Saturday, February 2, 2019

A tale of two Speakers of the House

Nancy Pelosi’s government web site has this to say: “Pelosi comes from a strong family tradition of public service. Her late father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., served as Mayor of Baltimore for 12 years, after representing the city for five terms in Congress. Her brother, Thomas D’Alesandro III, also served as Mayor of Baltimore. She graduated from Trinity College in Washington, D.C. She and her husband, Paul Pelosi, a native of San Francisco, have five grown children and nine grandchildren.” It also lists her remarkable legislative accomplishments during her years of public service.

But there is another side to her family background that offers insights into the kind of Speaker she will be (and is now). Cokie Roberts explains the source of The lessons that could sustain Nancy Pelosi’s power

I did not know (or more likely just forgot) that Pelosi and Roberts grew up together and shared close family ties. Roberts’ parents were politicians Hale and Lindy Boggs. Another Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, was a frequent visitor to the Boggs’ home. Cokie recalls.

It would be difficult to find two people more seemingly dissimilar than the elegant, coifed, California-by-way-of-Baltimore Catholic mother of five who serves as the speaker of the House of Representatives and the squat, bald Texas Baptist bachelor who held the job longer than anyone else. Other than the fact that they both have served interrupted terms as speaker, what else could Nancy Pelosi and Sam Rayburn possibly share?

As one of “Mr. Sam’s” chosen children, a surrogate grandchild who could call on the old gentleman for such duties as presiding over the funeral of a pet chicken, I think I can answer that question. Rayburn had “adopted” my parents, Hale Boggs (eventually House majority leader) and Lindy Boggs (eventually a nine-term member of Congress), when they came to Washington as 20-somethings in 1941.

Mr. Speaker often invited himself to dinner, giving us the opportunity to know the man and absorb his wisdom. When we were kids, Nancy D’Alesandro [now Pelosi] was another “congressional brat,” in an era when we all knew each other and, over the years, the families stayed in touch. …

Roberts writes “here’s what the two speakers share: toughness, tenacity, a good deal of common sense, a passion for service to the country and, yes, a sweetness, especially in the presence of children.”

I then went looking in Roberts’ recollections for some tidbits of wisdom from Rayburn the Speaker that would come to define Pelosi the Speaker.

… One that Pelosi often quotes: “Don’t fight every fight as if it’s your last fight.” Here’s another regular Rayburn refrain often repeated in our house: “Tell the truth the first time, then you don’t have to remember what you said.”

That adage (one of many Rayburn aphorisms) couldn’t be more important than at this moment when facts fall victim to political arguments. Not only are the facts themselves essential to the making of public policy, but also Pelosi knows they have to be presented honestly, that she has to level with members on both sides of the aisle and the general public.

Then there’s the question of tactics. Generally, Rayburn got the votes through what he called “persuasion and reason” and the forging of personal friendships. Outsiders might rail against inside-the-Beltway chumminess, but, in fact, today’s hyperpartisanship has destroyed across-the-aisle camaraderie. Pelosi knows how valuable personal relationships can be when it comes to governing. Those friendships flourished in the Rayburn regime and would be welcome again if the true believers in each party would allow them.

My personal favorite of the many Rayburn’s aphorisms — “Legislation should never be designed to punish anyone” — should be etched into the stone wall of the Capitol Rotunda. Congress is here to help — not hurt — everyone, not just the people who vote for you.

To these lessons, I’d resoundingly reaffirm the one Pelosi always graciously gives my mother credit for teaching her: “Know thy power.” Mamma had known Nancy since she was a little girl whose father served in Congress with mine. In 1984, they sought each other out when my mother, by then a six-term congresswoman herself and a member of the site selection committee for the Democratic National Convention, visited San Francisco, where Pelosi was chairing the host committee.

As Pelosi tells the story, she fretted that she had so many honors bestowed on her, maybe she should shed a few. Mamma’s reply: “Darlin’, no man would ever, ever have that thought.”

Pelosi faces daunting challenges — a government shutdown right out of the box could serve as a cautionary tale of what’s to come — but she believes in fighting hard for goals you really believe in. There, too, Rayburn serves as an example. To paraphrase his Texas protege, Lyndon B. Johnson, what is the speakership for, if not that.

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