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Sunday, November 21, 2021

An American Hero

 Today's New York Times features a long account of how Nancy Pelosi shepherded the current version of the Build Back Better bill through the House of Representatives.  Working with younger progressives and older moderates, and talking one-on-one with Senate roadblock Joe Manchin, she managed first to get the infrastructure bill through, and then to pass a version of the second, larger bill that may well survive the Senate after a couple of changes.  That got me thinking about Pelosi's historical significance and that of her whole generation.

Pelosi, now 81, came--like quite a few prominent Democratic politicians today, and some Republicans--from a political dynasty.  Her father was Thomas d'Alessandro, a long-time mayor of Baltimore, who in the late 1950s had the honor (as I remember) of escorting Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth to a Naval Academy football game during a state visit to the US.  (With a little more research into the Queen's sporting interests, he might have taken her to Pimlico instead!)  Pelosi has been in and around politics all her life.  Like so many women of the Silent generation, she married right out of college and began having children, five in all.  Her family had moved to San Francisco, where she became a leader in Democratic Party politics without running for office.  She was very close to Congressman Phil Burton and Burton's wife Sala, who succeeded Burton after he died in 1982, and Sala Burton annointed Pelosi as her chosen successor to her very safe San Francisco seat when she herself was dying of cancer in 1987. Pelosi won a special election and has held the seat every since, for 34 years.  She became the House minority whip in 2001 after 14 years there, and the minority leader the following year.  It comes as rather a shock to realize that she has been Speaker of the House for only seven years--from 2007 through 2011, and from 2019 until now.  The Republicans have controlled the House for 19 of the 34 years she has served.  She seems likely to step down in another year whether they regain control next November or not.

Amazon.com shows a couple of short biographies of Pelosi and several collections of articles about her, but nothing close to a definitive biography appears to have been written  This is too bad.  No woman has yet held a more powerful position than Speaker of the House, and she must have been an extraordinary politician to reach the party leadership.  The Democratic class of 1974 was one of the largst and ost influential in House history, but she leapt over them all to become the party leader.  More astonishingly, the whole Boom generation never produced a significant member of the House leadership, and the other two top Democrats today, James Clyburn and Steny Hoyer, are also Silents. (Republican House leaders Newt Gingrich and John Boehner, on the other hand, were Boomers, and Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy are from Gen X.) Joe Biden climbed to the top of generational political heap last fall when he became the first Silent to reach the White House, but he is still quite obviously depending on Pelosi to get anything done.  Therein lies a broader historical tale.

The Silent generation (b. 1925-46)--children during the Depression and the Second World War--belong to what Strauss and Howe called the Artist archetype.  Their counterparts from earlier eras were the Compromise generation (including Daniel Webster and especially Henry Clay) from the early Republic and pre-civil war era, and the Progressive generation (b. 1843-1862 or so), which produced Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.  After living through violent times in their childhood, these generations tend to become accommodators and conciliators, wary of the ideologues coming from the next-younger Prophet generation.  The Compromisers prevented the Civil War from breaking out until after their leading figures had passed from the scene, and the Progressives, who dreamed of universal peace during and after the First World War, gave way to the Missionaries who led the nation through the greatest war of all time.  The Silent generation--which also includes Mitch McConnell--have lasted so long at the highest levels of political power partly because they learned their trade when our politics still worked.  The Democratic ones in particular do not let ideology stand in the way of getting something done.  

Pelosi has already been credited by some with the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Barack Obama was reportedly ready to give up on it after Scott Brown's Senate victory in Massachusetts took away the Democrats' supermajority in early 2010, but she insisted on trying to get it through via reconciliation, which worked.  She has now managed a very demanding year of negotiations within her own party to get the Infrastructure and Build Back Better bills through a fractious House.  First she persuaded the Democratic left to allow the infrastructure bill to pass (even though some of its most fervent members insisted on voting against it.)  Now she got enough moderates on board for Build Back Better, and the Times story suggests that she has reached some kind of deal with Manchin as well. (It is not clear, however, that she has been in touch with Kristin Sinema.)  All this amounts to a replay, 171 years later, of Clay's Compromise of 1850.  Sadly, these compromise measures--like that one--will not put an end to the controversies that were, and are, fracturing the nation--but that was not Clay or Pelosi's fault.  It will soon be up to the Boom and Xer generations to show that they can do better than the Transcendentals like Davis and Lincoln and find a way to avoid a new breakup of the country or civil war. 

Pelosi's career has another interesting feature.  She has been subject to sexist attacks for the last 20 years.  Searching amazon for books about her, I also found on the same page ads for a Nancy Pelosi urinal target, a Fuck Nancy Pelosi daily planner, and Nancy Pelosi toilet paper.  Amazon shows no similar products for Donald Trump.  I am sure that Pelosi, like professional women of the GI generation (and yes, there were significant numbers of them), encountered plenty of sexism among fellow Democrats too--but she never makes much of a public issue of it.  This was also the attitude of many successful people from earlier generations about racial and ethnic prejudice: yes, it was there, yes, it was infuriating, but it seemed better not to dignify it by reacting and save one's energy for getting things done.  That has become a most unfashionable attitude in the age of microaggressions, and I hope some younger generation will revive it.


Eric Leuliette said...

During the early part of the pandemic, I read Molly Ball's Pelosi. In the introduction, Ball notes the lack of a definitive biography, and her initial reluctance as a reporter to write the book. While it covers a few key legislative moments, I would hope that we'll eventually see a political scientist or a historian that will put her achievements in detail and context. I've been surprised by the recent lack of solid biographies of legislators. For example, as far as I know, no one has published a definitive biography of Robert Byrd, more than 10 years after his death. I've been curious if publishers believe that there isn't much demand for such biographies or if there isn't an academic interest in writing them.

Energyflow said...

We have had more stability longer than expected as the older generation has remained longer. Various trends in younger circles worry me that fights could break out as maturity seems lacking. Boring leaders are good in this sense therefore. Thinking on this it seems like any field. A knowledge of the depth and talents of the team at national and state level would be invaluable to surmising the future. However massive shifts in midterms at all levels due to economic and social issuues could put politics at opposition to other elites. Dissatisfaction rages all around. Devolution of powers to state levels could perhaps ease the pain. Economic independence with currency, interest rates, social welfare, regulations made locally to allow more competition. Central govt could be arbiter of last resort.