In yesterday’s open thread headlined by Pelosi’s picture, there were a few comments about her lack of popularity amongst non-political types. I’ve had the same experience as those commenters: a couple of friends who vote Democratic, but don’t care much about politics, really dislike Nancy Pelosi.
If you look at past Speakers, this isn’t really surprising. The ones who made a lot of headlines, like Tip O’Neill and Newt Gingrich, weren’t that great. Tip was in a similar position as Pelosi (Democrats controlled both Houses and the Presidency), but Democrats dropped the ball on his watch. With all the press he gets, it’s easy to forget that Newt was deposed by his own party after 4 years.
Unlike Tip and Newt, the man widely considered to be the best Speaker in history, Sam Rayburn, “preferred working quietly in the background to being in the public spotlight.” His successor, John McCormack, shepherded landmark civil rights legislation, as well as Medicare, through the House, yet LBJ gets all the credit for those accomplishments. And let’s not forget Carl Albert, because everyone else has.
Pelosi is unpopular because the talents needed to be a good speaker just don’t sell soap. She’s ferociously on-message, which makes her public statements look wooden and over-rehearsed. The tale of her upbringing as daughter of a machine mayor is short on human interest, but long on the arm-twisting and favor-trading a good Speaker needs to master.
In short: she’s intense, focused, ruthless and competent. Those qualities won’t get her a movie of the week or a permanent spot on Meet the Press, but they might just get the most important piece of legislation in the last 40 years through the House.