Pelosi, Lawrence and the ‘Arc of Power’
Historians will prepare first drafts in the weeks ahead, assessments of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) two four-year runs guiding the House. It’s a good moment to reflect upon the legacy of a leader who is a hero to millions, yet vilified by opponents.
A nonpartisan summary of any sound first draft will note three things: Pelosi is the most powerful woman in American history. She is the most consequential legislator of the post-Watergate era. She is the most successful and enduring messenger for the modern Democratic party.
Pelosi’s legacy confirms that there are two basic types of political leaders. The first seeks power as a means to an end, a tool with which to improve citizens’ lives. Think of Reagan, Obama, or Gingrich. Each sought power to change policy.
The second type of leader seeks power as an end in itself. They will exploit national divisions and ride any set of issues that works with 51 percent of voters. Power offers them an affirmation of the reverence to which they feel entitled. Both major political parties have some folks like this. Voters trust their gut to identify and avoid them.
The history of Nancy Pelosi’s two four-year speakerships — divided by eight years of the challenging speakerships of John Boehner and Paul Ryan — will confirm she is in the former group.
One thing historians will not have to search for is a verbatim account of who said what to whom. In some Washington meetings, an insider cautions: “nobody takes notes.” Confidentiality helps in negotiating political deals. For the first Pelosi speakership, the public now has virtual transcripts revealing how things work deep inside the sausage-making factory where laws are made.
Republicans and Democrats who worked on the Hill between 1975 and 2013 thought of John Lawrence as a rock-solid staffer, loyal to his leader and spare with his personal agenda. For decades he served as chief of staff to Pelosi, and previously to Natural Resources Committee Chairman George Miller, the burly Californian who came to serve as Nancy Pelosi’s consigliere.
As the musical Hamilton describes it, Lawrence was always “In The Room Where It Happened.” It was a well-kept secret that there was a PhD historian in our midst, a guy who always took notes. When Lawrence walked away from power, it was not to cash in on K Street, but instead to teach and write.
The striking cover of Professor Lawrence’s new book about the era of Pelosi’s first speakership, “Arc of Power,” captures him staffing the Speaker in the White House; she’s eyed cautiously by President Obama while Vice President Biden leans in. Lawrence’s real-time notes of who proposed what to whom during Pelosi’s first speakership total 9,000 pages. Now donated to the Library of Congress, these notes ground his new book; they are a treasure trove for historians. They offer a unique insider perspective of how policy is shaped. And they confirm, as Lawrence notes, Pelosi’s view that “power (is) by its nature perishable, to be used aggressively even at the risk of losing it.”
It is not difficult to understand Speaker Pelosi’s ethical North Star. Caricatured as a “San Francisco liberal,” the Baltimore native is in fact at her core a relative centrist, one of six kids and mother to five. Her ego is remarkably in check considering the arc of her career: It was never about her. Her politics have always been grounded in her deep Catholic faith, her family values, and her belief that public servants should help the neediest first. It’s the same set of core values that guided her mentor Leo McCarthy, the former California lieutenant governor and assembly speaker.
Pelosi used both of her speakerships to pass an extraordinarily broad and deep set of legislative measures. One can disagree with her positions, but still recognize she has been a fierce and effective advocate advancing her majority’s agenda while saddled with a diminished U.S. Senate, where “bills go to die.”
Her institutional memory has schooled four different presidents, each politically embattled, two from each party: Bush 2007-8, Obama 2009-10, Trump 2019-2020, Biden 2021-2022. Those eight years were fraught with national challenges, from the Iraq War and the Wall Street crash, to the craziness of the Trump decline amidst the pandemic and the difficult Biden transition shaken by a violent insurrection.
Pelosi was often the steadiest voice in the room, a constant presence. Maybe it is the grandmother gene, but the Speaker does not do whining. Her results orientation proved helpful to the nation in fractured times; clarity is a virtue in public life.
With her commitment to her party caucus to step down, Speaker Pelosi’s record will soon become a source of historical analysis. Scholars now have one discerning primary source to aid understanding of the politics of our turbulent times.
Gerald Warburg is a national security policy expert and professor at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, where he is a faculty affiliate at the Center for Effective Lawmaking. He previously served as senior staffer to members of the House and Senate leadership. He is the author of numerous works about congressional accountability and legislative-executive relations.