Nancy Pelosi has been a trailblazer
In the debased discourse of American politics, it’s easy to characterize as “distinguished” the career of any long-serving public official. But the adjective is no exaggeration when applied to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who announced Thursday that she will not seek a leadership role in the Congress that convenes in January.
Pelosi was not only a trailblazer as the first female speaker, she also demonstrated over a 35-year career in Congress exquisite political skills that she deployed to better the lives of her constituents in California and the American people in general.
She has been a fearless leader, facing down critics even in her own party, not to mention the People’s Republic of China. She was unabashed in her disdain for former President Donald Trump — whose State of the Union address she memorably tore up in 2020 — a principled posture that earned her the enmity of the disgraced former president’s devotees.
Cynics can argue that in withdrawing from House leadership Pelosi was making a virtue out of the fact that Democrats will be in the minority in the next Congress. Perhaps she would have sought to remain speaker if her party had maintained its majority, despite her assurances in 2018 that she would step down from leadership by the end of the current Congress.
But the decision not to seek a leadership role might also have been easier in the light of the failure of a red wave to manifest in congressional elections as Republicans and many pundits had expected. Finally, she understandably wants to support her husband, who was brutally attacked in their San Francisco home by a domestic terrorist who had the speaker in his sights.
Whatever the explanation, the decision of the 82-year-old Pelosi to withdraw from leadership marks the end of a momentous career as a leader of her party. It is equally significant that in her valedictory speech she called for transition to “a new generation to lead the Democratic Caucus.”
Although Pelosi showed no signs of age-induced incapacitation, leading congressional Democrats — as well as President Joe Biden, who turns 80 on Nov. 20 — are much older than many of the party’s voters. It’s not ageist to welcome a generational shift in the leadership of either party.
In her speech Thursday, Pelosi noted how the ranks of female Democrats in Congress had expanded during her career. The prominence of women in important positions — from Pelosi to Vice President Kamala Harris to incoming Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, another House member from California — represents profound progress toward equality. Pelosi both promoted and personified that progress.
But in other ways Pelosi stood in the long tradition of public officials for whom the appellation “professional politician” is not a derogatory term. Pelosi came by that vocation partly as a matter of family legacy. In her speech, she recalled visiting Congress when her father, a future mayor of Baltimore, was sworn in as a member of the House.
Whether or not a commitment to politics is a family affair, public servants such as Pelosi who use their mastery of the legislative process to improve the lot of their fellow citizens deserve praise and gratitude, not “populist” putdowns.