Pelosi’s path to the Speaker’s Office

It must be tempting for a reporter who has covered someone for a 14 years, then writes a book about that person, to include every last detail.

There are many things a reporter knows that get left in the notebook when space runs short. A book would make a tempting time to return to them.

But Marc Sandalow has not done this in Madam Speaker, his biography of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Sandalow, who covered Pelosi for 14 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, has written a sparing, while still compelling, biography that should be required reading for anyone trying to understand the first woman Speaker of the House.

The book has one overriding weakness, but it’s not Sandalow’s fault. He even lays it out in his preface. Pelosi would not talk to him. She apparently sought to discourage him from writing the biography, declining interview requests and other cooperation. Sandalow writes that Pelosi would not even make eye contact with him after he informed her staff he was writing the book.

Pelosi’s decision is curious, since Sandalow is an informed observer with no known ax to grind. We know now that Pelosi will publish her own memoir in July. Sandalow notes those close to Pelosi say that may have been a reason for her refusal, while others told him Pelosi is simply distrustful of the press.

Upon learning that, an author might be tempted to pull a Kitty Kelley, find the enemies and betrayed friends and pull off a hatchet job. Sandalow doesn’t go this route, either.

There’s no opinion here, and precious little analysis. If there is a tone, it is largely admiring. Sandalow does connect the dots on some successful political maneuvers that may not be visible to the untrained eye. He doesn’t dwell on Pelosi’s wealth or troll through campaign contributions looking for “gotchas.” Nor does he gossip about her appearance or personal life.

Still, it is very much a reporter’s book in its writing style. The chapters are written like long newspaper stories.

The author makes a point, then employs a quote to back it up. Sandalow skillfully weaves together his own Chronicle reporting, stories by other publications and fresh details from his own book interviews into a lean narrative that moves quickly and never yells “look what I found” at the reader.

As a title, though, Madam Speaker may be a bit of a misnomer; the book covers very little of Pelosi’s time as Speaker. The chapter actually titled “Madam Speaker” comprises only 15 pages at the end of the book.

It does, however, explain a lot of things even close political observers might not know about Pelosi concerning her political upbringing in Baltimore and early political career in San Francisco. The earliest details are the most interesting. The closer the story gets to today, the more a Washington reader is familiar with the events.

For example, many people know that Pelosi grew up in Baltimore and that her father was the mayor. But anyone trying to grasp how a well-off mother of five from a tony San Francisco neighborhood became Speaker of the House should understand that when she was 10, Pelosi helped manage the “favor file” for her father’s political operation.

And those who know her as the crusader against the “culture of corruption” will be intrigued to learn about Pelosi’s first ethics vote as a new congresswoman. Contrary to the overwhelming majority of the House, she voted against sanctions for then-Rep. Austin Murphy from Pennsylvania, who stood accused of paying an employee for a do-nothing job. It was that vote, Sandalow recounts, that got the attention of Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.).

It is also fascinating to look back at Pelosi’s first race for Congress through the lens of this year’s presidential contest, in which many observers figure that Pelosi is quietly favoring Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

In her 1987 special election to succeed the late Rep. Sala Burton (D-Calif.), Pelosi closely resembled Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Her opponent, Harry Britt, was the “change” candidate, since he would have been the first openly gay non-incumbent ever elected to Congress. Pelosi was a fundraiser and political operative with connections to the local and national establishment. Her slogan was “A voice that will be heard.” You can almost hear the 3 a.m. phone call.

But Pelosi’s decision not to cooperate with Sandalow impedes the understanding of these early years. Nancy D’Alesandro’s decision to marry Paul Pelosi and move to San Francisco would define who she was as a person and a leader. But Sandalow tells us little about the courtship or the decisionmaking.

We learn that she couldn’t live in a house just vacated by a Nixon appointee. But we don’t know whether she knew when she married that she would be moving across the country, or how her husband persuaded her to move so far from her close-knit Italian family in Baltimore.

Family is a key part of Pelosi’s narrative, but the book contains little more than the basics. There’s very little about her husband’s business, and the raising of five children seems a simple task in this telling. But to fill in the gaps, Sandalow finds and presents some interesting figures, such as the number of days she was pregnant (1,300) in order to have five children in a span of six years and one week.

While the frugality of Sandalow’s narrative keeps it from getting bogged down, some political junkies and interested parties will want more.

For example, at one point Sandalow describes Pelosi as minority leader bringing in business consultants to discuss strategies for winning the majority in the House. A thicker tome might have taken a chapter to explore who these consultants were, how they got there and how they fit into Pelosi’s strategy. We get two paragraphs.

On the other hand, the book is full of telling vignettes, such as the executive who greeted the barrier-breaking female lawmaker by telling her about his company’s new perfume. Her response was to introduce him to a liberal activist who’d been haranguing the executive’s company, forcing a confrontation over its tactics. The executive called the activist’s tactics “reprehensible,” but he arranged a meeting. Pelosi joked that “Reprehensible” should be the name of the perfume.

What’s missing, in many cases, is the “why.” And that’s because she wouldn’t talk. Perhaps we will learn more in Pelosi’s own memoir. That memoir, unfortunately, is likely to lack the vital context that Sandalow is providing.

Given the importance of these times, more expansive volumes will surely be written about Pelosi and Congress under her leadership. They will have the benefit of being able to pursue Pelosi’s own narrative and Sandalow’s spadework.

Sandalow has provided a very good foundation and first step.