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Triumph of the 'Airhead'

Foes Say New House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi Is a Lightweight. What They Should Know Is That the 'Liberal Dilettante' Is Actually a Savvy Daughter of Baltimore Machine Politics.

January 26, 2003|MARK Z. BARABAK | Mark Z. Barabak covers politics for The Times. He last wrote for the magazine about Republican political consultant Stuart Spencer.

The day Nancy Plosi made history, the day Democrats made her their leader in the House of Representatives, she stepped from the Cannon Caucus Room flashing a high-beam smile that nearly outshone the television floodlights. Congressional leadership elections are normally staid affairs, perfunctory even, but on this November day the atmosphere was buoyant, almost giddy. Dressed in candy-apple red, surrounded mostly by men in black and gray, Pelosi cut through the marbled solemnity like a firecracker ringing in a churchyard.

Democrats were clearly pleased, and not just because they had elevated the California lawmaker to House minority leader, the highest position a woman has ever held in Congress. After a disappointing 2002 election, Pelosi promised that House leaders--and, by extension, the rest of the party--would be tougher in 2004. "Where we can find our common ground, we shall seek it," Pelosi told the media scrum outside the cavernous Caucus Room. "Where we cannot find that common ground, we must stand our ground."

For their part, Republicans were equally thrilled, eager to attack Pelosi as a loopy San Francisco liberal and exploit her city's reputation as the odd-sock drawer of America. Within days, her face--garish and twisted--showed up in an attack ad slamming the Democrat in a Louisiana House race. (He won anyway.) She surfaced as Miss America, complete with tiara, in a spoof on Rush Limbaugh's Web site. "Her views are highly out of step with most of the country," said Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for congressional Republicans--and many in Pelosi's own party agreed.

But those caricatures, facile as they are, overlook perhaps the chief reason for Nancy Pelosi's success. Long before she came to San Francisco, before she had even grown up, she was schooled in the back-scratching politics of Baltimore, trained literally at the knee of a master--her father--who taught that elections are about taking care of people and practicality is more important than ideology.

"Does she have the ability to go beyond representing the left wing of her party? The answer is clearly yes," says Rep. Porter J. Goss, a Florida Republican who has worked closely with Pelosi on sensitive assignments, including the House Ethics Committee and, most recently, a probe into the Sept. 11 attacks. "While it's true she does represent the left wing of the other party, it's equally true that if you say that's all she's going to do, you would be underestimating her badly."

At age 62, Nancy Pelosi is living proof that looks can deceive. If she has "a negative in her political career, it's that she's too attractive," says Agar Jaicks, a Democratic activist who has known Pelosi for close to 30 years. Starting as a volunteer, political hostess and party fund-raiser (she didn't run for office until she was 47), Pelosi has been routinely dismissed, first as a dilettante and then, in Congress, as a legislative lightweight. Her wide brown eyes suggest a perpetual state of wonderment, and, speaking in public, she often falls back on the strained superlatives and canned platitudes that make her sound plastic and superficial.

Her maiden appearance on the Sunday talk-show circuit was so rote that many Democrats cringed. "Does that grin ever go away?" sniped one senior House aide. But there is a cunning that lies just below the artfully arranged surface. San Francisco is a tough political town, far from the liberal monolith that outsiders perceive. It is home to a boisterous, personal and often brutal form of hand-to-hand politicking, which makes it unusual in California and may help explain why so many of the state's political leaders--from Hiram Johnson to Phillip Burton to Dianne Feinstein and, now, Pelosi--have emerged from its roiling cauldron.

"We're a tiny city, 47 square miles, but we're a city of intense national, international and local interests that converge and compete," says David Lee, an activist in San Francisco's large Asian American community. "Every conceivable issue--race, sexual orientation, Taiwan versus mainland China, even Palestinians versus Jews--all get played out here. To get through that and to build a consensus among so many competing interests really takes an unusual amount of talent. And that's why if you can make it politically in San Francisco, you can make it practically anywhere."

But San Francisco is just a part of Pelosi's pedigree, and not the most important. She was born and bred in Baltimore, the daughter of a New Deal congressman and revered mayor who ran a political machine from his brick row house and made his five sons and daughter--"Little Nancy"--part of its operation.

"Our whole lives were politics," Pelosi told an interviewer during her first race for Congress, a special election she squeaked through in 1987. "If you entered the house, it was always campaign time, and if you went into the living room, it was always constituent time."

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