Nancy Pelosi is an extremely effective politician, so it’s a bit odd that some people were so surprised at her authoritative response to the breaching of the Capitol on Jan. 6, footage of which was televised for the first time at a Jan. 6 committee hearing on Thursday.
The video—recorded by documentarian Alexandra Pelosi, the speaker’s daughter—captures the response of congressional leaders as they left the building for a secure location, mobilizing to protect Capitol staff and continuing the business of the day: the certification of the 2020 Electoral College votes that made Joe Biden president. All the while Donald Trump sat mesmerized by the television in the White House dining room. As committee member Jamie Raskin spelled out, referring to Pelosi and her colleagues, “All of them did what President Trump was not doing, what he simply refused to do.” (That the tape came from the speaker’s daughter has sparked a familiar conspiracy theory, if you’re so inclined.)
The footage serves as a reminder that much of the real work of a legislative leader like Pelosi is conducted off screen and on the phone: berating, cajoling, huddling with colleagues, as well as bargaining with opponents. A president needs to look like a forceful leader for the camera, but a speaker of the house must be the real thing behind the scenes. While Pelosi has a reputation for being a somewhat stiff public speaker and a middling communicator with the press—and, particularly among the leftward wing of the party, for peddling outdated politics—what’s much more central to her job is formulating priorities (“We have got to finish the proceedings, or else they will have a complete victory”) and wrangling other public officials to pitch in (“Imagine this was the Pentagon or the White House under siege”). Even if you believe that Pelosi is very, very good at all this, we just don’t often get to see her do it very often.
The committee intercut scenes of Pelosi and Chuck Schumer coping with the crisis with shots of rioters baying for Pelosi to be brought out and delivered to the mob along with Mike Pence. Who knows what they would have done if they’d actually got their hands on either one. Pelosi, like the rest of us, surely didn’t see that chilling footage until later, but she knew the rioters were rampaging through the Capitol, ransacking offices and smearing feces. She was aware that even after most of them were ejected, a tenacious straggler could still be hiding on the premises, capable of violence, and favoring her as his target. She certainly knows how much such people really, really hate her, and that may be the most sincere testimonial to her competence.
These scenes made a fitting finale (if it really is the finale) to the committee’s hearings. Even when the proceedings weren’t especially riveting—much of the most recent session consisted of a review of the previously established narrative of Trump’s complicity—they felt significant, emphatic. Having studied their quarry for months, if not years, the committee’s members learned from Trump the value of repetition. In his slippery memoir of his father-in-law’s administration, Jared Kushner noted that one of Trump’s tenets is that if you say something often enough, people will start to believe it. Why shouldn’t that work as well for the truth as for the Big Lie? And from Trump, too, they surely learned to appreciate the power of television. It was one thing to have read news reports on Jan. 6 and Stop the Steal, and another to actually see the events and the people involved with them, the evidence collected into a persuasive, insistent, and damning narrative.