thinks she knows the right thing to do can be very annoying to a lot of people. To conservatives, she’s the devil: “Mussolini in a skirt,” “Nancy Botox,” a “domestic enemy of the Constitution.” In August, when she and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer wrote a USA Today editorial calling town-hall shouters “un-American” for stifling national debate, a radio host said he’d like to punch her in the face; Joe the Plumber wanted to “beat the living tar” out of her; and Glenn Beck brought out a cardboard cutout of her likeness, then pretended to drink wine alongside it: “I wanted to thank you for having me over here in wine country,” he cackled. “By the way, I put poison in your—no, I look forward to all the policy discussions we’re supposed to have. You know, on health care, energy reform, and the economy. Hey, is that Sean Penn over there?” She’s a high-handed lady who needs to be “put … in her place,” as the National Republican Congressional Committee said when she questioned General McChrystal’s advice on Afghanistan. “It’s really sad. They really don’t understand how inappropriate that is,” Pelosi shot back, smirking a little and trailing a hand in the air. “That language is something I haven’t even heard in decades.”

Photo: (Clockwise from top left) Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

There’s a knee-jerk aspect to much of the criticism of Pelosi, of course, because she is the most powerful woman in U.S. political history—and we know what the problem is with that. But even to liberals, Pelosi can come across as shrill, strident, too rich. Humorless, odd, tone-deaf. She’s a kind of Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, imperious with her power and relishing her ability to attack, dropping bombs like “If people are ripping your face off, you have to rip their faces off.” She’s a talking-points machine, who is by the way not above compromising on principle to protect the old boys, like Charlie Rangel, a castrating San Franciscan shrew who banned smoking in some communal areas of the House and makes everyone in congressional cafeterias eat with biodegradable utensils. It does seem like the more we see of her, the less we like her. Pelosi’s national numbers have begun a queasy drop of some ten to fifteen points, and two weeks ago, a poll of Californians put her approval rating at 34 percent, down from 48 percent in March.

All of which might inspire some worry in a person who was paying attention. But Pelosi, pretty much, isn’t. She doesn’t often watch cable news or follow blogs, and her cell phone of choice is a Motorola Razr. She definitely isn’t watching Fox, and can’t really tell Sean Hannity apart from the other anchors. For the most part, Pelosi is in a bubble, where much of what passes for politics doesn’t penetrate. Her face, the one with the frozen smile, is her mask. She often seems unaware of how it looks. For her, the world consists of her members, her donors, and her family, plus President Obama and Rahm Emanuel, whom she sometimes speaks to several times a day. As far as she’s concerned, anything else, and that includes the press, is a petty distraction from her “historic work,” as she likes to say, before ticking off the accomplishments of Congress on her watch over the last two and a half years: the passage of large increases in college aid and veterans’ health care, raising fuel-efficiency standards and the minimum wage, and ethics reform, not to mention the stimulus, bailout, and a climate-change bill that she masterfully shepherded through the House—where it passed by a margin of one vote.

And then of course there’s health care. Before she unveiled her $894 billion bill last week, she and her liberal allies were playing a game of chicken with the public option—“the robust public option,” in the jargon—for months. The base, the bloggers, the Obamaniacs who have lately been losing a little faith in their hero, wanted their due, having been rolled by the moderates over and over, at least that’s how they felt. The robust public option was not only a policy but a kind of battle flag, and Pelosi was the one carrying it, saying just what they wanted to hear. “A trigger is an excuse for not doing anything,” she said, dismissing out of hand the vaunted Olympia Snowe proposal, and breathed fire at the insurance companies: “It’s almost immoral, what they are doing,” she said. “They are the villains in this.”

But Pelosi has got a House to run, and her progressive friends were not the only ones who had to be taken care of. Out of sight, politics in the House was much squishier, and Pelosi was trying to tell everyone what they wanted to hear while counting votes, which she does with precision. The president was nowhere to be found; “It’s like waiting for Godot over here,” says Representative Anthony Weiner.

The face the public saw was that cartoon liberal—but in the bubble, the story is a little different. Privately, she was getting frustrated with the progressives and their whining and carping. “There they are, posing for holy pictures,” she likes to say. “Oh, they want to be sainted.” Noble aims are one thing, but this goop is quite another. To her, you can stand in the gallery and have a media moment. Or you can come into her office and pass this legislation.

Some of this internal struggle became visible when Harry Reid, after acting milquetoasty all summer, decided that the Senate’s public option should include an opt-out provision for states that, by the standards of the Senate, was robust indeed. Suddenly, Pelosi’s unruly flock became the story, and it became clear how tough it was to be in charge. She’d called an emergency vote count on the robust public option—never a good sign—but the results were inconclusive. She looked, truth be told, a little weak, which, being the first woman in her position, is not her preferred method of presentation. But she’ll do anything to win, and weakness, in this case, might have been good politics. The bill she came out with last week was less robust by a long shot than the one she’d been shilling for all year—but it keeps her moderates and freshmen happy for another day, and still may be the camel’s nose under the tent for a single-payer system (which is, of course, what Pelosi supports: “I’ve been for single payer for 30 years,” she tells me, “and back then we were with signs in the street and all that”). And she’d given the progressives as much as she could, which was commitment almost to the finish line.

President Obama with Speaker Pelosi at a fund-raiser in June.Photo: Official White House photo by Lawrence Jackson

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

Why Is Nancy Pelosi Always Smiling?