"Pelosi," | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Updated: Aug 14
Molly Ball has written a first-rate political biography of the most powerful woman in American civil history. Based on years of in-depth reporting and personal interviews with Nancy Pelosi, Ball shares family stories from Pelosi's childhood, adolescence and early years of marriage.
Nancy D’Alesandro was born into a prominent Maryland Democratic family in 1940. Her father, Thomas Jr., was a five-term Congressman and later a three-term Mayor of Baltimore. Her immigrant mother, Annunciata Lombardi D’Alesandro, was the “chief strategist and political enforcer ” who campaigned for her husband while raising seven children.
San Francisco became the Pelosi family base because of Nancy’s husband Paul’s career in finance and development. By the time Nancy turned 30, in 1970, the Pelosi’s had five children. Nancy became deeply engaged in child rearing and volunteering for community organizations.
Ball chronicles the labyrinthine path Pelosi followed to enter politics. She began hosting Democratic fundraisers in her home where she made connections with many party leaders. Her first political position was as a board member for the San Francisco Public Library Commission, an appointment made by Mayor Joseph Alioto. This assignment whetted her appetite for higher political positions. She gained the post of Chair of the California Democratic Party in 1981.
Pelosi was elected to the House of Representatives in 1987, following the death of Representative Sala Burton. Once she took the oath of office, she faced harassment and flagrant misogyny from countless male House members. She was one of only 23 women in the 435-member House of Representatives. (Currently, 101 women from 34 states are members of the House.)
Her remarkable skill at overcoming marginalization and bigotry gained attention from her male counterparts and opened doors to increasingly powerful positions within her party. Twenty years after her election to Congress she became the first female Speaker of the House.
As Speaker she has been demonized by the right and called a dinosaur by the left, yet she has demonstrated extraordinary leadership in navigating divisive issues such as assistance for victims of AIDS, the Iraq war, the 2008 financial bailout, the Affordable Care Act and the impeachment of President Trump.
Within the Democratic Party, conservative members characterize her as a San Francisco limousine liberal and dilettante housewife with extreme views while those at the far-left of the Party criticize her for being too moderate. Allies and foes alike describe her as controlling, inflexible and commanding, yet all marvel that she can hold such a disparate caucus together.
Pelosi has gained the respect of many legislators in both parties for her willingness to challenge and debunk some of President Donald Trump’s impulsive statements. The respected politician also has gained a reputation for furthering her policy goals at the expense of her own image, caring less about how she is perceived and more about what she can accomplish. She is an imperious master legislator as well as a pragmatic party leader who knows how to count votes.
Ball’s page-turner paints an intimate portrait of a relentlessly tough 30-year veteran of Congress. The Speaker is not intimidated by presidents, senators or others who try to challenge her understanding of U.S. democracy.
There are several personal details that add interest to the biography—“she never drank alcohol, rarely had caffeine that wasn't from her beloved dark chocolate and didn't need more than a few hours’ sleep per night.”
“Pelosi,” Ball writes is, “a private person, and her inner life is fundamentally off limits.” Ball is not successful in breaking through Pelosi's rigid exterior, so the narrative is primarily based on the author’s thorough research of Pelosi’s record.