Two heartbeats away from the White House

For all the talk of the first Democrat leader of the House since Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution 12 years ago, perhaps an even bigger landmark is the ascension of a woman—Nancy Pelosi—to a role that is said to be two heartbeats away from the presidency.

Only two higher national positions remain to be conquered by women: the offices of president and vice-president.

“If you can break the marble ceiling in the Capitol of the United States,’’ Pelosi told the San Francisco Chronicle recently, “most anything is possible.’’

Pelosi has arrived at the position thanks to a combination of traditional Democratic values, astute tactics, an uncommon determination and a lot of money. The 66-year-old mother of five has served as representative for California’s 8th district in San Francisco since 1987, and became House minority leader in 2002.

She was born into a political family in Baltimore in 1940. Her father was a congressman for Maryland and also served as mayor of Baltimore. Pelosi and her six siblings were put into service by their father, maintaining his “favour file’’—a catalogue of favours given and owed. The training served Pelosi well. On entering politics, with the backing of her husband’s $15-million­ fortune, she put her own children to work. She also maintains a modern equivalent of the “favour file’’—a database of 29 000 loyal donors.

She has carefully nurtured support—and punished opponents—by using her money to back other candidates. Since 1999, she has given $2,8-million to other Democrat candidates. The support has come at a price: she demands discipline and loyalty, two traits that have enabled her to marshal the previously minority Democrats in the House to win some notable victories.

She is credited with imposing the discipline that enabled her party to defeat President George W Bush’s plan to reform social security.

Her relationship with the president will be the key to the fate of her term as House speaker. While the two have appeared together at some social functions, their relationship has been marked by mutual disdain. “He is an incompetent leader. In fact, he is not a leader,’’ she said in a 2004 interview. “He’s a person who has no judgement, no experience and no knowledge of the subjects that he has to decide on.’’

Bush, for his part, has painted Pelosi as a tax-loving Democrat, although during the midterm campaign he left the mudslinging to party operatives, who depicted her in political adverts as a stereotypical San Francisco liberal.

The two will now have to learn to live together: any legislation passed by a Democratic House will need Bush’s signature. And with Pelosi controlling the House agenda, he will need her agreement even to have a subject raised on the floor.—Â



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