Pelosi’s Big Day

Suffer the congressional children.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi. Click image to expand.
Nancy Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi concluded her speech marking the start of her tenure as the first female speaker of the House of Representatives with an altar call. She invited all of the children brought by members to come to the well of the House and touch her new gavel. The children swarmed to the front in their sweater vests and velvet dresses. It was a fitting gesture to mark not only a change in congressional power but in the over 200- year tradition of white male leadership. Acknowledging her own children, Pelosi thanked them for giving her the support to “go from the kitchen to the Congress.” At one point Madam Speaker had five grandchildren hanging from her, one an infant, whom it must be said she wielded on her arm with total ease. (Male politicians look so strange when they kiss the obligatory baby; Pelosi looked like she might do tricks with it.)

The children clotted the well and tight space between the desks. Only a few of the dozens of kids were going to get to touch that gavel. The proceedings had to move on, which Pelosi gamely made happen even though her grandchildren were trapped by the other congressional spawn who never got their turn. One grandson took it upon himself to try to restore order in the House by banging on her microphone a few times.

The confused faces of the children as they wandered back to their parents and grandparents couldn’t dampen the day’s festive atmosphere—at least on the Democratic side. In the speaker’s box in the packed gallery sat Pelosi’s honored guests—Richard Gere, Tony Bennett, and several others with excellent skin. On the Republican side there were far fewer children and plenty of empty seats. Members of the new minority sat silent and still.

Before she could take the gavel, Pelosi had to endure a formal roll-call vote. Each of the 435 members called out their choice for speaker. Republicans dutifully called out the name of Ohio congressman John Boehner, the saturnine minority leader. The Democrats celebrated when they called out Pelosi’s name by adding little personal filigrees.

Some, like Mel Watt of North Carolina, turned her name into a little song. * Members of the Maryland delegation mentioned her Baltimore birthplace. Jesse Jackson Jr. nominated her in the name of Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman and “in the name of Jesus Christ.” Others nominated her in the name of the Ohio Buckeyes, the children of Katrina and Darfur, the name of history, womankind, “women who can do anything,” the future, grandchildren, and world peace.

By the time the call was over, Pelosi had heard her name 466 times: once when the member called it out, and then again when the clerk repeated it to record the vote. She had to respond to each of her colleagues’ bits of whimsy with laughter or hugs or mock-surprise laughter. It was exhausting just watching her.

Outgoing Speaker Denny Hastert stood at the back of the room like a bouncer. When the vote tally was announced and Pelosi’s victory was confirmed, he may have clapped as softly as has ever been recorded on C-SPAN cameras. He looked like he was comforting a baby chick.

The new Republican leader, John Boehner, is very smooth. He waded into the applauding Democrats and kissed the new leader. Along the way, he hugged a number of his adversaries. He opened his remarks on just the right note, heralding the historic moment for womankind. Then he was less smooth, using the loaded term “Democrat Party” to refer to the new majority. That’s the political equivalent of toasting your dinner host by calling him fatty.

Pelosi struck a more cordial tone at first. She acknowledged the troops, where Boehner hadn’t at all. She praised Gerald Ford, whose death rites threaten to last longer than his presidency. But then at 2:20, the partisan tension in the room became plain and overt. “The election of 2006 was a call to change—not merely to change the control of Congress, but for a new direction for our country,” Pelosi orated “Nowhere were the American people more clear about the need for a new direction than in Iraq. The American people rejected an open-ended obligation to a war without end.” The Democrats stood and applauded while the Republicans barely flinched—except for the few youngsters on their side who stood to applaud. Their parents hadn’t taught them not to be too polite.

Republicans and Democrats then debated H.R. 5, the first bill of the new session. It will govern the power-sharing arrangements between the minority and majority. They debated it with all the passive-aggressive slaps, false solicitude, and bombast of previous, male-led Congresses. Democrats said their new rules would limit the power of lobbyists and end the House’s 12-year dark age. “Today we end the era of Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay.”

And now it was Republicans’ turn to complain that they were being shut out. “This is a stick in the eye of the new minority,” said Phil Gingrey of Georgia. “The first act is to push down the throats of this institution rules that close off debate and that disallow dissenting voices.” The talking points had been switched so exactly, the Republicans offered to submit a piece of legislation Pelosi had authored when she was in the minority pushing for more rights under GOP rule.

“I understand your pain,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter, the first woman to head the powerful rules committee. “I understand the hurt and I understand that you are not certain we’ll be fair and honest. … We have no time for vindication and revenge. It would be so nice if members would row in the same direction.” Her counterpart in the minority, David Dreier, couldn’t let that stand. “I never said ‘pain’ or ‘hurt,’ ” he interjected passionately. “I said ‘disappointment’ because I am very disappointed.” In another surprising breach of decorum, several of Drier’s hairs fell out of place.

Correction, Jan. 5, 2007: The article originally and incorrectly assigned North Carolina Rep. Mel Watt an s to the end of his name. His name should be spelled without one. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)