Nancy Pelosi Fires Back

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi

She is by no means the only woman of the House. But Nancy Pelosi is the first woman SPEAKER of the House of Representatives . . . a leader for her supporters, and a lightning rod for her critics. Our Cover Story is reported now by Rita Braver:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is all business. Whether it's on her morning walk along the Potomac . . .

"This is where you think about stuff?" Braver asked.

"No, mostly I'm on the phone," Pelosi replied.

. . . or showing off the private balcony outside her Capitol office . . .

"Do you ever let yourself relax, and just do nothing, loaf a little?" asked Braver.

"No. It sounds like a good idea!" she laughed. "I think I may take that up, but not until after the election."

Pelosi has good reason to worry about this election. As the irresistible force who marshaled House Democrats to pass controversial administration policies, including health care, the stimulus package and Wall Street reform, she has become a punching bag for Republicans.

There's even a nationwide "Fire Pelosi" bus tour, starring the head of the Republican Party, Michael Steele ("Let's go win in November because it will be so sweet!").

But when asked how she feels that the head of the RNC is driving around the country in a "Fire Pelosi" bus, Pelsoi responds, "Who cares? I want to get a tow truck and tow it away, just as we had to get a tow truck to pull the economy of our country out of the ditch that the Republicans drove us into."

Pelosi's support for a middle class tax cut, children's issues, and education has made her a hero in some quarters.

But a lot of people really don't like her, seeing her as a free-spending, San Francisco liberal.

Start with those who showed up to see the bus. Scott Thurston called her a "tax-and-spend liberal."

Janet said, "Pelosi is evil."

Wyatt Kenoly said, "I think she's probably the worst American leader since Benedict Arnold."

That's pretty harsh. But according to a recent CBS News poll, only 15-percent of Americans view her favorably, 44 percent unfavorably. And Pelosi is having trouble convincing voters that her party should stay in power:

She told Braver their message this time is "We're fighting for the middle class. We're going forward and we're moving America forward. We're not going back."

But even some Democrats are running ads trying to distance themselves from her:

Yet the speaker is unshakeable:

"In the face of polls, which, you know, seem to show that the Democrats have some very serious problems, pundits predicting that the Democrats will surely lose control of the House, you get indignant where you hear that," Braver said.

"I don't get indignant," Pelosi said. "I just don't believe it."

Pelosi didn't get where she is by being meek. As the first woman Speaker of the House she not only changed the political landscape, but also the furniture in the Speaker's office.

"Before it was very dark place - looked like a men's club," she said. "I guess there was a reason for that!"

But she's well-schooled in the workings of the men's club that once dominated American politics.

Her father, Thomas D'Alesandro, was a Member of Congress and mayor of Baltimore. At age 7 Nancy held the Bible at his swearing in:

"My mother and father had seven children; I was the youngest, and the only girl, so there was that," Pelosi said.

At 16, her dad took her to meet then-Senator John F. Kennedy. She told Braver she still has the dress she wore. "You know, fluff pays off."

In fact, at age 70 Pelosi is a striking combination of both the new and old orders of American politics.

She is the highest female elected official in U.S. history, second in the line of presidential succession, behind the vice-president.

But though active in Democratic politics, she didn't run for office until she was 47 and her 5 children were grown.

Married her to her college sweetheart, wealthy businessman Paul Pelosi, she concentrated on honing her mothering skills.

"There was always coalition building to do around five kids," said her daughter Christine Pelosi. "'What do you want to eat?' 'What movie do you want to see?' 'What activity do you want to do?'"

According christine, it's all come in handy: "Yeah, there's always competing agenda and differences, even among children."

"Who knew that that was training for being Speaker, huh?" asked Braver.

"That's right - multiple caucuses, multiple ideas and backgrounds and talents," said Christine.

Nancy Pelosi says her most treasured job is not Speaker, but grandmother of 8. She proudly shows off two-year-old Isabella at a Washington event, and says her political career is based on making life better for America's children.

But the little ones keep her grounded, too.

"I remember when I was sworn in as Speaker, we had a motorcycle escort to go to mass first and then to the swearing in. And my grandson, who was about five years old at the time, said, 'This is great. This is what I want to be when I grow up.'

"And his mother said, 'You want to be Speaker of the House?'" recalled Pelosi. "He said, 'No, I want to be a motorcycle policeman!'"

Pelosi moved into the leadership after 14 years in Congress. But first she had to break through what she calls the "marble ceiling."

"They were saying things like 'Who said she could run?' Pelosi laughed. "I was like, 'Oh, okay. . . ' And then another one was, 'Why don't you just tell us how you want things to be done, and we'll incorporate some of those ideas.' And I said, 'Well, no, too late for that.'"

In the end, male Congressmen were won over by Pelosi's fundraising and campaign skills.

Here's a startling number: Since 2002 she's raised more than $217 million for Democrats. She's credited with bringing order and discipline to what can be an unruly Democratic side of the aisle.

However, she does seem to be a lightning rod, criticized for everything from her designer suits to her authorized use of government planes.

But she says it's her effectiveness that rankles her critics. And even Michael Steele, a fellow Marylander, seems to agree:

"Oh, I have to give - she's from Baltimore so, you know, we know about effective leadership in the state of Maryland, for sure," Steele said. "I just happen to disagree with the effectiveness of it. But, no, she's been very effective at ramming through an agenda that the American people doesn't want."

He's talking, of course, about health care.

Pelosi said, "We took an idea that was very popular, and if we shoved it down anybody's throat it was the insurance companies'."

"But it's been six months since it's passed," Braver said. "And people haven't started to like it any more."

"It's about even now; I think the polls today show it about even." And, Pelosi said, they'll like it more once they see the benefits - "Once they know."

There, is however, a certain irony in the fact that the health care plan Pelosi considers her crowning achievement could be her party's undoing in November.

But, true to form, Nancy Pelosi is having none of it.

Does she worry that she could end up being just a footnote in history?

"I'm not a footnote; I'm the first woman Speaker of the House and we passed the most comprehensive health insurance reform," Pelosi said. "I didn't come here about me. I came here about policy and the issues. Are you saying, would I rather not have passed the health care bill so I could keep this office? Never. Never," she smiled.

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