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Pelosi's former chief of staff on the House speaker's legacy


We're going to start today with the monumental change to come in House Democratic leadership. Earlier this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she will be stepping down from party leadership after some two decades in the role in one form or another. Pelosi was the first woman to serve as speaker of the house when she was elected in 2007. She saw her party lose the House in 2011 and regain control in 2019. During her tenure, she oversaw the bank bailout in 2008 and passage of the Affordable Care Act, among other important legislative accomplishments. But in many ways, she was more than the sum of these legislative accomplishments, to her benefit and to her detriment. She became, in a way, the face of opposition to President Trump and a target of loathing on the right, even as she sparred with younger, more progressive members of her own party.

We'd like to take a look at Speaker Pelosi's legacy after more than two decades in leadership. And for that, we've called someone who had a front-row seat for a lot of it. John Lawrence worked for eight years as Speaker Pelosi's chief of staff from 2005 to 2013, and he wrote a book about his experience titled "Arc Of Power: Inside Nancy Pelosi's Speakership, 2005-2010."

And John Lawrence is with us now. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

JOHN LAWRENCE: Thank you, Michel. It's good to be with you.

MARTIN: We've talked a lot in recent days about what Nancy Pelosi is, like the first woman speaker and things of that sort. Since your book focused on her first speakership, what are your observations from that time? What is it that has caused her to be in such a pivotal position for so long?

LAWRENCE: I think the answer to that question is that she does a lot of things very, very well simultaneously. She is both the strategic master of the House. She has an intimate knowledge of her individual members and what their needs are, both politically and substantively. She has a very detailed knowledge of the legislative priorities, and she's been very, very effective at keeping her people united and then producing very significant legislative outcomes under both Democratic and Republican presidents.

MARTIN: I want to talk about that. She worked with four presidents, two from each party. What can you tell us about how she thought about that and what her relationships with these presidents was?

LAWRENCE: It was very unique because she had, for example, with President Bush, a very volatile and confrontational relationship, particularly over Iraq. And she very strongly criticized his management - or mismanagement, as she saw it - of financial regulatory reform. But when the economy began to crumble in 2008, and then, of course, in September, face this enormous crisis, she was able to not only work collaboratively and positively with President Bush to save the country from a recession but to work also with John Boehner, the Republican leader, and produce a bipartisan piece of legislation. She similarly, under President Trump, who she had little love lost for, but worked collaboratively with him to pass the initial COVID relief legislation. So in both those cases, I think it belies what is sometimes looked upon as a purely partisan approach that she took. She knew how to collaborate, and she put the interests of the country and she put the interests of the House first.

MARTIN: You wrote a column in the Hill that I want to mention. Let me just read a quote from you. "Pelosi's most remarkable achievement was not her ability to deliver the sweeping reform she and a majority of her House caucus preferred but her facility for persuading similarly disappointed liberals to take the best version of a bill she could negotiate and then continue to fight for more, how she herself made peace with not always being able to accomplish the things that she cared about the most in the way that she wanted." Do - just shed some light on that.

LAWRENCE: Sure. And it's not just what she wanted. It's also what the House wanted. You know, the House is elected in these short terms. It has these small districts. And so you get a lot of demands, particularly if you're a Democrat coming out of your caucus. And you can pass them very often in the House if you can keep your Democrats united. But then you run into the Senate and the filibuster. You run into the administration.

And what very often would happen is that she would be able to pass legislation through the House that was very satisfying, in some cases, to her most progressive constituencies. But she would not be able to secure the support she needed in the Senate to get that legislation enacted into law. And so she had to have the credibility of going back to her caucus and saying, look, you know that I share these points of views, but we can't get through the Senate. We can't get - it's a presidential signature on it. And she had the credibility to secure the support she needed, whether it was on the health care law or whether it was on Iraq funding or where it didn't reflect with the House progressive element.

MARTIN: I have to bring up the haters here. I mean, there have been a number of Democratic House speakers who served for many years and who ran a tight ship. I mean, I think about Sam Rayburn. I'm thinking about Tip O'Neill. It does - just does not seem, unless I'm misreading the history, that they became kind of the object of hatred in the way that speaker Pelosi did. Is that because she's a woman? Or is that because we just live in a time when the means exist to kind of make people a target of derision in a way that they didn't? Like, there was no social media when Tip O'Neill was speaker. So what are your thoughts about that?

LAWRENCE: I think it's valuable to look at, in a historical sense, her tenure as speaker and particularly this period of time, these 20 years that she has been the leader of the House Democrats. They do coincide with this rise in hyperpartisanship and this ideological competition between the two parties. And certainly having a woman from San Francisco and a liberal, which is like the dream of Republicans in terms of a target to go after, has put her particularly at a disadvantage in terms of becoming emblematic of what Republicans have criticized. However, you know, I've been around her enough times when she's heard those kinds of criticism. She flicks her fingers on her shoulders as if to say, that's not really what's important. Let's figure out how to pass the bill.

MARTIN: Obviously, she leaves a powerful legacy. How do you think her legacy will influence whoever the next leader of the party will be?

LAWRENCE: Well, as I wrote in that article, they're big high heels to fill. And I think everybody understands that. But she does leave a blueprint, if you will, and it is that you don't successfully exercise that power in a congressional caucus by intimidating people, by threatening them. You have to work with them. You have to know them, whether it required flying out to their district, walking around in cowboy boots at the Minnesota State Fair, eating a pork chop on a stick - not exactly the image that Nancy Pelosi likes to project. She knows how to build that coalition. When you're a congressional leader, you know, you have not been given power over people. You've been delegated to lead them and work with them. She understands that. And that to me is the blueprint for how to be a successful leader in the House of Representatives.

MARTIN: That was John Lawrence. He served eight years as the chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and he recently published a book about the experience. It's titled "Arc Of Power: Inside Nancy Pelosi's Speakership, 2005-2010." Mr. Lawrence, thank you so much for joining us and sharing these insights with us.

LAWRENCE: It's a pleasure to be with you. Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.