The Pelosi Principle: Madame Speaker Smiles Through The MadnessS

"Back then, there was a tendency for women to minimize what you could bring to the table in intellect and strategic thinking. But men don't have any secret sauce." Profiled in New York Magazine, Nancy Pelosi doesn't pull any punches.

In a seven page piece exploring everything from Pelosi's preferences for dark chocolate ice cream to her varying smiles, writer Vanessa Grigoriadis paints an interesting - and slightly familiar - portrait of the Speaker of the House.

She's a kind of Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, imperious with her power and relishing her ability to attack, dropping bombs like "If people are ripping your face off, you have to rip their faces off."

Detailing what Pelosi's foes have to say about her (notable comments include "Mussolini in a skirt" and "domestic enemy of the Constitution") as well as her falling approval ratings, one gets the impression that Nancy Pelosi doesn't really give a fuck what's happening around her as long as she can do her job:

All of which might inspire some worry in a person who was paying attention. But Pelosi, pretty much, isn't. She doesn't often watch cable news or follow blogs, and her cell phone of choice is a Motorola Razr. She definitely isn't watching Fox, and can't really tell Sean Hannity apart from the other anchors. For the most part, Pelosi is in a bubble, where much of what passes for politics doesn't penetrate. Her face, the one with the frozen smile, is her mask. She often seems unaware of how it looks. For her, the world consists of her members, her donors, and her family, plus President Obama and Rahm Emanuel, whom she sometimes speaks to several times a day. As far as she's concerned, anything else, and that includes the press, is a petty distraction from her "historic work," as she likes to say, before ticking off the accomplishments of Congress on her watch over the last two and a half years: the passage of large increases in college aid and veterans' health care, raising fuel-efficiency standards and the minimum wage, and ethics reform, not to mention the stimulus, bailout, and a climate-change bill that she masterfully shepherded through the House-where it passed by a margin of one vote.

Translation: Fuck you, she's handling her business.

Throughout her piece, Grigoriadis repeatedly raises the idea that Pelosi is wearing a mask , paying special attention to those moments when Pelosi drops her guard and her "true nature" is revealed:

Pelosi's bill will get diluted later in conference, and who knows how reform might actually play out. As a health-care CEO put it to me, "the only thing that keeps an oncologist out of a patient's coffin is nails." But national health care, even a watered-down version-what a legacy.

"Not so fast on that, on the legacy," says Pelosi, taking a seat in a cream-colored chair in her beautiful office, sun pouring into the room from a high narrow window. She breaks into one of her grins. "I said to Al Gore one time, ‘Your work here will be part of your legacy,' and he said, ‘Um, is there a message here?' " Then the smile is gone, and she begins to frown: Pelosi dislikes the perception of hogging credit, and has even decreed that her staff not use the word I when writing for her. "No," she says. "This is about the health of our country, diet, the way we live, pursuing a more wholesome path. It's personal. It's economic. Imagine what would happen if you could have any job you wanted without worrying about needing health care." She pauses. "And it won't be my legacy. It will be everyone's legacy." She gives a tight smile. "I don't even think in terms of legacy." The eyes pop. "I mean, what?"

Another episode about chocolate ice cream reveals how quickly Pelosi can flip if she starts to feel attacked. After describing how Pelosi giggles when one of her staffers (Grigoriadis writes "servant") brings her two scoops of dark chocolate ice cream, she relates the following story:

Chocolate ice cream is the staple of Pelosi's diet: She doesn't cook herself, so except for a salad for lunch and whatever an aide hands her for dinner, that's what she eats. "I think that's the first time she's ever turned it down," whispers her personal assistant, later. "The other day, she came in at 8:45 a.m. carrying a pint of Häagen-Dazs with an inch left in it-she'd eaten the whole thing on the way in. She handed it off to Michael, and then two hours later, she said, ‘Where's that ice cream? Can I eat the rest of that?' " (At one point, when she mentions to me that she likes artisanal ice cream, I joke, "Oh, elitist ice cream," and she shoots back: "It's not elite. It's not elite. It's just a small operation.")

In addition to the mask references, Grigoriadis also plays up the congressional royalty aspects of Pelosi's personality.

Unlike in the Senate, the majority rules absolutely in the House, and that suits Pelosi. She may not want to be a queen-when members of the Black Caucus called her that once, she said, with typical regal flourish, "I am not an emperor or a queen, but neither am I a fool"-but in reality, the House is hers to rule. If Pelosi wants to put a member on Ways and Means, she just makes the committee bigger. If a member is upset, she can give him a big office budget. If he's still not happy and she knows he has an interest in NATO, she can prioritize his access to an airplane and off he goes. This has let her create a leadership style that's less stick and more carrot. She maintains goodwill by feminine touches like presents of flowers, weekly meetings with freshmen, thank-you notes, calls to associates' sick family members. "Nancy has a minister's political skills," says Majority Whip James Clyburn. "She looks for common ground, seeing and feeling things that most people don't."

Amid all the discussions of giggling and Pelosi's personal touches, what's often obscured is Pelosi's keen mind for strategy. As Grigoriadis writes:

This is her Congress: She engineered the strategy for taking back the House in 2006 with Rahm Emanuel, a two-year congressman she tapped to be her deputy, and who likes to call her "mommy." That was a time of some intense giggling, with the two of them-the fancy lady and the potty-mouthed Rahmbo-so ambitious, so driven, that every possible seat that could be occupied by a Democrat is now occupied by a Democrat, which is an opportunity and a challenge. There's nowhere to go but down.

Clearly, Nancy Pelosi is very skilled at understanding how political games are played. In one of the more revealing moments in the piece, Pelosi's tough exterior is shown to be wrapped in pragmatism, with a steely understanding that while ideals are nice, the important thing is making sure the work proceeds:

The other party is very much outside her bubble, barely noticed. "Nancy really doesn't care about Republicans, because she doesn't believe the whole bi-partisan thing exists," says a close associate. "Her attitude is, ‘God bless their souls, but these people don't believe in global warming. They just don't agree with us.' " She loves Obama, knows that he's her best hope. "She has a new source of energy, in wanting this young man to succeed," says Congressman George Miller, a close friend, a bit gooily. But there have been a few rocks here and there. She was getting upset over the summer, says a source, at the way Obama was pandering to conservatives to secure a bi-partisan bill, though her office says she was more concerned with the lethargy of the finance committee at the time. Don't waste your time, they are not voting with us, she told him. Did someone tell you they would? The president's attitude was, well, the Republicans are elected, and we're elected; let's all make this work together. Emanuel would get the same earful from her: Does the president not understand the way this game works? He wants to get it done and be loved, and you can't do both-which does he want?

Specific discussions of how her gender has impacted her perception in the public sphere are limited in the piece, but Grigoriadis does make an excellent point about the balancing act that women endure, in attempts to look both tough and vulnerable without looking hard or weak.

To look weak in public, well, that's Pelosi's worst nightmare. Hillary might cry to boost her poll numbers, but a powerful woman nearing 70 always keeps a stiff upper lip, never showing more emotion than Maggie Thatcher. And, in a way, it works for Pelosi, having the world see only the hard shell, thinking she's an archetypal female monster with a pasted-on smile. The smile is meant to balance out her aggressive rhetoric, to calm men down, to seem less threatening (it doesn't work, of course); but it is also a way of shutting people out of her true emotions, who she really is. But that's okay-she is willing to have people not understand her. If need be, she's willing to be hated. Not caring makes Pelosi powerful. She'll listen to her poll numbers from her staff, but she doesn't really process them. "I'll take the hit," she likes to say, waving a hand. "I'll take the hit."

Some of Pelosi's nature could probably be ascribed to her upbringing in Baltimore, where she was knee-deep into politics from an early age:

She's the seventh child and only daughter of Thomas "Big Tommy" D'Alesandro Jr., a slick dresser who wore diamond rings on each of his pinkies and began representing Little Italy in Maryland's House of Delegates at 22, followed by five terms in Congress and three as Baltimore's mayor. (When asked about his rival in one election, D'Alesandro said, "I don't know [who he is], but it's some no-good son of a bitch, that's all I can tell you.") Nancy's childhood home functioned as D'Alesandro's auxiliary office, with a portrait of FDR in the living room, copies of The Congressional Record stored under her bed, and an open door for constituents searching for jobs, permits, stop signs.

The political arena is not a place for the faint of heart, and through her years in Congress, Pelosi has always focused on the bottom line: does she have the votes? A master politico, Pelosi is credited with "raising $155 million" for the Democratic Party over the last seven years, and her ability to give the outward appearance of compromise while pressing for her beliefs has served her well. But still, even while she works to balance her two selves, she still isn't going to stand there and take anyone's shit.

Last week, at the unveiling ceremony for her new health-care bill on the Capitol steps, she smiled away, reminding everybody that they should celebrate this historic day. On the lawn, a knot of protesters kept shouting at her, distracting from her important purpose. "You will burn in hell for this," one man yelled into his megaphone, over and over.

She tried to ignore him, but finally shot a withering look his way. "Thank you, insurance companies of America," she declared, smirking a little.

The mask is back on.

Why Is Nancy Pelosi Always Smiling? [NY Magazine]