Speaker Nancy Pelosi celebrated her 80th birthday Thursday getting ready to shepherd the biggest economic bill in history through the U.S. House she leads. The Senate version of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill turned out to be 880 pages long, presumably a coincidence and not a tribute.
Reporters greeted her with a chorus of “happy birthdays” when she arrived for a briefing in the Capitol. “I’m not celebrating, though, until I can hug my grandbabies,” she replied with a smile. “Waiting for that day.”
Eighty years ago, news of her birth, the daughter of a first-term Baltimore congressman, also made headlines in the local press. It was a time, though, that any thoughts of a political dynasty focused on her five older brothers, not on the only girl in the family.
Now, of course, she’s the one who is running the House.
“It’s a Girl for the D’Alesandro’s,” The Baltimore News-Post headline declared over a four-column photo at the top of the front page that showed the swaddled newborn only hours after she was born at the city’s St. Joseph Hospital.
The Baltimore Sun took a more political tilt: “Tommy D’Alesandro Announces Another Sure Vote — It’s a Girl.”
The Baltimore Guide offered a prediction that in retrospect seems practically prescient. “D’Alesandro Will Find New Boss in First Daughter,” it said, adding, “We predict that this little lady will soon be a ‘Queen’ in her own right.”
In Baltimore during those days, just about everybody knew the D’Alesandros. Tommy D’Alesandro Jr. was an up-and-coming pol, dapper and charismatic. At 36, he had already served two terms in the state legislature and a stint on the Baltimore City Council, then been elected to Congress. He represented Maryland’s Third District, which included Little Italy and other ethnic enclaves across the city.
He won the U.S. House seat by ousting a six-term incumbent, Vincent Palmisano, in the Democratic primary. Years earlier, Palmisano, a political leader who lived around the corner, had taken an instant dislike to the younger man when he wanted to run for Maryland House of Delegates. Later, it would be D’Alesandro who ended Palmisano’s career.
That would provide one of the political lessons that Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi never forgot. “Power’s not anything that anybody gives away,” she would declare. “You have to fight for it.” It was a precept that her father had followed in challenging Palmisano. It was advice she regularly gave Democrats contemplating tough contests. And it was the approach she would apply in a career that would make her the most powerful woman in the history of American politics.
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She would have the sort of deep understanding of politics, bred in her bones, that is particular to those for whom public office is the family business.
“What I learned from my father was everything,” she said. “I didn’t learn like you learn lessons. I learned by osmosis. I breathed it in. You can’t articulate it. Politics is every minute of every day. It is part of you.”
A week before she was born, her father had announced his candidacy for a second term in the House of Representatives, warning of perilous times for the nation ahead as war clouds gathered. A year later, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would catapult the United States into World War II.