Friday, May 23, 2008

Madam Speaker


I flew through Marc Sandalow's Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi's Life, Times, and Rise to Power. It was built for speed; short paragraphs, newspaper style, probably the result of Sandalow's former day job at the Chronicle.

Readers expecting a full-blown, soup-to-nuts critical biography won't find it here. Also, the "Times" part of the subtitle isn't quite apt. This is Pelosi's life story, told quickly and effectively, but without the benefit of much retrospection or even cooperation from the subject or her staff. (Pelosi is planning to write a memoir.) For this more replete kind of biography of a San Francisco politician, the gold standard is still John Jacobs's Rage for Justice, which features Phil Burton, one of Pelosi's mentors.

Still, I enjoyed Madam Speaker and learned a lot from it. In fact, one of the things I learned is that Pelosi wasn't Burton's creature, though Burton's widow essentially bequeathed her House seat to Pelosi on her death bed. According to Sandalow, Pelosi said that Phil Burton might not have supported that move. Interesting.

The other thing I learned is how much political savvy Pelosi picked up from her family in Baltimore. Her father was elected both to the House and as mayor, and he did retail politics the old-fashioned way--right in the neighborhood. In fact, he did a lot of it in the house, which was frequently full of constituents seeking favors and whatnot. Pelosi's father also provides a good deal of the book's color. Her messaging is very disciplined, which is necessary these days. He was more willing to open up his game, and Sandalow records some of his zingers, at least two of which I found hilarious.

The picture that emerges from Sandalow's biography is that of an organized, hardworking, business-like leader. She's sure of her convictions but focused on results, self-respecting but more than willing to share the credit. Most of her peers describe her as a tough Italian grandmother--which happens to match her self-description. "I'm not taking complaints today," she used to tell her five young children when the lamentations began. But like all good legislative leaders, she knows what motivates her colleagues, tracks every detail, and takes no mess.

Very worthwhile. (Full disclosure: I edit Pelosi's daughter, Christine.)

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