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The Backstory: Nancy Pelosi's No. 1 lesson on power: 'Nobody's going to give it to you. You've got to take it.'

Nicole Carroll, USA TODAY
·7 min read
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I'm USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you'd like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.

"No one's going to give you power. You have to seize it." That's a lesson Nancy Pelosi's father taught her, and a top takeaway from Pelosi's own career, says Susan Page, USA TODAY Washington Bureau chief.

Page interviewed House Speaker Pelosi 10 times during the past two years for her biography, "Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power," out April 20. She also spoke with 150 others close to the speaker.

This week, we ran exclusive excerpts from the book focusing on how Donald Trump upended Pelosi's plans (she had considered retiring in 2016) and how Ted Kennedy and Pelosi pushed Barack Obama to go big on health care.

"Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power" by Susan Page
"Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power" by Susan Page

"When people come to her and say, you know, 'Give me power,' or 'Should I run?' this is the advice that she's given over the years," Page says. "'Nobody's going to give it to you. You've got to take it.'"

Pelosi's father challenged a long-term incumbent Democrat in a primary to take his seat as a U.S. representative from Maryland. Pelosi bested longtime rival Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., for the House Democratic whip role in 2001, Page says, "at a time that was considered quite 'how dare she.'"

Page starting thinking of writing a Pelosi biography as she was finishing her last book, on the life and impact of Barbara Bush.

"She had the two things I wanted," Page says about Pelosi. "She had been consequential. She'd done things and she had been unrecognized or underestimated."

Page rattles off some of Pelosi's accomplishments: "She was the highest ranking person in Congress to oppose the Iraq War from the start. She was the leading critic of China on human rights issues. She personally pushed through the bank bailout that probably prevented another Great Depression. She is responsible for the enactment of the Affordable Care Act. Obama deserves credit, too, but it wouldn't have happened (without her). And she became the top Democratic counterpoint to the most disruptive president in American history."

And that was the lesson of the book for Page. "Some people think Pelosi is prominent because she's the most powerful woman in American history. I think Pelosi is important because she's one of the most powerful people in American history."

But Page is also quick to point out that Pelosi is not perfect. There will be things in the book that Pelosi will not like.

"It quotes people who say she did a lot for the Republicans because she was wildly ideological and it talks about her comfort with big money," Page says. "And the way in which her leadership contributed to our hyperpartisanship. It's not responsible for it, but she has been part of it an increasingly partisan system.

"The book does not make a case that she's great or not great. It makes the case that she's been important."

Pelosi's lesson for power, "Take it," is exactly what Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did in challenging a 10-term incumbent to win her seat representing Queens and the Bronx. Ocasio-Cortez and other new female members, "the Squad," began pushing the speaker on progressive causes.

Page sat down with Pelosi the afternoon of a Twitter blow up with the Squad, particularly Ocasio-Cortez's chief of staff who said his boss was better at leading than Pelosi.

Page says "she was still wound tight" as the interview began.

Page makes it clear Pelosi didn't fault Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad for being passionate about causes, "but she had little use for those who weren't 'operational,' a word that was the highest praise she could give a politician."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talks with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., right, and her mother Blanca Ocasio-Cortez, center, during a ceremonial swearing-in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, during the opening session of the 116th Congress.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talks with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., right, and her mother Blanca Ocasio-Cortez, center, during a ceremonial swearing-in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, during the opening session of the 116th Congress.

"They'll understand when they have something they want to pass," Pelosi told Page. "If you don't want any results, you don't ever have to do anything. But if you have something that you want to pass, you're better off not having your chief of staff send out a tweet in the manner in which that was sent out. Totally inappropriate.

"I've never seen anything like it."

Two weeks later, Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez would meet to clear the air and the chief of staff moved to a progressive think tank.

The speaker is guarded and disciplined in her interviews, Page says, but she did share some untold stories, like the backstory of why she tore up Trump's State of the Union speech.

"The problem that she couldn't find a pen and there was supposed to be a pen in the little desk. And there was no pen there," Page says. "And he said something in the text that she thought was wrong and she wanted to remember it. So she tore a little piece of it. And then she kept tearing a little piece of it because she kept finding things that she thought were wrong and she wanted to remember them.

"And by the end of it, there were so many tears in the speech. And she said, I might as well just tear this up."

It didn't start as the worldwide gesture it became, Page says, it began as "where's my pen?"

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi rips up the speech after President Donald J. Trump concludes delivering the State of the Union address from the House chamber of the United States Capitol in Washington on Feb. 4, 2020.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi rips up the speech after President Donald J. Trump concludes delivering the State of the Union address from the House chamber of the United States Capitol in Washington on Feb. 4, 2020.

Page says the interviews lasted about an hour each, and often happened on consequential days, such as the first day of impeachment hearings or the day of the blow up with Squad. Even then, the speaker kept her appointments.

And while Pelosi was cooperative, she had limits. Page asked Pelosi if she would give her approval to release her high school and college transcripts. She had asked the same of Barbara Bush.

"When I asked Barbara Bush for a transcript, she thought this was hilarious and immediately wrote a letter saying, 'Although I fear she'll be disappointed, I give Susan Page permission to read my high school transcripts." When I asked Pelosi that, she just looked like 'How could you possibly think I would let you see that?' although in high school and in college, everyone said she was a model student."

The most surprising finding for Page was learning about the influence of Pelosi's mother, the ambitious, larger-than-life "Big Nancy," often overlooked because of the shadow of Pelosi's well-known political father.

Pelosi was the youngest child, a girl after five boys. Her mother encouraged her to be a nun, Page says. "And Nancy at a very young age said, 'I don't think I want to be a nun. I might be interested in being a priest.' Because the priests of course are in charge."

And that is the reason the book is subtitled "the lessons of power," Page says. Early drafts were titled the "arc" of power and the "tests" of power. Those names are crossed out on a white board behind her home office desk.

"Nancy Pelosi is incredibly comfortable with power in a way that very few people are. And especially very few women are, especially of her generation," Page says. "She's comfortable with that because she grew up in this home that had tremendous power in it. And that goes to both the father and the mother."

Page plans to do a third book but has "no idea" on whom. She'd like it to be someone who made a difference but whose story has not been fully told.

"I'm not just open to suggestions," she says laughing. "I'm eager."

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Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free experience or electronic newspaper replica here.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nancy Pelosi's legacy as one of the most important people in history