05/25/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Nancy Pelosi's Triumph: A Long Time Coming

It's been a very heady few days for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called her "a Speaker for the ages" after she ramrodded the national health care reform bill through the House of Representatives. "The most powerful woman in American history," declared The Economist.

Which had not been my immediate expectation when I met Pelosi, whose 70th birthday is tomorrow, three decades ago at a party at her San Francisco home.

While recollections from the age of four (that's a little joke) can, as we all know, be decidedly hazy, I remember some clear impressions. Though the daughter and sister of Baltimore mayors, Nancy D'Alesandro Pelosi was relatively new to being in politics on her own hook.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California paid homage Sunday night to the late Senator Ted Kennedy and urged the House to "make history."

But Pelosi, a beautiful charmer, easily stagemanaged a gaggle of children, her doting husband Paul, and a houseful of guests at her Presidio Terrace home, deftly conversing on a variety of topics while gracefully dealing with a variety of impending logistical and personal demands. It was impressive.

She was Northern California chair of the Democratic Party then, the first significant post of her own in politics. Jerry Brown, then in his first go-round as governor of California, had designated her for the post and the party went along.

It was a reward, to the extent that being a party leader can be described as a reward, for her role in Brown's late-starting 1976 presidential campaign. Jimmy Carter was running away with the Democratic presidential nomination in March when Brown invited a few reporters into his office to say that he'd decided to run for president.

The first-term governor, not yet 38, had a certain celebrity but no organization to speak of outside California. Where to go and what to do first? And, more to the point, how to do it?

President Barack Obama, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi standing behind him, signed the national health care overhaul into law, celebrating hard-fought legislation that extends coverage for 32 million uninsured Americans, establishes new safeguards, and represents the biggest accomplishment of his presidency.

Well, he knew Nancy Pelosi, now living in San Francisco, and she certainly knew Maryland, which happened to have a big presidential primary coming up. So Pelosi became Brown's guide to Maryland, his political director there.

With Pelosi's help, Brown pulled off a big win over future President Carter in Maryland, the first in a string of late-breaking victories that nonetheless fell short of wresting the presidential nomination away from Carter.

While Pelosi had an instinct for the inside game, and how it translated into the outside game, along with a real fluency in talking with people, she wasn't quite so deft when the spotlight was on her.

After a successful time as Northern California chair of the party, she ascended to the post of state Democratic Party chair (in those days, the post alternated between Northern California and Southern California).

I recall what I think was Pelosi's first press conference as chair of the California Democratic Party, in the back room of a state Capitol watering hole. Sitting behind a table in front of reporters, as the leader of the California party organization, Pelosi's seemingly easy fluency and charm disappeared, as she was shellacked by state political columnist Dan Walters, a moderate conservative who's still around.

Truth be told, Pelosi has never seemed that comfortable speaking and taking questions in the media spotlight.

After another successful operation, heading up national fundraising for Senate Democrats, Pelosi was prevailed upon to run for the San Francisco congressional seat that had long been held by legendary liberal Phil Burton. A legislative master with a volcanic temper, Burton came tantalizingly close to becoming speaker of the House himself, losing a race for House majority leader to future Speaker Jim Wright of Texas by one vote. He had made, as it happened, one enemy too many.

When the ever intense Burton died from an aneurysm in 1983 at age 56, his wife Sala succeeded him in the seat. She passed away in 1987 of cancer. But before she did, she asked Pelosi to run for the congressional seat.

Ironically, for all the demonization of Nancy Pelosi by Republicans and the far right as some sort of dangerous radical, she was decidedly the moderate in that special election. Her big competitor was Harry Britt, a staunch left-liberal trying to become California's first openly gay member of Congress. Britt held the assassinated Harvey Milk's old seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (the City by the Bay is both a city and a county) and started out well ahead of Pelosi.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, a very shrewd vote counter, said last Friday that she is "very excited about the momentum that has built" around the national health care reform bill, slated for vote the following Sunday. House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, less excited, vowed retribution if the bill is passed.

With the help of Phil Burton's brother, former Congressman John Burton, and others, Pelosi narrowly beat Britt for the Democratic nomination, 36% to 32%, then swamped the Republican candidate. (John Burton is quite a fascinating, not to mention very colorful, character in his own right. He mentored Senator Barbara Boxer, went on to head the California state Senate, and now chairs the California Democratic Party.)

With her fundraising prowess and a safe seat, Pelosi began her climb up the congressional leadership ladder. She evidently learned from Phil Burton's near miss strike for the speakership. She was very tough, but didn't go out of her way to make enemies. After becoming House minority leader in 2002, she became speaker after her forces won the 2006 elections.

In 2008, though officially neutral, she seemed to many to have an unofficial favorite in the Democratic presidential primaries, a fellow by the name of Barack Obama, and was helpful to him along the way. When he became president, she moved key elements of Obama's agenda through the House with a notable dispatch, though her allies, as legislators will do, added some elements that proved to be problematic.

After the health care bill was widely deemed dead in the water following the special election victory of "regular guy" Republican Scott Brown in January's Massachusetts special election for the late Senator Ted Kennedy's seat, Pelosi insisted otherwise.

Working with Obama and her leadership team, Pelosi turned the issue around and got the bill passed, giving Republicans what conservative pundit and former Bush speechwriter David Frum calls their "most crushing legislative defeat since the 1960s."

Republicans have made extravagant claims about this bill, from "death panels" to "socialism" to economic collapse. But that sort of talk is poppycock, and in any event the elements that come online this year are among the least objectionable to anyone. Obama and the Democrats will work to redefine what became -- through endless dithering in the Senate, sheer obstructionism on the right, and the need to deal with some unrealistic expectations on the left -- a very controversial bill into something else again.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi spoke at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, praising her friend, then Senator Barack Obama.

And they will swiftly pivot to the economy, which was the original plan for January before it was derailed by the Christmas Day bombing attempt and the Scott Brown surprise. The economy is improving, much of the economic stimulus comes online this year, and Obama, Pelosi, and company will heavily promote economic recovery activities -- as well as reform of unpopular Wall Street practices that nearly tanked the global economy -- all the way through the November mid-term elections.

Already we're seeing a turnaround in public views of the health care bill. In the latest Gallup Poll, the just passed and signed national health care reform bill now wins a plurality of support nationwide.

Nearly half of Americans give a thumbs-up to Congress' passage of a health care reform bill last weekend, with 49% calling it "a good thing." 40% are opposed.

Perhaps, as the old saying goes, nothing succeeds like success.

And Pelosi is prepared to capitalize on that success to hold back Republican gains in the mid-term elections.

Despite all the controversy, her Democrats come out of the year-long health care free-for-all with a big financial edge. The Democratic congressional committee has a warchest of $20 million. The Republican committee has only $6.1 million.

Pelosi, amazingly, turns 70 years old on March 26th. The acclaim she is receiving for the passage of the national health care reform bill has been a long time coming.

Her reward? Now she gets to see if she and her friend in the White House can continue the reboot of Democratic fortunes in this very challenging environment.

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