Everybody is predicting big gains for the Democrats in November. If they succeed in taking the House of Representatives, that means that Nancy Pelosi is in our future. There is a lot about her that is distinctive, notably that she would be the first woman serving as Speaker of the House, which incidentally would put her second, after the vice president, in line for the presidency. Exit Bush and Cheney simultaneously, enter President Nancy Pelosi, oh my God.
It’s true, as she has several times said, that “people” don’t know a great deal about her. Among other things, she serves the San Francisco constituency, which is happily unique. But her background is thoroughly political. Her father, Thomas D’Alesandro, was for many years the mayor of Baltimore, and one of her brothers also, though more briefly, served as mayor. The brief glimpses of Pelosi given on television recently show us one tough lady, but it pays for critics to remind themselves that she was overwhelmingly chosen as minority leader only four years ago. It is good fun to think that colleagues who’d have preferred someone else chose her for fear that otherwise she would train her unsparing eyes on them and hound them to death.
Her directness of speech was a subject Lesley Stahl of CBS’s 60 Minutes elected last week to emphasize, asking just how did she intend to achieve her goal of bringing civility back to Washington given the language she tends to use about Republicans. Pelosi, viewers were reminded, has called her Republican colleagues “immoral” and “corrupt,” suggesting that they were backing a criminal enterprise. Stahl said: “I mean, you’re one of the reasons we have to restore civility in the first place.”
Pelosi raised her eyes in unconcern. ”Well actually, when I called them those names I was being gentle. There are much worse things I could have said about them.”
Now that is a cute forensic technique. It has two effects. The first is to diminish the seriousness of the charges already leveled. The second is to awaken interest in the charges being held back in deference to civility. What are the Republicans actually conspiring to accomplish that is more grievous than the immorality and corruption they are already, according to Ms. Pelosi, bringing in through their criminal enterprise?
Ms. Stahl didn’t ask the Democratic leader what exactly were the graver crimes she might have imputed to the Republicans. She turned instead to the problems raised by the need to associate with criminals: “If you’re Speaker, I’m wondering how you’ll work with [President Bush].” Pelosi had charged that Bush was “an incompetent leader.” Stahl remarks that the mere “sound” of such words is disruptive: “It even stings to hear it now. I mean, obviously, the two of you are bound to get along just great.”
Pelosi gave a fine answer. “You know, we’re professionals.” She repeated herself. “We’re professionals. You could go through a long list of things his [Bush's] surrogates have said about me. I know they have to do what they have to do, and they know I have to do what I have to do. And what I have to do is make a distinction in the public that’s between the Democrats and the Republicans in order to win. This isn’t personal.”
“It sounds personal.”
“This isn’t personal.”
“[You say] he’s incompetent–”
“Well, I think he is.”
“Well that’s personal.”
“Well, I’m sorry, that’s his problem.”
“How does this raise the level of civility?” Stahl is yielding to despair on the point.
“Well, we’re in a political debate here. We didn’t come here to have a tea party together, and toss a coin to see who would win on an issue. I have very thick skin. I don’t care what they say about me.”
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That is a very grand thing – to announce that the woman who may be the next Speaker of the House really doesn’t care what is said about her. People who enter politics have to expect that there will be rough language ahead, used at their expense. It is so, also, for (most) writers and other public figures. But Pelosi is advertising an indifference to necessary elements of democratic life, and this takes her one step further than giving evidence that her skin is thick. It moves the public concern to the meaning of words. If we are trained to attach no meaning to words used by Democrats about Republicans, and the other way around, we debase not merely language, but ideals. If Republicans in Congress are engaged in immoral and corrupt practices, then they should be replaced. Or — things they do should be given other names.
Speaker Pelosi will be heir to an important tradition, exercising an important role. She should not begin with this profession of utter indifference to the language used to describe what she does, and indeed to describe her.