By DAVID ROGERS
Just call her Nancy the Navigator.
“I have always loved longitude,” Nancy Pelosi says before breaking into laughter. “I love latitude; it's in the stars. But longitude, it's about time. ... Time and clocks and all the rest of that have always been a fascination for me.”
“The Geographer,” Jan Vermeer's portrait of a Dutch mapmaker staring out a window with a sea chart before him, is a favorite of the House speaker. But mostly, Pelosi is drawn to the explorers of the Age of Discovery -- Balboa, Magellan, Vasco da Gama -- all struggling at sea without an accurate way to measure East-West progress. And she is fascinated by the historic melding of science and politics in the race to find a solution, the modern chronometer -- much as today's world seeks answers such as an electric car battery in the energy debate that now consumes both Pelosi and Congress.
“Whoever makes that discovery, rules,” she says.
Eighteen months after taking power, the California Democrat will need to summon all her own navigation skills for the waters ahead.
She hit the national television circuit Monday with her new book, “Know Your Power: A Message to America's Daughters.” Next month, she'll chair the convention in Denver that will nominate Barack Obama -- “the next president of the United States. I feel very certain of that,” Pelosi says.
From Medicare to housing to the new GI Bill, her Democrats have driven the legislative train more than the White House has in recent months. And even when the Democratic Party gave ground to the White House on terrorism surveillance, Pelosi's credentials were such that Obama felt safer embracing the deal -- after she did so first publicly.
Yet with this success comes new danger -- like explorers lost at sea without longitude. Until now, Pelosi has been perceived as a counterweight to President Bush. But after the Democratic convention in Denver, and going into November, voters will take a closer measure of her performance -- and fairness -- since Democrats could very well be the new ruling party, controlling Congress and the White House in January.
At the same time, the wave of change her party has ridden could come crashing down. The pressures facing the nation -- troubled financial markets, falling housing prices and rising energy and food costs -- are genuinely historic. The next president will inherit a projected deficit of close to $500 billion, and Democrats admit privately that they were caught off guard by the spike in gasoline prices and the hardship it has imposed on middle-income and working-class voters.
With fewer than 20 legislative days before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, the entire appropriations process has largely ground to a halt because of the ham-handed fighting that followed Republican attempts to lift the moratorium on offshore oil and gas exploration. And after promising fairness and open debate, Pelosi has resorted to hard-nosed parliamentary devices that effectively bar any chance for Republicans to offer policy alternatives.
“I'm trying to save the planet; I'm trying to save the planet,” she says impatiently when questioned. “I will not have this debate trivialized by their excuse for their failed policy.”
“I respect the office that I hold,” she says. “And when you win the election, you win the majority, and what is the power of the speaker? To set the agenda, the power of recognition, and I am not giving the gavel away to anyone.”
Let's face it, Washington: This speaker is different. She's the first woman ever to hold the post and a very tough one at that, with a penchant for the mystical.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) promoted futurists such as Alvin Toffler; Pelosi sails the mythical voyages of Italian novelist Umberto Eco. The Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez is such a favorite that Pelosi's staffers joke about what she would do if the Nobel laureate were to call about the Colombian Trade Agreement bottled up in the House. Most recently she has turned to Pope Benedict XVI's “Jesus of Nazareth.”
“It's like reading, but it's also almost a meditation,” she says.
All this from a political leader who only minutes earlier took credit for pulling Bush's “chestnuts out of the fire” after House Republicans deserted the administration on a home mortgage bill. In the same time frame last week, Pelosi strapped her ally, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, over the barrel and then made nice with an old enemy, T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oilman and onetime ally of former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) who famously funded the Swift Boat attacks on Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry in 2004.
“We find our common ground on reducing our dependence on foreign oil, and he is a visionary for the future in terms of wind power,” Pelosi says of Pickens.
“Listen,” she laughs, “I go on the floor of the House every day and deal with people who don't want to give health care to poor little children in America. We're trying to get a job done. This is a giant kaleidoscope. One day you and I are on the same side. The next day it's the two of us against you.”
On the subject of Paulson, she called the Treasury secretary after the housing vote but makes no apologies for insisting on adding community development funds that complicated his task in winning Republican votes. “I quite frankly found it hard to explain to anyone how only 45 Republicans voted for that bill,” she says.
At the same time, Pelosi doesn't rule out some future progress on a Paulson priority, the Colombia trade deal -- whether her hero, Marquez, telephones or not.
“We're always talking back and forth,” she says of the Treasury secretary, a serious environmentalist in his own right and a partner with the speaker on the economic stimulus bill earlier this year. “Colombia is not off the table,” she insists. And although little time remains before the election, Pelosi says that, having raised the issue, Democrats have a responsibility to respond to the Colombian government's efforts to address complaints of labor abuses and the killing of union organizers.
Toward this end, her close ally and House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) has been charged with making an assessment. “Some people are never going to be for it. Don't put me in that category. That's not where I am,” she says of the trade pact. “These things cannot be ignored. If Colombia makes sufficient progress or makes progress -- they're never going to get it all accomplished in any time frame that would facilitate passing a bill.”
Going into the fall, Pelosi is promoting a second economic stimulus bill, which could still be part of the bargaining over Colombia. She says this is not a “quid pro quo” but a situation where, more broadly, Bush must be more aggressive in addressing worker fears, not just about trade but also about immigration.
“I said to the president that I don't think we'll be able to pass a trade bill or an immigration bill unless we have an economic package, a jobs package,” Pelosi says. “I don't think you can have a president who is saying there is no need for a stimulus package. It's not about trade-offs. It's about making it possible for us to do this by giving people confidence that they can have a job.”
Understanding this speaker requires some understanding of the obvious: She is a woman who has risen to the top as an outsider in a male-dominated leadership power structure. Matched against Bush in her first year, she was often treated as a ditz by newspaper editors; The New York Times' Maureen Dowd famously wrote that Pelosi threw “like a girl” when she backed her friend Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) in his failed leadership bid after the 2006 elections.
“He did not win, but my members saw a leader who was loyal,” Pelosi says. “Jack Murtha was two things: He was my associate in the Congress, and he was the leading voice against the war in Iraq. He lost that race. I didn't lose in supporting him. ... If they want to think, ‘Oh, she didn't win that,' that's their problem. It's not mine.”
But Pelosi's gutsiness can at times appear hard-edged, even arrogant. Her book, albeit too precious for some, could prove useful to her in breaking through.
“The goal,” she says, “is to give an answer to people who all over the country say to me, ‘How did you go from the kitchen to the Congress, being a housewife to the House speaker?' And it was just a short little story of that.”
“It's also [that] I'm passionate about the fact that we need many more women in public policy positions, leadership roles and public office,” Pelosi says. “And whether it's that or the academic world or corporate world, they really have to have confidence in the experience that they have, because I know that people will try to trivialize a lot of what women do.”
The title “Know Your Power” comes from advice given to her by former Rep. Lindy Boggs (D-La.). But the most telling sections are about Pelosi's family, her upbringing as the only girl in a Baltimore political family dominated by her five older brothers and a congressman father who took her to her first national convention at 12. In the midst is her mother, also named Nancy, who never went to college herself, had “frequent clashes of will with Daddy” and, when the time came, interceded to allow her daughter to go away to Trinity College in Washington rather than attend a Baltimore school.
“I'm a little of both,” she says of her parents. “I'm my own self. I'm sort of quiet, shy. ... I always have been.”
Quiet and shy?
“Not now,” she says. “But I always was before.”