Susan Page is the author of the new biography Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power. Page also has written The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty. She is the Washington bureau chief of USA Today, and and she lives in Washington, D.C.
Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Nancy Pelosi?
A: I was surprised that a solid, up-to-date biography of Nancy Pelosi hadn’t been written. And while everybody knows about her role as a groundbreaking woman – the most powerful woman in the history of the U.S. government – I thought that fact obscured others.
She’s not just the first woman to be Speaker of the House. She’s also the most consequential Speaker since the legendary Sam Rayburn. She’s one of the most effective legislative leaders we’ve ever had, male or female. That seemed worth exploring.
Q: In the Washington Post review of the book, Jill Filipovic writes, "Instead of offering an intimate look at Pelosi’s true self or even her motivations, Page approaches the speaker as a study in power. The result is a biography that doesn’t plumb the depths of Pelosi’s soul but does fully reckon with her as a history-changing force — it’s a kind of Great Woman biography in the style usually reserved for great men." What do you think of that description of your approach?
A: That was my favorite review of the book! I researched and wrote about Pelosi as a human being with a rich personal life, including raising five children as an (almost) stay-at-home mother.
But it was her comfort and skills with power – gaining power, wielding power, and holding on to power – that forms the spine of this biography. She is as comfortable with power as any public official I’ve ever covered.
I concluded that was in part because she was born into a household in which power was like running water and electricity. Her dad was the Tommy the Elder D’Alesandro, the legendary three-term mayor of Baltimore.
Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Pelosi and Trump?
A: Toxic. Contemptuous. Explosive. She impeached him – twice! There has never been a relationship so broken between a president and House speaker in our history.
Q: As you researched the book, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: Pelosi’s amazing mother, Big Nancy D’Alesandro. She was smart, ambitious, restless, indefatigable. She helped forge and drive her husband’s political machine, but she always wanted to be a lawyer, an aspiration she never achieved.
She was a woman ahead of her times. Pelosi told me that, if her mother were born today, she would be president of the United States.
She invented a facial machine, patented it, had it manufactured and sold it. (My son Bill found one of them for sale on eBay and bought it for my birthday. It still worked.)
She loved risk. She played the ponies at Pimlico. Sometimes her husband, the mayor, would go to Sabatini’s Restaurant in Little Italy and pay off her debts with the bookies who held court there.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve signed a contract with Simon & Schuster to write a biography of another formidable woman, Barbara Walters. So I’m definitely in the market for Barbara Walters anecdotes!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Nancy Pelosi is now in the middle of what may be her toughest battle ever, to win passage of President Biden’s infrastructure bill and that huge reconciliation bill.
She’s won fights like this before, notably President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. But then she could afford to lose 39 House Democrats and still carry a party-line vote. This time? She can lose only three.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb