Washington's Only Grown-Up

As Obama and the GOP trade childish sports metaphors about health care, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is actually leading—and reminding the country of its moral obligations.

Health-care reform might pass or it might not. But one thing is for sure. After Nancy Pelosi’s role in trying to push reform legislation through, the image of women in American politics will never be the same.

The question of health-care reform always seems to come down to the women. First Hillary Clinton, and now Pelosi. But unlike Hillary, Pelosi is not under the shadow of a more powerful husband. And though this 69-year-old woman—she’ll turn 70 in just over a week and doesn’t look a day over 50—is one of the most hated figures among her GOP adversaries, she is not under the shadow of scandal, either, despite what must be fanatical scrutiny of her public and private life. There is not the slightest rustle of impropriety about her. At a time when just about every prominent figure in the Democratic Party seems ethically challenged, the most prominent and the most controversial woman in Washington is as pure as Washington’s latest whirling white snowstorm. The next time a woman runs for president, Pelosi’s example will be one of her strongest arguments.

You feel that the future of the country is in the hands of its women politicians, that half our problems come from men who can’t keep their pants up or their hands out of other people’s pockets.

Pelosi recalls the role women have always played in extreme political and social situations. If Congress nowadays resembles a suffocating system of inertia and recrimination, then Pelosi is like those Russian women who kept dissent alive as their husbands, brothers and sons rotted away in Lubyanka prison or in the gulag. If the whole structure of our legislative system seems like some crumbling, crime-ridden inner-city neighborhood, then the House speaker is like those urban black women who hold their families together as the men, for one reason or another, disappear or are taken from their lives.

Sound sentimental? I’m taking my cure from Pelosi, who uses emotional images and rhetoric to play one of the roughest games of hardball Washington has ever seen. There are reasons why the cause of health-care reform always comes down to the women (Pelosi happens to be the Speaker of the House, and so she inherited her cause, but she has identified herself with it even more passionately—and riskily—than Obama himself.) One reason is that they have at their disposal language that has a more universal appeal than the rhetoric male politicians are limited to using. Eyes now glaze over when people talk about Obama waiting for the final minutes of the game to turn it on and sink one from midcourt. But when Pelosi talks about creating legislation the way you bake a pie and then try to sell it, she is cunningly using soft language with a wide vicarious appeal to make a hard, particular point: the moral responsibility of government to improve the lives of the people it rules, a purpose that often gets lost in all the heated talk of sports-like procedure and winning and losing.

Indeed, one of the problems with American politics is the sports metaphors that make everyone think a so-called issue has only one dynamic: winning or losing. As a woman, Pelosi can use metaphors reminding people that social life is, at its essence, not a competition at all, but a common struggle to survive and flourish. One side always loses when the buzzer sounds as the ball soars toward the hoop.

Watching Pelosi maneuver and hold her ground, you feel that the future of the country is in the hands of its women politicians, that half our problems come from men who can’t keep their pants up or their hands out of other people’s pockets. Maybe the uncontrolled lust and greed have as their source male politicians’ frustration at not being able to express their humanity in public with any kind of fullness. Just as their language is limited to those ridiculous sports metaphors, so the way they dress—the most symbolically expressive feature of a person’s social existence—is just as constrained. My favorite photograph of Pelosi is from January 2007, taken during George Bush’s second State of the Union address. She is standing next to Dick Cheney and the both of them are positioned behind Bush, who stands at the podium. Both Cheney and Bush are wearing dark suits, while Pelosi is dressed in a white blouse, a pale green jacket, and a light-colored skirt. The light at the end of the tunnel.

As Pelosi talks about politicians’ responsibility to their constituents and to the future, it is as if she is treating “independents” like the selfish and immature children they really are. As she reminds Americans that democracy is synonymous with majority rule, she might just as well be telling a twelve-year-old that, like it or not, “fair” or not, parents make the important decisions until he is 17. That’s just the way it is. As the poignancy and the profundity of the first black president wears off, it’s clear that our future lies in the hands of women who know how to play a shrewd yet principled game that the men have almost entirely ruined.

If Pelosi ever ran for president—and if I lived in Chicago—I’d vote for her twice.

Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.