The not-farewell address Nancy Pelosi delivered Thursday captured the quintessence of her history-making career.
The departing House speaker was, as ever, immaculately turned out. She wore white, the color of the suffragette movement, of which Pelosi was a legatee and enormous champion.
She read, dutifully, from prepared remarks that were filled with the typical exhortations and platitudes — a reference to the “Star Spangled Banner,” a paean to the Capitol and its moon-glow dome at night — that pepper her often-uninspiring speeches.
Above all, she was clear-eyed and unsentimental. Her voice only briefly quavered when Pelosi mentioned her husband, Paul, who is still recovering from an attack by a hammer-wielding assailant who invaded the couple’s San Francisco home on a mission of hatred and political vengeance.
Pelosi’s great strength has never been that of a public speaker. Rather, it is the skills she brought to the speakership: tremendous political savvy, a mastery of the legislative process, a lack of blind ideology and — not least — the ability to count votes, read a room and know when it was time to call the vote, and time to move on.
Pelosi had given her word, four years ago when her hold over the Democratic caucus was shaky under pressure from ambitious younger members, that she would serve no more than two additional terms in the speakership.
That time runs out in January and Democrats’ far-better-than-expected showing in last week’s midterm election gave her a graceful way to keep her word. She knew her departure was being anticipated — though she said her phone was “exploding” in recent days with pleas to remain as Democratic leader — and now she can take her leave and do so beneath no dark cloud.
Her decision to stay in Congress, falling back into the ranks of Democratic members, was a surprise, though Pelosi — the first female speaker in history and one of the most accomplished ever to wield the gavel — will clearly be no typical back-bencher.
President Biden and Pelosi’s counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, made clear their desire she stay on, and she will doubtless be available for counsel to those two and whoever takes her place as head of the Democratic caucus. For her part, Pelosi told reporters Thursday she had no intention to meddle or second guess.
(Shrewd to the last, it seemed no accident that Pelosi’s announcement coincided with — and vastly overshadowed — Republicans’ first day as the majority-in-waiting and obscured the announcement the new GOP majority would launch a probe into Biden and his family’s business dealings.)
“If you’ve known Nancy Pelosi as I have going back to when, as she said, she just was a housewife, this is exactly what you’d expect,” said Art Agnos, a former San Francisco mayor and friend of the Pelosi family. “She’s leaving with grace and dignity while promising to be around and available if she can be of help to anyone.”
If there is disappointment — and none dares speak it aloud — it is among the ranks of San Francisco politicians, who have quietly waited for the day Pelosi would stand aside. It is not a function of disrespect; to the contrary, Pelosi is a beloved and deeply admired institution in the city she has represented in Congress for well over three decades.
Rather, it is the fact Pelosi has been in office so long and generations of would-be successors have aged out and retired from public life, their hopes aborning as her tenure endures.
Anyone eyeing the congressional seat — the only San Francisco has to offer — will have to wait at least another two years. Pelosi was just reelected for the 18th time last week with 84% support. Although it’s hard to imagine, it’s not impossible to see Pelosi running again in 2024, at age 84, and handily being ushered into a 19th term.
Four years ago, sipping espresso at a bistro in downtown Miami, Pelosi indulged in a rare discussion of her political future. She is strongly allergic to the subject, an aversion that is shared among her congressional staff and others close to the speaker.
But on that sunny day, while campaigning in a midterm election that would return Democrats to power and restore Pelosi to the speakership, she was unusually open to the discussion.
“I see myself as a transitional figure,” Pelosi said in an interview, in which she expressed characteristic confidence of victory and reclaiming the speaker’s gavel. “I have things to do. Books to write; places to go; grandchildren, first and foremost, to love.”
Pelosi named those grandchildren Thursday in a proud reverie as she spoke from the well of the House. But they’ll have to wait for her undivided attention. So, too, any books she may wish to write.
Pelosi is not finished in Congress.