My interest in Madam Speaker and Susan Page
Susan Page is an American journalist and biographer and the Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today. Prior to Madam Speaker, Page published another biography titled, the Matriarch, a biography on Barbara Bush. I haven’t read this biography, but it is on my to-be-read shelf. I have a great admiration for Nancy Pelosi, which I will explore in a bit, but the big reason I wanted to read Madam Speaker (and eventually the Matriarch) was because of my history with Susan Page. She isn’t a major celebrity journalist. That is, she doesn’t host any television segments or any podcasts. However, she is a semi-frequent guest on some public radio/broadcasting shows. In fact, it was on NPR’s the Diane Rehm Show (now the 1A) that I first heard her discuss various political topics. I think this was around 2011-2012, when I first started listen and it made me want to be the kind of person who listens to NPR. I figured, I could try. Next thing you know, I actually really liked it.) The Diane Rehm Show was the first show I really became attached to, but in 2016, Diane Rehm retired. I really hoped Page would be her replacement (as did many others), but it went to a new face. All in all, I really like where the 1A is now, but it left me wishing there was more amazing reporting by Page to enjoy. Which is why, when I learned that she had written a book (the Matriarch), I knew I had to read it.
Not long after buying the Matriarch, I realized Page was writing a new book. I did what I often do; I looked for an advanced reader copy. Sadly, it wasn’t on NetGalley, so I emailed the publisher. They didn’t answer. A few months later, I sent a snarky email (that I now wish was more cordial) about how the least they could do is say no. I quickly got a response apologizing, explaining there had been a change in employment that lead to my email being lost. The representative said “Sure!” to my request and asked for my address. I was shocked. I’ve never actually gotten a physical review copy before, so many many thanks to the publisher both for the opportunity and sheer thrill of getting to review the physical copy.
My thoughts on Speaker Nancy Pelosi
As I alluded to before, I have great respect for Speaker Nancy Pelosi. I say that because I know many (on the left and right) have great animosity toward her). I recognize she is the quintessential politician, but I always thought there was more to admire than to hate. Even her fiercest opponents acknowledge and respect that Speaker Pelosi. Many on the right characterize her as a far leftist, but in modern times, many on the left say she hasn’t gone far enough. The tendency in politics to draw a binary is very strong. A person is good or bad with no room for complexity. I am far from unbiased, but I try to acknowledge that fact. I could go all in about the ins and outs of what I think and why, but there is nothing I can say that isn’t already explained by Page, more coherently than I could ever could.
Page vs Speaker Pelosi
Let me be clear, I don’t think Page wrote this biography to bolster the Speaker’s image. Nevertheless, it’s hard to read this and not see the respect, and likely admiration, that Page has for the Speaker. Regardless of if you agree with Pelosi’s politics, her achievements as speaker are unmatched in recent history. There will be those who disagree, but it’s important to separate animosity for politics from animosity for Pelosi. Furthermore, there will be those that judge Pelosi in a way they never would a man doing the same things. When I speak of her achievements, it assumes a mutual respect, if not for Pelosi’s politics, then of the system of governance itself and what that system is capable of in it’s most idealistic state. I often think of Leslie Knope (in the shows later seasons) and her pure belief of what government can do even if it fails to be as pure as we would like. I recognize many do not hold that view, but you don’t have to agree to appreciate why or how one might find Speaker Pelosi admirable.
Overall, this book is about about Pelosi’s life as a whole, but it feels centered on her time in politics. Pelosi’s early life is merely a filter by which to better understand Pelosi as a politician. However, it’s no secret that Pelosi is very guarded. Page compares Speaker Pelosi with First Lady Barbara Bush when she asks to see their transcripts from high school. The first lady laughed at the triviality of it; the Speaker scoffed and refused. That guarded persona is present throughout the book. Page’s attempt to work around it is one of the best parts about the book. Early on in Pelosi’s life, it seems hard for Page to separate fact from narrative when the facts are so sparse, but as the Speaker gets further into her political life, Page is able to dig deeper into every situation beyond what Pelosi is saying in their interviews.
This likely makes the Speaker sound calculating or deceptive, but I would argue against that, nor does Page portray the Speaker that way. All Page does is present the Speaker as she is in a way that is intended to appreciate the subtleties of her character and motivations. She never tells you what to think, but she does her best to provide you with the information for you to make your assessment yourself. I’m leaving with an emboldened respect for the Speaker, but I’d be naïve to think my own bias doesn’t shape my view of the book. I wonder what others will think. Pelosi isn’t an angel, but no one is. The fact is, this book, in my view, conveys the fundamental motivations of the Speaker that feel true and pure.
Reflecting on Madam Speaker and Nancy Pelosi
One thing this book achieved was convincing me that Pelosi is far more liberal than I gave her credit for. Time and time again she has advocated for liberal causes, from the moment she took office. Even with the healthcare bill, I got a different perspective with this book. She very much wanted a much more liberal version of the bill. She was not happy with the bill that got through. However, a series of unfortunate political events stole that win from her. She was so close and a small shift in power made it impossible. In fact, everyone was ready to give up. Obama’s own administration wanted to get past the failure. The fact that we have anything is only because the Speaker chose to do what could be done. I knew she was responsible, but I never truly appreciated just how far she wanted to go or how close she got to it. Speaker Pelosi is the epitome of what I want in a leader. She is competent, effective, and realistic. She doesn’t waste tears on what might have been; she asks what can be. She is not a god. Although, what she’s able to achieve sometimes gives that impression.
Speaker Pelosi, like Secretary Clinton, is not very personable, nor is she a very open person. Human instinct is to distrust those kind of people. That doesn’t mean our instinct is always trustworthy. So much of the good that has happened in the last few decades is thanks to Speaker Pelosi. This book conveys that, and if you’re not liberal, it conveys that Pelosi is a formidable opponent that the left is lucky to have had.
To read or not to read
From an average reader’s perspective, I thought it was written well. I listened along with Page’s narration of the book, and it was just as well narrated. Page uses her journalistic voice, but she isn’t afraid to insert emotion or inflection where necessary. What’s more, the book was just as engrossing as it was fascinating. I sat there reading about everything Pelosi did during Trump’s presidency, eager to find out if she was successful, only to remind myself, you lived through this, and it failed. That really speaks to how well the book is crafted, for me to feel like I am reliving this but from the Speaker’s perspective. For those of you who don’t read a lot of political nonfiction, I think this will be an easy book to read and enjoy.
Big picture, I’d give this between 4.5-5 stars (final rating determined after sitting on it a bit). Anyone interested in Speaker Pelosi, either as a supporter or an avid opponent, should consider reading this. I can’t promise you’ll leave with as positive a view of her as I have, but you’ll leave with a better understanding of who Speaker Nancy Pelosi is.