The World According to Nancy Pelosi

An exclusive interview.

BY Andrew Harmon

January 12 2012 4:00 AM ET

There was something slightly off in Nancy Pelosi's usual stride as she walked across the beige marble lobby of the Regency Hotel on New York's Upper East Side. Her determined pace is familiar to those who've seen her approach a scrum of microphones with Senate majority leader Harry Reid or House minority whip Steny Hoyer to announce a victory, rail against an impasse, or lob a charge at her Republican successor who now holds the Speaker's gavel. The broad grin that so irritates her detractors was gone, too. With her was Drew Hammill, her deputy communications director, and her youngest daughter, Alexandra, a documentary filmmaker. Pelosi was wearing a light gray pantsuit and a multicolored Tahitian cultured pearl necklace so closely identified with her that countless online jewelers now simply dub it "The Nancy Pelosi."

Pelosi looked hurried and unnerved, as though the House minority leader, one of the nation's top congressional Democrats, had just dealt with something clearly not on her agenda. She had.

It was June 2011, and a few blocks away, at the Sheraton on 53rd Street, Rep. Anthony Weiner was giving a press conference about his tweeted indiscretions, which would ultimately give him plenty of extra time to play pickup hockey games at Chelsea Piers’ Sky Rink. Weiner had called Pelosi at the Regency, where she was meeting with donors, to come clean. Meanwhile, Andrew Breitbart, the conservative blogger who broke the story, had become the impromptu warm-up act for waiting reporters in a drab navy blue conference room. Weiner had initially assured Pelosi that the allegations were false, but a few days later she and her staff were quickly digesting the news coverage in a Regency hotel room with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Steve Israel and crafting a short statement calling for an ethics investigation before shuffling with Secret Service agents out to an idling black Suburban, bound for downtown. In the dozen or so steps from the front door to the SUV, Pelosi ran into Larry King, who asked if he could take a photo with her – for his Twitter page.

"Nothing surprises me. One thing I don't ever have in my world is surprise," Pelosi said later, as the vehicle headed down Park Avenue. Of Weiner, she said, "I'm really overcome by personal sadness and disappointment for him. But frankly, he has to deal with all of that." Though clearly pained, she moved on, rapidly. "And I was thinking of something that I told friends at lunch today..."

"But you were surprised by this," said Alexandra in the backseat, not ready to move on. Alexandra is well versed in documenting sex scandals, notably in The Trials of Ted Haggard, about the disgraced pastor, and an upcoming film on former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, who stepped down following a gay affair. "You told us you thought it was Photoshopped, remember?" she continued, goading her mother. "You said you couldn't believe that anything like that would ever happen."

"I didn't think so. I can't answer for personal behavior. You just don't know," Pelosi said.

"You always assume the best of everyone," Alexandra said. "You never think anything ill of anyone. Even when they don't deserve such charity."

Pelosi looked out the window as the Suburban veered around a curve at Grand Central Station. "I think that serves me well. Generally."

The rest of the afternoon found Pelosi back on message. After a 33-minute trip downtown in moderate traffic, she glided past a few curious onlookers on her way into a minimalist lobby and an elevator leading up to a SoHo apartment filled with gay and lesbian Democratic donors. Immaculate and precise, the airy loft belongs to Chris Hughes, a cofounder of Facebook with an estimated net worth of $850 million, and his fiancé, Sean Eldridge, who is the political director of Freedom to Marry. Milling among the servers who held trays of champagne were Hoyer, former National Gay and Lesbian Task Force executive director Urvashi Vaid, Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson, and Jerry Nadler, a rabidly pro-LGBT New York congressman expected by some to replace retiring U.S. representative Barney Frank as lead sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a long-pending federal bill that would ban antigay and antitransgender discrimination in private, nonreligious workplaces. Eventual passage of a marriage equality bill in New York State was still weeks away. And though victory was anything but a certainty, Pelosi was confident that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg would deliver.

As Weinergate reached a fever pitch uptown that afternoon, Pelosi was back to doing what she does better than anyone else in Congress: working a room with a maestro's command, alighting from each handshake as though she were meeting a long-lost childhood friend every minute and a half. The event would be one of 367 events Pelosi has headlined upon her party's return to the minority in the House following the 2010 midterm election. It's a grueling but lucrative schedule that has netted more than $28.7 million for House Democrats in the current cycle.

"All of us are carrying the baton of freedom as we fight this fight for freedom to marry. And all of you who are working on this are making America more American," Pelosi told the rapt audience. It's a meta-moment as far as political talking points go, the "American" pronouncement borrowed from closing arguments in the Proposition 8 trial made by former George W. Bush solicitor general Ted Olson; he in turn had cribbed the statement from an antigay defense witness who inadvertently made the case in favor of equal marriage rights during cross-examination.

"It's all about time," Pelosi said, "and to those who mock me on this subject, I say to them, 'The inconceivable to you is the inevitable to us.'"

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