Power, freedom and the ways in which the former could most effectively be wielded to achieve the latter were very much on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s mind Thursday morning.
The night before, the California Democrat had welcomed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the Capitol, where he delivered a rousing speech to a joint meeting of Congress during a surprise visit to Washington, his first trip outside Ukraine since Russia invaded the country in February.
Zelensky’s speech was part of “a momentous week for our democracy,” Pelosi declared Thursday in her final news conference as speaker. It had also reminded her of another moment from decades ago, when Winston Churchill, prime minister of the United Kingdom, spoke to Congress in 1941, as World War II was underway. In the audience was Pelosi’s father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., then a young congressman from Maryland. Pelosi herself was a toddler at the time.
“It always was a source of pride to me that my father was there that day and now a source of pride that I could be there to hear another heroic leader of … a country at war, come ask for help,” Pelosi said. “When Winston Churchill came … he said, ‘We are doing the noblest task in the world, not only defending our hearths and homes, but the cause of freedom in every land.’ So much the theme, so much the common purpose of President Zelensky.”
In a matter of days, Pelosi, 82, will relinquish the speaker’s gavel and step down from party leadership after two decades. In 2006, she became the first woman elected speaker, after serving four years as minority leader. Last month, after Republicans retook the House majority in the midterm elections, Pelosi announced that the hour had come “for a new generation” to lead the Democratic caucus. She will remain a lawmaker representing the San Francisco area.
In farewell speeches and events, Pelosi has spent the past few weeks emphasizing the importance of defending democracy, turning a lame-duck session of Congress into her swan song of sorts as a foil against former president Donald Trump. She opened her final news conference Thursday thanking reporters, calling them “guardians of democracy,” a sharp contrast to Trump’s attacks on the press.
Her remarks also came just before a final report was set to be released by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol seeking to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral win.
“The 117th Congress began with a violent assault on our democracy, and now we hear its conclusions,” Pelosi said. “We have a vital road map, ensuring justice will be done and that this won’t happen again.”
As she often does, Pelosi avoided calling out Trump specifically, instead referring to him Thursday as “what’s his name” when listing the presidents she has worked with. The two had a famously tumultuous relationship when Trump was in office, a tension that birthed a thousand memes, as Pelosi challenged him in the White House, clapped at him wryly and tore up a copy of his third State of the Union speech.
The animosity was returned in orders of magnitude from Trump and his supporters. Footage from the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection showed that, while rioters strode through the Capitol’s hallways with bear spray and body armor in search of Pelosi — yelling “Where are you, Nancy?” and “Bring her out!” — she remained calm as she made efforts to reach the National Guard and procure the safety of her fellow lawmakers.
Still, when asked Thursday to reflect on her time as party leader, Pelosi said her most difficult task was not wrangling votes for the 2010 Affordable Care Act or trying to stay safe during an attack on the Capitol. Instead, she cited being a minority leader alongside a Democratic president and having to convince her caucus members to sustain a presidential veto against GOP legislation.
“The Republicans would roll out stuff that sounded like a chocolate sundae, but it’s more like doggy doo,” she said. “So I’d rather be writing the Affordable Care Act or any other massive legislation than to have to go to my members and say, ‘My friend, in friendship, I really need your vote to sustain the president’s veto.’ That was the hardest.”
Pelosi said she had not had any formal conversations with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is seeking to become House speaker next year, but said she didn’t think anyone needed her advice.
“You’ve heard me say even about our own distinguished leadership. I’m not going to be the mother-in-law who comes in and says, this is the way my son likes his turkey, stuffing, his scrambled eggs or anything else. They have to have their own vitality about it all. And they do,” Pelosi said. “I’m just hoping that on Jan. 3rd that they’ll be expeditiously able to elect a speaker so that we can get on with the work of the Congress.”
Pelosi acknowledged that she would be transitioning from a role that comes with “awesome power” to one with still “strong,” if subtler influence, particularly on women who might want to run for office. Pelosi recalled how, when she arrived in Congress in 1987, there were only 23 women in the House out of 435 lawmakers.
“I want women to have confidence,” Pelosi said. “So sometimes when I act a little more, shall we say, like myself, it’s because I want them to know it’s okay to assert yourself, to have confidence in what you bring to the table, and also to understand your uniqueness.”
Pelosi ended by citing President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech, which she said she recalled attending in the “freezing cold.” Most people remember the penultimate sentence, she said, recalling Kennedy’s speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for our country.” But Pelosi said it was the next sentence that struck her: “Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
She has told Biden that he has fulfilled in so many ways what Kennedy was signaling in his ability to rally international support for Ukraine.
“Working together with all of the countries to come together to support Ukraine, not by dictating what we think is the way to go, but through listening, working together so that everybody felt committed to a plan for the freedom of mankind,” Pelosi said. “And that’s how I tie being there as my father’s daughter at the inauguration to what happened this week and what our responsibilities are later.”