When President George W. Bush spoke the words “Madame Speaker” in his State of the Union address to the 110th Congress on January 23, 2007 he acknowledged one of the biggest changes in American political life since the 19th amendment to Constitution was ratified. Ten weeks earlier under the leadership of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, American voters had swept Democrats back into power after 12 years in the political wilderness.
Looking back on it, the midterm election of 2006 was a turning point. The United States had been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan for five years, and it wasn’t going well. In the next two years Americans would experience three historic events: a financial meltdown of unprecedented scope, and a presidential campaign that would elect the first African American president, Barack Obama. And after Obama was elected, the populist Tea Party would be born, pushing the GOP even further to the right.
But on the evening of January 23, 2007, that was all in the future, and all eyes were on Nancy Pelosi. An eight-term Congresswoman from San Francisco and a former House Whip, Pelosi had been chosen by the Democratic Caucus as the first woman Speaker of the House three weeks earlier.
Pelosi also knew when it was time to give way to the younger, more diverse generation of leaders who she herself had promoted in the party. In 2018, faced with a challenge to her speakership by seven Democrats, Pelosi agreed to support term limits in the leadership, and step back in 2022 when she would be 82 years old. She kept that promise in December 2022, after limiting the midterm backlash and ceding only a four-vote margin to the GOP in the House. As the Republican party led itself through 15 agonizing votes to elect California Congressman Kevin McCarthy as their speaker, those of us who were watching often saw Pelosi at the elbow of a new Democratic Leader, New York’s Hakeem Jeffries, counting votes while Democrats mercilessly, sometimes merrily, and with perfect discipline, watched the GOP circus play out.
So, there was no more perfect time to ask my friend John A. Lawrence, a historian and career Capitol Hill staffer, to come on the show to talk about his new book, The Arc of Power: Inside Nancy Pelosi’s Speakership, 2005–2010 (University of Kansas Press, 2022.) John had 30 years of experience on the Hill when, as he puts it in our conversation, he was “traded” to Pelosi in 2006 on the brink of her historic speakership to serve as her chief of staff—a position he held for eight years.
- Claire begins with a clip from President George W. Bush’s sixth State Of The Union Address to a joint session of Congress, broadcast by MSNBC (with commentary from Brian Williams and Chris Matthews) on January 23rd, 2007.
- John Boehner’s remarks on January 3, 2007, as he handed over the gavel, can be heard here.
- In her introduction, Claire refers to Molly Ball’s Pelosi (Henry Holt, 2020) and her interview with Ball in February 2021 in Political Junkie.
- Lindsey McPherson reported Nancy Pelosi’s deal to enact term limits for Democratic leadership positions in Roll Call on December 12, 2018.
- John has written about how his Ph.D. in history enhanced his career in politics in “A Historian on the Hill,” Perspectives on History, September 1, 2013.
- Democrat George Miller, John’s first boss in Washington, represented CA-7 in Congress, and was elected in 1974 as one of the “Watergate Babies,” which John has also written about. He was also famous for running a housewhere other Democrats boarded when they were in Washington.
- Claire mentions a series of books called “We Were There,” novels for kids that tell American history from a kid’s point of view: check them out here.
- Claire got her figures on women in Congress from the Pew Research Center and the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute.
- When John mentions TARP, he is referring to the Troubled Assets Relief Program, established by Congress under the Obama administration and intended to “to help stabilize the U.S. financial system, restart economic growth, and prevent avoidable foreclosures” after the 2008 financial crisis. When he mentions the “health care bill” he is referring to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or what we now know as Obamacare.
- Claire’s snarky response to Kevin McCarthy’s Speakership—that she is heading out to buy a head of lettuce—refers to the British tabloid, the Daily Star, putting a livecam on a picture of Prime Minister Liz Truss and a head of lettuce to see which one would be finished first. It was Liz Truss.
You can listen to this podcast here or subscribe for free on Apple iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or Soundcloud. Do you use another service? Let me know in the comments, and I will submit it to them!