From Churchill to Zelensky…from JFK to Biden. Nancy Pelosi’s multiple attributes include both a strong sense of history and the ability to envelop the day’s events with an appropriate, memorable antecedent.
I had the pleasure of watching her final weekly press conference as Speaker last Thursday morning. (The complete transcript is here.)
The reporters were eager to hear about the progress of the omnibus spending bill that would keep government functioning through next September.
The Speaker wanted to talk about President Zelensky’s speech to a special joint session of Congress the night before. As soon as she could confirm that Zelensky would be there, she’d swung into action and invited the members of both legislative chambers to hear him.
Opening this last press conference with a historical bookmark related to President Zelensky’s stirring speech, she pointed to a photograph that she shows each year when the House commemorates Winston Churchill’s November 30th birthday. (Who knew?)
The photo captured Churchill’s visit to Congress one day after Christmas in 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Churchill had come to the US, just as Zelensky had, seeking aid and collaboration.
In the middle of that photo, Pelosi pointed to her father, Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr, a member of Congress from Maryland.
“And so it always was a source of pride to me that my father was there that day, and now a source of pride that I could be there to hear another heroic leader of a country at war come ask for help.
“When Winston Churchill came, what he said – now think of this and think of last night – he said, ‘We are doing the noblest task in the world – not only defending our hearths and homes, but the cause of freedom in every land.’
“So much the theme, so much the common purpose of President Zelenskyy… I’m so proud of this. And when I wrote to the Members about coming, I said, ‘I take great pride in the fact that my father was there for that. I hope that your children will take pride in the fact that you will be present for President Zelenskyy.’ (emphases mine throughout)
She expressed delight that there had been such a strong bipartisan turnout to hear and honor Zelensky, despite the short notice due to the logistics involved.
The Speaker then turned to the “focus on Democracy here at home,” with the release of the January 6th Committee’s Report. After thanking everyone involved, she noted this irony:
“The 117th Congress began with a violent assault on our Democracy, and now we hear its conclusions. We have a vital roadmap in ensuring justice will be done and that this won’t happen again.”
Packing a whole lot into not much time, she discussed the omnibus spending bill that the press corps was waiting to hear about—she even sandwiched in a short civics lesson about the reconciliation process between House and Senate bills:
“The Rules Committee needs an hour’s notice, and then we hope that it would not be a long Rules meeting. Hopefully, we could get expedited procedure in that hour of notice and that we could just move this even more quickly.
“When you do the bill, just so you know this, because I’m an appropriator and I take great pride in the work of appropriators, after you have the bill – so we have a bill, okay. Now, they may amend it and we’ll see what happens. But when you have the bill, you sit side by side and read everything in it, so that it is – what is being written in the parchment is exactly what is the bill. That takes a long time for thousands of pages.
“Then, when that was finished and we get the signal from the Senate that they want us to send the bill, you go to the Senate Floor. And it’s a beautiful thing. You go over to the Senate and you take section, by section, by section, by section, House and Senate. Not as long as reading every word, but confirming the sections…
“So all that is done now. It’s just a question of the amendments. You know what many of them are. Probably fifteen. Maybe four to six have a chance to be passed. Other compromises made. And it’s just a question of how long people decide to talk on the Floor.”
Pelosi then praised the members of the press corps:
“And some of you have been covering Congress for a long time. Others are new. All of you are Guardians of Democracy.
“You’ve heard me say again and again, if there were one freedom in the First Amendment, the freedom of the press, that would be the one that protects and defends all the other freedoms.
“Our Founders knew that freedom of the press is foundational to government of, by and for the people: informing the public about the work done in their name – in this case, here. As you know, I admire your public service.”
Asked whether she’d spoken with possible incoming Speaker Kevin McCarthy and what advice she’d give him, she said:
‘Well, I don’t think anybody needs any advice from anybody. You’ve heard me say even about our own distinguished Leadership, I’m not going to be the mother‑in‑law who comes in and says, ‘This is the way my son likes his turkey stuffing, his scrambled eggs,’ or anything else.”
She was polite and not at all snarky, simply expressing the hope that the Republicans will enable the House to get down to the important business it must do beginning January 3.
When a reporter asked how she’ll transition to her new role as just a member of Congress, she said:
“Here’s the thing. As Speaker of the House, I have awesome power.
“As a – now transitioning to a different role, I expect to have strong influence, but not on my Members, just in terms of encouraging more women, for example, to run, to talk about civics and how we have to – it used to be a requirement when I was little, a hundred years ago, but now it’s an elective and most people are not familiar. So I’ll have to see what that path is.
“But the Speaker of the House is a very big job, and just wrapping it up will take time, with the Library of Congress for the papers, with the Historian of the Capitol – of the Congress – in terms of interviews and the rest of that.
‘And… I think that probably the most overwhelming thing I’ll be doing forever is saying thank you. Thank you to my Members. Thank you to the intellectual resources that have helped us with policy. Thank you for those who have helped us politically to attain our Majorities and our strength in the Congress.
“I think my life will be about accountability to the record, the history, and thank you to those who made all of that possible.“
Then, as the questioner had noted that her family had known President Kennedy, she lent the final bookmark to this final press conference, bringing everything neatly together for the historical record.
“You mentioned John F. Kennedy. I’ll close with this. You’ve heard me say it many times. I’ll say it now again, because it identified with what President Biden has been doing.
“When I was in school, I went to President Kennedy’s Inauguration on the East Front, freezing cold, freezing cold. The whole world, every child in America knows that, in that speech, he said to the citizens of America: ‘Ask not what our country can do for you, but what you can do for our country.’ You’ve said it. I see you all mouthing it.
“The very next sentence is what struck me, the very next sentence.
“‘To the citizens of the world, ask not what America can do for you, but what we can do working together for the freedom of mankind.’
“That’s what President Kennedy said. Not condescension, not doing something for, but working together.
“And I’ve said this to President Biden, and I said it at the Saint Patrick’s Day lunch, because that’s a, you know, Kennedy connection there. I said to President Biden, ‘You have fulfilled in so many ways what President Kennedy was signaling, working together with all of the countries to come together to support Ukraine, not by dictating what we think is the way to go, but to listening, working together, so that everybody felt committed to a plan for the freedom of mankind.’
“And that’s how I tie being there as my father’s daughter at the Inauguration to what happened this week and what our responsibilities are later.
“But I – my goal and my wish is that the Members, our new Leadership in the House, based on the foundation that we have laid or forming their own approach, will do even better than the significant legislative successes that I have had as Speaker of the House.
“Thank you all. Happy holidays. Merry Christmas. Happy Kwanzaa. Happy Hanukkah. Whatever you celebrate, enjoy your families.”
When Pelosi discussed the process of coordinating the House and Senate to bring forth the omnibus spending bill, which includes the all-important fix to the Electoral Count Act, she shed light on the messy, tiresome aspects of governing. Yet to her, that process is “a beautiful thing.”
For more than twenty years, she’s been the leader of the House—as either Speaker or Minority Leader—under both Democratic and Republican Presidents. As that era ends, Nancy Pelosi stressed that in addition to making all her papers available for posterity and representing the people of her district, she will be exploring new paths to encourage young women in politics and to enhance national literacy in civics.
Nancy Pelosi is not done yet, but this woman who’s been vilified by the opposition—who’s been depicted as so evil that a conspiracy-fueled zealot brutally attacked her husband—has never wavered in her devotion to this country.
She may be remembered best for her role in ensuring the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which President Obama has said he could not have done without her, and for her wise decisions—both politically and substantively—in creating the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol.
John Boehner, her Republican opponent in more civil times, had said of her: “…no other speaker of the House in modern era–Republican or Democrat–has wielded the gavel with such authority or such consistent results.”
Nancy Pelosi has already demonstrated that her legacy will be “a beautiful thing.” And I thank her— “who made all of that possible.”