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Stiehm: Giving thanks to Madam Speaker

By Jamie Stiehm - | Nov 28, 2022

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Jamie Stiehm

WASHINGTON — Journalists don’t cry. It’s in the code of conduct. Yet tears welled in my eyes in the House press gallery when Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave her farewell speech as Speaker, though she will stay on in Congress.

Reader, the stem-winder at high noon brought down the house. Clad in gleaming white, like a modern suffragette, Pelosi delivered one for the ages. Move over, Daniel Webster.

The Speaker reminded the House that this was the “temple of democracy.” That the Capitol is “the most beautiful building in the world.” And indeed, our democracy is majestic but “fragile.”

Everyone in the chamber knew what Pelosi meant. The contrast between the November day and the Jan. 6, 2021, siege could not have been clearer. The mob that stormed the Capitol on a winter day came rushing down the marble halls, hunting for the Speaker.

Members and press found a way to escape, by a hidden staircase and a tunnel. Howls, gunshots and broken glass were the soundtrack. Late into the night, early in the morning dark, we returned and stayed until the last presidential vote was counted for Joe Biden.

In lockdown, Pelosi had the presence of mind to tell Vice President Mike Pence, sheltered in the Capitol: “Don’t tell anyone where you are.” Character comes out in crisis.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer gave a speech of thanksgiving: “Thank you for teaching us… an honor of a lifetime.”

The consensus is, the only woman Speaker in history is the greatest, combining light and heat to keep Democrats together.

For me, it was simple. If an 80-year-old woman can go through that trauma and not skip a beat, I can too. Truthfully, I was not as resilient. The Speaker was a valiant beacon in the rocky post-Jan. 6 days. She refused to crack.

The mob incited by a sitting president would never win over her.

Pelosi is the only politician who confronted former President Donald Trump to his face in public or private. Ripping up a state-of-the-Union speech was stagecraft. Impeaching him twice was her decision.

I covered Pelosi through the dark Trump years and witnessed her squared shoulders on Thursday press conferences through the pandemic. She never missed a day. Politics is performance art, especially in an ordeal, and the show went on. The Speaker always dressed for the part.

Sometimes she was the only one keeping the lights on in the Capitol during COVID-19.

The Speaker decided that the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “our beloved” Rep. John Lewis and Rep. Elijah Cummings should lie in state in Statuary Hall or out on the steps, where Abraham Lincoln gave his inaugural addresses. She loved breaking history’s ground.

To counter Trump’s frigid foreign policy, Pelosi invited world leaders to the Capitol for a warm welcome. The head of NATO gave a joint address to Congress, as did the Greek prime minister. The Jordanian king came to the Speaker’s balcony.

Then Pelosi went to Ukraine when war broke out. Onto Taiwan to defy China’s hold on it. Looking back, I should have known her 20 years as the House Democratic leader was building to a grand finale.

Pelosi chose her moment well, after a two-year partnership with President Biden, like a ray of spring light in the chamber. The Build Back Better infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act were leaps forward, the latter for climate change.

I loved that she invited tennis great Billie Jean King to celebrate Title IX. She told me it was “heartbreaking” to cancel woman suffrage 1920 celebrations in 2020.

At 6, young Nancy saw her father (“a proud New Dealer”) sworn in as a congressman from Baltimore. It was the first time she saw the Capitol.

Over her 35 years in Congress, she noted, a dozen Democratic women became more than 90. The chamber swelled with applause.

Pelosi spoke of her “dear husband Paul,” injured in their home, and thanked the myriad well-wishers for his recovery.

The nation’s story is, she declared, “Light and love, of patriotism and progress… to make the dreams of today the reality of tomorrow.”

Pelosi was then engulfed by cheers, tears and hugs. “She was spent,” said a veteran prize-winning photographer.

So was I.

Jamie Stiehm may be reached at JamieStiehm.com. Follow her on Twitter @JamieStiehm.


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