Former Pelosi chief of staff on House speaker’s legacy: NPR


We will begin today with the monumental change coming in the Democratic leadership of the House. Earlier this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she would step down as party leader after roughly two decades in the role in one form or another. Pelosi was the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House when she was elected in 2007. She watched her party lose the House in 2011 and regain control in 2019. During her tenure, she oversaw the bailout of the bank in 2008 and the passage of the Affordable Care Act, among other significant legislative achievements. But in many ways it was more than the sum of these legislative achievements, to its advantage and its detriment. She became, in a way, the face of opposition to President Trump and a target of hate on the right, even as she fought with younger, more progressive members of her own party.

We would like to take a look at Speaker Pelosi’s legacy after more than two decades of leadership. And for that, we called on someone who was in the front row for a large part. John Lawrence worked for eight years as President Pelosi’s chief of staff from 2005 to 2013, and he wrote a book about his experience called “Arc Of Power: Inside Nancy Pelosi’s Speakership, 2005-2010”.

And John Lawrence is with us now. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

JOHN LAWRENCE: Thank you, Michael. It’s good to be with you.

MARTIN: We’ve been talking a lot the last few days about what Nancy Pelosi is, like the first female speaker and things like that. Since your book focused on his first speaking out, what are your observations from that point? What led her to be in such a crucial position for so long?

LAWRENCE: I think the answer to that question is that she does a lot of things very, very well simultaneously. She is at the same time the strategic mistress of the House. It has an intimate knowledge of its individual members and their needs, both politically and substantively. She has a very detailed knowledge of legislative priorities, and she’s been very, very effective in keeping her people together and then delivering very important legislative results under both Democratic and Republican presidents.

MARTIN: I want to talk about it. She worked with four presidents, two from each party. What can you tell us about how she thought about that and what her relationship was with those presidents?

LAWRENCE: It was very unique because she had, for example, with President Bush, a very volatile and confrontational relationship, especially on Iraq. And she was very vocally critical of his handling – or mishandling, in her view – of financial regulatory reform. But when the economy started to crash in 2008 and then, of course, in September, in the face of this huge crisis, she was able to not only work cooperatively and positively with President Bush to save the country from a recession , but also work with John Boehner, the Republican leader, and produce a bipartisan bill. She also, under President Trump, for whom she had little lost love, but worked collaboratively with him to pass the initial COVID relief legislation. So in both of those cases, I think that belies what is sometimes seen as a purely partisan approach that she took. She was able to work together, and she put the interests of the country first and she put the interests of the House first.

MARTIN: You wrote a column in the Hill that I want to mention. Let me read a quote from you. “Pelosi’s most remarkable achievement was not her ability to deliver the sweeping reform that she and the majority of her House caucus favored, but her ease in persuading equally disappointed liberals to take the best version of ‘a bill she could negotiate and keep fighting for more, how she herself made peace with not always being able to accomplish the things she cared most about in the way that she wanted.” Do–just throw some light on it.

LAURENT: Of course. And that’s not just what she wanted. This is also what the House wanted. You know, the House is elected in these short terms. He has these little quarters. And so you get a lot of requests, especially if you’re an outgoing Democrat in your caucus. And you can pass them very often in the House if you can keep your Democrats united. But then you run into the Senate and the filibuster. You come across the administration.

And what happened very often was that she could get laws passed in the House that satisfied, in some cases, her most progressive constituents. But she wouldn’t be able to get the support she needed in the Senate to get that legislation passed. And so she had to have the credibility to go back to her caucus and say, look, you know I share those views, but we can’t go through the Senate. We can’t have – it’s a presidential signature on it. And she had the credibility to get the support she needed, whether it was on the health care law or the funding for Iraq or where that didn’t reflect the progressive element of the House.

MARTIN: I have to bring up the enemies here. I mean, there have been a number of House Democrat speakers who have served for many years who have steered a tight ship. I mean, I’m thinking of Sam Rayburn. I’m thinking of Tip O’Neill. It just doesn’t seem, unless I’m misinterpreting the story, that they’ve become some kind of hate object like Speaker Pelosi did. Is it because she’s a woman? Or is it because we simply live in a time where the means exist to make people a target of derision in ways they haven’t? For example, there was no social media when Tip O’Neill was a speaker. So, what do you think?

LAWRENCE: I think it’s helpful to look, in a historical sense, at her tenure as president and in particular that period of time, those 20 years that she was the leader of House Democrats. They coincide well with this rise of hyperpartisanship and this ideological competition between the two parties. And certainly having a wife from San Francisco and a liberal, which is like the Republicans’ dream in terms of hitting the target, put her at a particular disadvantage to become emblematic of what Republicans criticized. However, you know, I’ve been with her quite often when she’s heard that kind of criticism. She runs her fingers over his shoulders as if to say, that’s not really what’s important. Let’s see how to pass the bill.

MARTIN: Obviously, she leaves a powerful legacy. How do you think his legacy will influence the next party leader?

LAWRENCE: Well, as I wrote in this article, these are big high heels to fill. And I think everyone understands that. But she leaves a blueprint, if you will, and that is that you don’t successfully wield that power in a congressional caucus by intimidating people, by threatening them. You have to work with them. You have to know them, whether it’s flying to their neighborhood, walking around in cowboy boots at the Minnesota State Fair, eating a pork chop off a stick – this isn’t exactly the image Nancy Pelosi likes to project. She knows how to build that coalition. When you’re a congressional leader, you know, you don’t have power over people. You have been delegated to lead them and work with them. She understands that. And that for me is the blueprint for being an effective leader in the House of Representatives.

MARTIN: It was John Lawrence. He served eight years as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s chief of staff, and he recently published a book about the experience. It is called “Arc Of Power: Inside Nancy Pelosi’s Speakership, 2005-2010”. Mr. Lawrence, thank you very much for joining us and sharing these ideas with us.

LAWRENCE: It’s a pleasure to be with you. Thank you very much Michael.

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