For the presidents under whom Nancy Pelosi served as Speaker of the House, it was her work that made their legacies possible. She isn’t just the most consequential and accomplished speaker in American history. Presidents come and go, and she has been a partner with them all, Republican and Democrat alike (except for Donald Trump who is too self-focused and belligerent to understand how to work with her). But in every other case, including both of the Bush presidencies as well as Clinton, Obama and most recently Biden, Speaker Pelosi made each of them more successful and effective. The sum of her career achievements and impact on the process of government is greater than any single one of the presidents with whom she worked. The extent to which they worked with her and heeded her advice made them more effective. Their legacy was made possible by her legislative skills.
The good news is she will stay with us, teaching and mentoring the next generation of Democratic leaders. And of course, being an active member of Congress.
It was striking to observe the leadership dramas that played out in the Capitol last Thursday. Nothing illustrated the differences between the two parties more.
Speaker Pelosi made an emotional, graceful, insightful, and inspirational statement to her colleagues and to America about her decision to step aside from a formal leadership role. She made it clear she would continue to fight for her constituents and her agenda but do so as a member of Congress with the stature and respect earned by her unprecedented accomplishments as Speaker. Her statement along with announcements from Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) cleared the way for an orderly transition to a new generation of leadership while continuing to respect and embrace all three powerful leaders for their accomplishments and future contributions.
It was characterized by generosity of spirit, optimism for the future, and respect for past accomplishments.
The contrast with Republicans could not be more stark. Compare the warm, respectful transition underway with the House Democrats to Republicans fighting like ferrets in a phone booth in both the House and Senate. Their discord, backbiting, and discussion was entirely devoid of policy achievements of the past and any future prospects. Instead, what dominated Republican discussions was what they were against. It was a sounding of grievances without a hint of any constructive solutions dealing with the challenges facing Americans: inflation and economic security, affordable housing and mental health, and the climate crisis.
Tellingly Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) could not be bothered to be in the House chamber to show his respect for Pelosi’s unprecedented accomplishments, if not for the office he hopes to occupy.
Pelosi began her speech with an inspired explanation not just of the arc of her career but who we are or should be. She always made it look almost effortless, as though she didn’t have to sacrifice 35 years of her life and time away from her family. But she did. The vicious attack on her husband Paul is only the most vivid example of the price she and her family have paid for a lifetime of service that she’s determined to continue.
I’ve been honored to work with Speaker Pelosi for over 25 years. I learned more about the art of politics and public service from her than my lifetime of political involvement. It began with the privilege of being a member of her first whip operation for a leadership position. I watched her in action masterfully orchestrating this high-stake operation. It continued 12 years ago as part of her first Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming where I observed firsthand her command of a subject a decade before it reached the broad recognition of today’s climate crisis. I watched her leadership and hard work on display at home and abroad, including in Sharm El-Sheikh for this year‘s UN climate summit. The Speaker again exercised her command of the issue. Her mastery of the global dynamic was in evidence in the widespread respect for her talent, commitment, and accomplishments.
In the aftermath of her decision to step aside from a formal leadership role the accolades expressed fail, in my judgment, to capture the impact of this extraordinary woman. Her powerful, dignified, valedictorian speech this week marks the end of an unprecedented era in American politics.
The good news is that she will continue on the national stage as a mentor and master strategist committed to the welfare of our children, our planet, and the institution of Congress. We owe her a profound debt of gratitude for what she’s done and thanks for her willingness to continue to lead and inspire.
Earl Blumenauer has represented Oregon’s 3rd District since 1996.