The little old Italian lady who is devouring Donald Trump like a plate of scungilli grew up in a three-storey brick house on Albemarle Street in Baltimore under the eyes of George Washington, an immensely popular father, six brothers and a mother whose old-country name of Annunciata recalled God’s message to Joseph proclaiming the virgin conception of the Christ.
“Nancy” was a top-10 choice for baby girls back when Annunciata’s only daughter was christened—it was March of 1940, 20 months before Pearl Harbor. This was the epoch that gave us Nancy Reagan, Nancy Sinatra, the jazz singer Nancy Wilson, the Nancy and Sluggo comic strip and the teen detective Nancy Drew. But the name’s lustre faded so completely in later decades that you almost never hear of a Nancy now.
Except for one—Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro Pelosi, reborn to ultimate legislative power last month at the age of 78 as the first, second and only female Speaker in the 230-year history of the U.S. House of Representatives. As the wily and insuperable imperatrix of the Democratic Party, and as the defender of her throne against any and all pretenders, she now stands as a repository of so much constitutional authority and art-of-the-deal savvy that when Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader of the Senate, was invited to the White House last month for a man-to-man discussion about a wall along the Mexican border, Schumer’s smackdown RSVP to Trump was “Not without Nancy.”
For more than 35 years, through the rise and retreat of six male presidents, and now, in her emasculation of President Trump through January’s partial government shutdown; through the spat over the petulant president’s State of the Union address; and through the Donald’s feeble surrender (as of press time) on the Huge Wall of Mexico, the little old lady from Albemarle Street has been in the room where it happens and a burr in the Republican saddle.
“In districts around the country, including in California, Pelosi is easily the most unpopular national figure of any political party,” an official of the National Republican Congressional Campaign sneered last summer. “Associating her with Democratic candidates makes them radioactive,” he went on. Last March, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that only 21 per cent of adults viewed Pelosi positively, while 43 per cent gave a thumbs-down. In the mid-term elections of 2018, she was so toxic that her party picked up only 40 seats.
Married since the Kennedy administration to a San Francisco venture capitalist and real estate zillionaire—she left Baltimore after their marriage and never looked back—Pelosi has represented the City by the Bay in Congress since the 49ers were winning Super Bowls and the Golden State Warriors were an 11th-place team. If Trump is impeached by Pelosi’s House and convicted in the Senate, and if President Mike Pence then—perish the thought—perishes, Pelosi will become the first woman president, and how do you like that, Kamala and Liz and Amy and Tulsi and Kirsten, and you too, Hillary?
“For our daughters and granddaughters, we have broken the marble ceiling,” Pelosi said in 2007, when she first claimed the Speaker’s echoing gavel as the monarch of the Democratic majority. Now, again, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, she lifts it with mallets toward none—except, perhaps, the president with whom she toys.
“So it’s too bad with Nancy Pelosi what she’s done,” young President Trump, who is six years newer than the Speaker, railed during the shutdown standoff. “It’s radical Democrats. They’ve become a radicalized party. I think that Chuck Schumer sadly is dominated by the radical left and he’s dominated by Nancy Pelosi: very strongly dominated, he can’t move, he’s a puppet, he’s a puppet for Nancy Pelosi, if you can believe that.”
“It’s a manhood thing for him,” Pelosi succinctly countered, spearing the president where it hurts.
“Nancy Pelosi, who I call Nancy,” Trump sputtered, unable to fabricate a moniker to diminish a woman who, publicly at least, doesn’t cavil, doesn’t run low on energy, and doesn’t lie. Pelosi may be filthy rich, but her long career has been clean of any major scandal.
“You’re somebody that gets things done, better than anybody,” Trump told her, conversely, on victory night (for the Democrats) last November. But long before Pelosi would emerge as Trump’s bête blanche, she was a natural-born citizen of this cunning tribe of savage politicos.
Here is the visual proof: In the front bar of a restaurant called Germano’s Piattini, just around the corner from that brick house on Albemarle Street, a large oil painting is displayed. A seven-year-old girl in white shoes and a white dress with a white ribbon in her hair tenderly clasps her father’s hand while he gazes over her shoulder at his proud Annunciata and their beaming sons and the portrait of General Washington that hangs above their mantel. The canvas is entitled “VICTORY NIGHT—May 6, 1947.” The father is Big Tommy D’Alesandro, a five-term member of Congress and former state delegate and city councillor who, in 1947, had just been elected mayor of Baltimore. The little princess in white is the future Speaker of the U.S. House.
One of the boys in the picture—known, of course, as Little Tommy—also would win the Baltimore mayoralty, but his only term would be reduced to ashes by the rioting that followed the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. In still-segregated Baltimore, as the destruction in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray proved in 2015, the flames of African-American poverty and despair never have been extinguished.
Then there are the abandoned houses, the burnt-out ghosts of Charm City—more than 16,000 of them in the last official count. Baltimore’s descent, as much as precious San Francisco’s elevation (and its legions of homeless people, and its egregious income disparities), is the legacy of Big Tommy and his little Nancy and the Democrats whom she now rules down in the district. Baltimore has had one Republican mayor in the past 75 years; Frisco, none since the 1960s. What has the party of Pelosi done for all of America’s urban wastelands, all of her wasted lives?
The story is told of Big Tommy that he once learned that Little Italy had gone for one of his allies on election night by a count of 450 to one. (This is the atmosphere that his Nancy inhaled from the day she was born—counting votes, courting allies, countering rivals, crushing the other team.)
“We’re going to find out who that one is,” Tommy D’Alesandro said.
When she exits the Speaker’s office and makes a right turn toward the House where her father served during times much worse than these, Pelosi first passes through Statuary Hall, where she meets the unblinking marble stares of 36 dead men, Rosa Parks and a 19th-century temperance crusader named Frances Willard, whose pedestal laments that “Ah, it is women who have given the costliest hostages to fortune, into the battle of life they have sent their best beloved with fearful odds against them.”
Down the corridor, closer to the hushed, plush Speaker’s Lobby, with its effigies of the men who ruled Congress before the girl in the white ribbon arrived, is a striding bronze of the Oklahoma rope twirler and philosopher Will Rogers. It was Rogers who famously declared that he never met a man he didn’t like, but who also noted that “Money and women are the most sought after and the least known-about of any two things we have.”
In January, a Maclean’s correspondent interviewed several members of Pelosi’s Democratic caucus. This was less than a month after Pelosi, supposedly too (a) aged and (b) Caucasian to retain the Speakership, outfoxed the members of a cabal that was working to oust her by pledging to step down in 2023, may we all live so long. Madame Speaker may be 49 years and six months older than the Insta-celebrity Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but the brash rookie from the Bronx, after voicing her perfervid opposition to the little old Italian, voted for Pelosi anyway.
One of the congresswomen who has worked alongside Pelosi the longest is Jan Schakowsky, who has represented the northern suburbs of Chicago since 1999. “When we were doing the Affordable Care Act in 2009,” Schakowsky remembered, “Nancy Pelosi told our members that if we are able to bring health care to the American people and we lose the next election, I will be happy.”
They did, they did, and she wasn’t. The annunciation of the Tea Partiers in 2010 cast Pelosi into the wilderness as the mere minority leader during the rest of the Barack Obama presidency. But she did not resign—as she probably would have in a parliamentary system such as Canada’s—and no other Democrat has been able to dethrone her, though several have tried. Back in Frisco, she somehow kept squeaking back into Congress, Big Tommy style, with only 89 per cent of the vote.
“She raised millions and millions of dollars to bring us back into the majority,” Schakowsky said of those years in opposition. “She continued to battle and now she is very gratified to have the gavel back. She knows every rule, every procedure. Donald Trump really does not know how to deal with a strong woman and he’s met his match in her.”
“It’s not a fair fight,” said Kate Hill, a freshman from the suburbs of Los Angeles. “I don’t think Trump is fully aware what he’s up against.” But she cautions that framing the debate as being between Trump and Pelosi is inaccurate: “She represents the American people. He represents a smaller and smaller minority of people.”
There still are a handful of men on the Democratic roster. One of them is the loquacious Gerry Connolly, a six-termer and amateur actor from Virginia, age 68. Connolly says that Trump “ought to be afraid . . . very afraid. I think that she is showing the wisdom of our keeping her as our Speaker. She’s in her element, upholding the equality of the legislative branch of government. He’s down for the count.”
“Nancy Pelosi has behaved so irrationally & has gone so far to the left that she has now officially become a Radical Democrat,” flailed Trump on Twitter. “She is so petrified of the ‘lefties’ in her party that she has lost control. And by the way, clean up the streets in San Francisco, they are disgusting!”
Pelosi, mother of five and grandmother of nine, takes questions from reporters at least once a week and sometimes several times in a single day. Under the intense studio lighting, she is a small, composed figure with tightened skin, perfect hair, simple yet elegant couture and understated jewellery. She is, in these situations, fond of using the phrase “the American people” over and over again. Her position on the president’s future, she has told us multiple times, is impeachment if necessary, but not necessarily impeachment. The House will decide the matter, but Pelosi will decide the House.
During the shutdown, Pelosi appeared with delegations of furloughed janitors, idled clerks and unpaid food-service workers. She used the words “evidence-based, cost-effective, values-respecting” to describe her parameters for a solution to the calamity of the 60,000 women and children who are being lied to and led to the deadly desert gateways of the United States every month. Federal employees, she told us one day in January, “will not be hostages to the president’s applause line in a campaign speech.”
Out in Statuary Hall that day, Rep. Steve Scalise, Republican of Louisiana, was being interviewed on television. This was when Pelosi was refusing to budge in her pledge not to appropriate a single centavo for the Trumpian wall.
“She’s got to agree to something,” the Republican plaintively wailed.
Then came the farce of the president annulling Speaker Pelosi’s trip to Afghanistan while the bus that was to carry her and 32 other congressmen to the airport was already idling outside the Capitol.
“Why would Nancy Pelosi leave the country with other Democrats on a seven-day excursion when 800,000 great people are not getting paid,” Trump tweeted.
“The taxpayers are sending congressmen on expensive trips abroad,” observed Will Rogers circa 1932. “It might be worth it except they keep coming back!”
There aren’t so many little Italians left in Baltimore’s Little Italy these days—it’s mostly just a collection of trattorias now, with a couple of ethnic festivals every year and a bocce court in a little park that is named for Big Tommy D. But here is a guy named Jimmy Pompa, whose grandfather bought his own row house on Albemarle Street from Speaker Pelosi’s grandfather back in the day.
The difference between the two descendants is that Pelosi, in Pompa’s words, “married a guy with more money than Trump” and moved to San Francisco, while Jimmy spent his life delivering truckloads of Budweiser around town and never left.
Not everyone a wanderer meets in Little Italy is enamoured of the girl in the white ribbon. “She was a snob,” says an elderly woman outside the parish church of St. Leo the Great. “She never associated with any of us,” whispers an 85-year-old dowager. But that was Big Tommy’s doing—he cloistered his best-beloved at an all-girls school down the block, then forbade her to be educated any farther away than Washington, D.C., where she attended a Roman Catholic college.
“People really love Baltimore, but we have a bad reputation with the murders and the drugs, and all that stems from one part of town,” Pompa says. “We average a murder a day and every one of them is a young black child under 25 and it’s all gang-related except once in a while someone gets hit by mistake. And we had a problem with our police, they were so corrupt, stealing from drug dealers, taking their money. But if you stay in the good parts of Baltimore, it’s great.”
The street where he is standing has been designated Via Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi, and the country where he is living has never known a more powerful and more polarizing woman in the two and a half centuries since it rid itself of kings and queens. “I used to drive tourists to restaurants from their hotels,” Pompa says. “When I told people that I grew up on the same street as Nancy Pelosi, they’d say, ‘Don’t ruin my appetite.’ And I’m like, ‘It’s okay if you don’t like her—she went pretty far for a Baltimore city girl.’ ”