Education of a Speaker by Chris Byrd

Pelosi in the House
Directed and produced
by Alexandra Pelosi
HBO Documentary Films
TV-14   1 hour, 49 minutes

How her family’s political lessons and devout Catholic faith shaped the former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi are abundantly displayed in Pelosi in the House, a candid, fascinating, and poignant documentary now streaming on HBO Max. The politician’s daughter Alexandra directs the film, which was shot over three decades. This is her 14th documentary for HBO.

Nancy D’Alesandro, Thomas D’Alesandro’s only daughter and youngest child, learned from her father: “It was important to know how to count.” Thomas, she says, “was a New Deal Democrat, who worshipped at the shrine of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” From the time she was in first grade until she went to college, her dad was Baltimore’s mayor. His son and namesake Tommy also served as Charm City’s mayor from 1967 to 1971, and he taught Nancy “to own the ground.”

Months prior to her dad’s August 1987 death, Pelosi—a mother of five—was sworn in as a first-time congresswoman representing California’s 11th district. In 2007, she became the first woman to ascend to the speakership.

As reflected in President George W. Bush’s congenial remarks in his 2007 State of the Union address, Republican leaders graciously recognized this history. Bush noted that Pelosi’s father had seen Presidents Roosevelt and Truman “at this rostrum,” but “nothing could compare,” he said, “with seeing his only daughter presiding as the Speaker of the House of Representatives.”

The documentary charts how that comity erodes as personal attacks against the Speaker rose as she increasingly occupied the center of the nation’s most contentious political battles, especially when she masterfully steered the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to its historic passage in March 23, 2010. Pelosi says of her signature legislative achievement: “This is why we are Democrats.”

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, however, viscerally and melodramatically states that the bill “is greatest threat to freedom I’ve seen in the 19 years I’ve been in Washington.” And the late Arizonan Republican Senator John McCain vows to repeal the ACA.

Now a fierce Donald Trump critic, fellow Catholic and former Republican National Party Chairman Michael Steele organized the “Fire Nancy” bus tour during the 2010 midterm elections, which resulted in the Californian losing her speakership.

Pelosi remained motivated to save the ACA even after Trump threatened to repeal it. With the help, ironically, of a dying McCain in 2017, the ACA wasn’t repealed.

Pelosi in the House correctly understands the irrational and dangerous animosity directed toward the Speaker that drove the right’s protracted battle over Obamacare also informed the January 6 insurrection. The Tea Party activists’ mocking sing-song chants of “Nancy” in 2010 foreshadow what the January 6 mob said as they roamed the Capitol hunting her. And Steele’s “Fire Nancy” campaign becomes more menacing in this context.

Alexandra Pelosi’s cinema vérité style challenges viewers to experience the trauma others felt that awful day. In one of the documentary’s more chilling moments, security footage captures Pelosi’s staffers barricading themselves in her offices. Hiding under desks, they don’t speak for hours until order is restored.

Pelosi won’t let the coup succeed. “We can’t stop the proceedings,” she says. “Otherwise, they will have a complete victory.”

When the Speaker tells her colleagues the insurrectionists didn’t win, the camera tellingly glimpses two Republican congressmen, Florida’s Matt Gaetz and Ohio’s Jim Jordan, the insurrectionists’ allies, reminding viewers democracy prevailed and the coup instigators didn’t. This is one of the film’s more poignant moments.

Viewers will particularly appreciate the centrality of Pelosi’s Catholic faith in her life and work. The film’s most touching moment occurs in 2017 when her husband, Paul, and two grandchildren accompany her to a papal audience. Pelosi especially wants Francis to see a document that reflects, she says, “150 years of Catholic education.”

When a reporter asks before the first Trump impeachment if she hates him, she famously responds: “I was raised in a Catholic house. I don’t hate anybody. Don’t mess with me when it comes to words like that.”

She reminds her Democratic colleagues before the rabble storm the Capitol that January 6 is the Feast of Epiphany. “Today will be an Epiphany for the American people,” she says, “as they see the difference between our respect for the oath we take versus what they’re up to.”

An unvarnished yet affectionate portrait of arguably the most consequential Speaker of the House in American history, Pelosi in the House offers a refreshingly stark contrast to the current house leadership. ♦

Chris Byrd writes from Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in America, Sojourners, and the National Catholic Reporter.

Image: Nancy Pelosi visits WC Kitchen, helping Chef José Andrés and the Chefs for Feds team serve food to federal workers forced to go without pay during the government shutdown, January 22, 2019.
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1 reply
  1. Angela Crowley, PhD, APRN, FAAN
    Angela Crowley, PhD, APRN, FAAN says:

    Excellent critique. I viewed this film and loved it! Nancy Pelosi is one of my heroes and a national treasure. Indeed her Catholic faith informs her professional and personal life.


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