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Pelosi, a spectacularly successful politician.

Molly Ball focuses her reporting on Nancy Pelosi, the politician, rather than Nancy Pelosi, the wife, mother, grandmother, and loyal friend. Ball traces Pelosi’s spectacularly successful career in the public limelight, beginning with her initial foray as a member of the San Francisco Public Library Commission, followed by her service as Chair of the California Democratic Party, and then her 1987 election to the House of Representatives from California’s 12th Congressional District. Ball ends her narrative at the close of 2019, with Nancy Pelosi once more in command as Democratic Speaker of the House, standing strong and outwitting regularly a recalcitrant Republican president.

Pelosi is as enigmatic as Pelosi herself. Most books wear their points of view on their sleeves, making obvious to the reader the inherent attitudes and biases of the narrative voice. Indeed, that’s half the fun of literary criticism, extracting those narrative subtleties. But the penchants and predispositions of the book are not easily discerned. The author styles herself as a reporter, neither Republican nor Democrat, neither liberal nor conservative. She also chooses to write solely in third person, with no direct quotes from the hundreds of interviews she conducted while researching this book. She never quotes Nancy Pelosi, either, although Ball interviewed Pelosi often and in-depth.

Even though Pelosi is full of insider observations about the political maneuverings among the principals, the reader never quite knows whose point of view is prevailing. Actual, direct attributions are never revealed. Let me give an example. Apparently, President Obama often worked around Congress rather than with Congress, obviously frustrating Pelosi and occasionally making legislation more difficult than it needed to be. Ball cites several instances of disagreement, implying Pelosi’s annoyances. But Ball refuses to put words into Pelosi’s mouth, and the reader is left to interpolate. Precisely what the inscrutable Speaker was thinking remains inscrutable.

What is frustrating to a reader who might want more explicit information, however, is also what makes Pelosi such a powerful book. A balanced account of Pelosi’s years in the House, it shows every facet of her considerable strengths and occasional blind spots. This turns a larger-than-life persona into a real human being, not a super-woman caricature. All too often, Nancy Pelosi has been the only woman in a roomful of men, the only woman with genuine power and the capacity to wield it. We’ve all seen photos of Nancy shaking her finger at countless male politicians. Now we can read about the circumstances behind the photos and what drove her to success.

Most important, Ball analyzes the measure of that success—Nancy Pelosi’s uncanny knack of counting the votes. A consummate politician, Pelosi never goes into a negotiation without knowing precisely how many votes she holds, who she can count on, and whose position is wavering. As Speaker, her job is to bring every Democrat on board, not an easy task with all the internal factions and distinct caucuses and passionate members. At one point, Pelosi points out that being Speaker plays to Pelosi’s skill set. Toddlers, teenagers, politicians—they all have enormous egos that need to be coddled. Pelosi, mother and grandmother, knows just what to say and do to keep the members of her party moving in the same direction. Even as she recounts the infighting each time Pelosi has sought the speakership, Ball also details how Pelosi constantly out-manipulates the opposition. Part of her success is trust; her word is her bond. Her success is her attention to detail, her genuine interest in other people and their points of view. Even as her own point of view remains enigmatic to the end.

For all of us who love political machinations, Pelosi is a must.  —  Ann Ronald


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