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Some of it also reflected her own particular combination of strengths and weaknesses. She was a master of the inside game of politics. “One of the very best inside political players that I’ve ever seen,” Hillary Clinton told me. But even after decades in office, Nancy Pelosi wasn’t particularly skilled at the outside game. She was never a compelling orator. “A rhetorical clunkiness – heavy on the alliteration – that makes her sound now and then like a compendium of bumper stickers,” a friendly commentator observed. In a television age, she wasn’t as comfortable as former Speaker Newt Gingrich in the back-and-forth combat of the Sunday morning shows. She didn’t project the reassuring, old-shoe mien of former Speaker Tip O’Neill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif. In 2019. Never Underestimate An July Old Lady Who Loves Dogs Shirt, hoodie, tank top
Nancy Pelosi typically came across as determined, focused, even fierce – all qualities that helped her rise in a man’s world. Only occasionally would she display flashes of the warmth and humor that her friends described. She was so disciplined that she could seem robotic. She had to work to slow down her breathless staccato. She would sometimes stumble over words, prompting detractors to falsely accuse her of being drunk, although in fact she rarely had a drink beyond a sip of champagne on celebratory occasions. (That included the time Janet Yellen rather than Larry Summers was named to chair the Federal Reserve.) Republicans caricatured her as a loony left-winger, a “San Francisco liberal.”
Unknown to most, she had been seriously contemplating retirement in 2016 when the unexpected election of Trump changed her mind. Now, whatever her shortcomings, she seemed to be precisely the right person at the right time. Tim Ryan, the Ohio congressman who challenged her for the Democratic leadership in 2016, acknowledged that to me in 2020. “Her political instincts – nobody I ever worked with had any better instincts,” he told me. She eventually would command the solid backing of Democrats. Even those who had questioned her leadership in the past came to view her as indispensable in the era of Trump.
President Trump rattled her publicly only once – during a State of the Union address that included the presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh – but Pelosi regularly rattled him. When he stomped out of a White House meeting after a confrontation over funding a wall along the Mexican border, she was dismissive.