Nancy Pelosi is a bit like Britain's Margaret Thatcher in reverse. Mrs. T. was tough and steely in her public role as prime minister, but womanly, flirtatious, even gossipy, in private. (One of her cabinet members once told me he harbored erotic thoughts about Maggie as she walked past him, trailing a "whiff of Chanel.") In Pelosi's case, it's the other way around.
When I first talked to her at her office on Capitol Hill in the third week of April, she had just come from a sisterly ceremony, sharing a platform with Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton to unveil a bust of the legendary slave, abolitionist and suffragist Sojourner Truth at Emancipation Hall. The specter of briefings on the netherworld of the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques" could not have been more at odds with the aura of lunch-club femininity the Speaker projected with her lilac Armani pantsuit, professional gracious smile and freshly coiffed hair. ("She always was put together," one of the five Pelosi offspring, filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi, told me. "She never drove carpool in her pajamas, she always got dressed.")
But when the door to the Speaker's office closes, she is fast-talking, formidable, high-energy and supremely self—confident—more Baltimore's Little Italy, where she was raised in a powerful political family, than latte-sipping San Francisco, where she has lived for 40 years as the wife of a rich financier.
Leaning forward in a straight-back chair, she refers several times for emphasis to a small laminated bookmark listing the eight major bills her leadership has pushed through the House in Obama's first 100 days. "I'm disciplined. I keep informed. I know the policies. I understand the people," she rattles off, when asked how she has consolidated her power base in the House.
The only moment she gives a mildly beseeching glance at her press secretary is when I ask her when and what she knew about "waterboarding."
It's a fact that on Sept. 4, 2002, she was briefed by the CIA on its "enhanced interrogation techniques," along with Republican Porter Goss (the GOP's Richard Shelby and Democrat Bob Graham, the other two members of the "Gang of Four" intelligence--committee leaders, were briefed separately, three weeks later). What's very much in dispute is what they heard. Pelosi insists that she was briefed just this one time, and only on the fact that administration lawyers had concluded certain techniques were legal—not the truth that emerged later, which was that Al Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah had already been waterboarded 83 times following his capture in Pakistan in March 2002. "Any contention to the contrary is simply not true," she said.
Democrats have a genius for knitting nooses for themselves. Nancy Pelosi was having it pretty much all her way in Congress until President Obama released the Bush administration's legal memos on torture.
The peril of being only partially transparent is that the opposition and the press will obsess about what's missing. Within weeks of putting out the legal memos, Obama felt he had to reverse himself and block the release of photos of U.S. troops allegedly abusing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan on the grounds it would endanger American troops. Pelosi, too, is caught in a dilemma.
Obama has made it clear he wants to "turn the page" on the ugly memories of enhanced interrogation techniques. But Pelosi's troops won't let her. She has to steer a path between the liberal outriders in her caucus eager to avenge the Bush legacy and the newly energized GOP, which is struggling to find a way to defend it. Now she's caught in a row of her own about what she knew and when she knew it.
Goss, who went on to run the Bush CIA, describes himself as "slack-jawed" at her defense of what he sees as selective amnesia. Actually, if you parse out Goss's code words in his critical Washington Post op-ed, he subtly concedes the point that he and Pelosi were not told that waterboarding had already been used. He wrote, future conditional tense, that enhanced interrogation techniques were "to actually be employed."
Pelosi's explanation does not cut any ice with Sen. John McCain, who infuriated the Bushies by speaking out on torture. "She was briefed on it," he told reporters on his way to a Republican Senate lunch last Tuesday.
But Pelosi has a point, too: that the CIA pulled a fast one by limiting its briefing to the Gang of Four and then warning them not to talk to anyone else. "If you're to talk about it, charges could be filed against you," she told me. "When I was a junior member and I read all the intelligence estimates, little did I know, until I was a ranking member, that I didn't understand half of what was going on ... they just dribble it out."
You could almost hear Newt Gingrich licking his chops when he gave me his opinion of that response a few days later. "It is increasingly likely Pelosi has lied," he told me on the phone. "Someone is going to show up soon and say they were in the room. The alternative is that she didn't understand what she was being told—which is pretty unacceptable for the third person in line to be president."
Pelosi held her ground, even as news reports surfaced that a top aide of hers attended a briefing in February 2003, along with fellow California Rep. Jane Harman, at which they were told that waterboarding was in fact being used in interrogating Abu Zubaydah. Harman, who succeeded Pelosi as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, wrote a protest letter to the administration that Pelosi supported but did not sign.
The leak propelled her into a press conference on Thursday, when she confirmed she had heard from her aide about waterboarding in February 2003—but then, and only then. "They didn't tell us everything they were doing," she said. "We had to get a new president to change the policy." Asked a follow-up on her way out of the room, Pelosi lost her cool, stalked back to the podium and gave a soundbite that was a telling clue to her state of mind at the time: "I was fighting the war in Iraq at that point, too, you know."
She couldn't say what I suspect was the truth: "Look, we were conned about torture in the first briefing, and then, when I found out, it was too late. What was I going to do? Sure, Jane Harman sent her letter. Good for her. I was trying to fight this next horror show coming down in Iraq. The Republicans were killing us, and you in the press rolled over, too. You have to pick your battles, guys. This was hardball."
She's clearly fit to be tied that all the heat is on her, when it's the Bush administration that ought to be in the dock. She knows, too, that so few of the congressional Democrats had served in the executive branch, they didn't realize how radically the White House was rewiring it.
None of this helps Obama's agenda. Sure, it's always a bonus when Cheney comes up from the cellar to scare the electorate. But the left's demand for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth brings back those noxious memories of the Democrats' passivity at the time—and makes it hard to resist Cheney's call to reveal how much the interrogations saved America from another 9/11. Democrats are at risk once again of being cast as soft on terror—a role Obama is keen to shed.
For her part, Pelosi knows she needs to protect her liberal flank. "You can't take prosecution off the table," she told me carefully back in April. "The president has been very clear. He wants to move forward. Me and the Congress want to be told the truth. The more things get released, the more we want a full commission. He wants to give immunity. I want to be more selective. He says go with immunity and maybe you will learn more. It's very hard."
It's hard, all right, especially given that such issues separate her from a popular president whose progressive agenda she mostly shares. To date, she's had a strong, if not close, relationship with Obama; during the stimulus debate, she spoke with him as much as three times a week. When I suggest she doesn't want to waste Obama's time, she bridles with a flash of speakerly autonomy: "No. Nor do I wish to waste mine!" (She talks more often to his chief of staff, former representative Rahm Emanuel, who she says "is like family to us.")
Pelosi knows how to follow up the ice pick with a stroke of the velvet glove. After she helped her fellow Californian, Henry Waxman, oust venerated Michigan Rep. John Dingell as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee in a surprise coup, she mounted a generous tribute to Dingell three months later in a ceremony at Statuary Hall in the Capitol, celebrating his 53 years of service. One of her mantras is "This job is not for the faint of heart." Alexandra Pelosi recalls that when a GOP critic called her mother "Tom DeLay in a skirt," Pelosi just smiled and commented, "What a disturbing image."
She works like a Trojan. Her days start with a blow-dry at 7 a.m. at the Hotel George alongside such fellow early-rising power women as former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, Jamie Gangel from the Today show and NBC's Norah O'Donnell, and end with her never-missed TV fix of Jon Stewart. She's kept her figure, without recourse to the gym. Her husband gave her an exercise bike, but Alexandra says she found her mother one evening cycling away to CNN while spooning a tub of ice cream and poring over briefing papers. It's a preposterous fact that she turns 70 next year. She knows how to listen, as perhaps only a mother of five and grandmother of seven can. "When she's in a small setting, she's as effective as any politician I've been around," former representative Harold Ford told me of his experience watching Pelosi resolve conflicts between her liberal base and his fellow Blue Dog Democrats. "I can't remember a fight she didn't win."
In the first wave of the Republican onslaught, four top Democratic senators rose up to lambaste the CIA for releasing 10 pages of torture documents at the request of a Republican congressman, giving 40 instances in which the CIA briefed members of Congress between September 2002 and March 2009 (albeit vaguely). Said Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin: "I think there is so much embarrassment in some quarters [of the CIA] that people are going to try to shift some of the responsibility to others."
The GOP will keep gunning for her; she's a far easier target than Obama. And she will continue, too, to face fire from within her own ranks—both from the left and from the increasingly disaffected Blue Dogs elected last year.
She's marshaling her forces. Former senator Bob Graham of Florida, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee during the briefings, went on record in The New York Times on Friday, saying he did not recall waterboarding being discussed.
And no one underestimates Pelosi's ability to fight her way out of a tight corner. "If you look at the lion family," longtime Democratic House leader Richard Gephardt told me admiringly about the first woman to be Speaker, "it's the female of the species that's the killer."