Pelosi takes the helm in triumph

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Times Staff Writer

From on high, up in the visitor’s gallery, the event playing out on the House floor looked to be either a christening or something more solemn.

On one side of the room, there was Nancy Pelosi holding her infant grandson, his white receiving blanket draped over her aubergine skirt.

Over on the other side, morose Republicans stared at their shoes.

As the congresswoman from San Francisco was sworn in Thursday as the first female speaker of the House, the GOP officially left behind 12 years of power, and children ruled the day.


It made for an interesting tableau. Not only is the 66-year-old Pelosi the first mother to take ownership of the big chair, she is the first grandmother, and she made sure the nation knew it.

Minutes after the House convened at noon, she marched down the center aisle with her grandchildren -- five boys and a girl. They fiddled with the goose-neck mike on the table near her seat. They did splits in the aisles. And Pelosi held the baby like a football as he fell asleep in the noisy chamber.

“For our daughters and granddaughters,” she said to roaring cheers in her first address as speaker, “today we have broken the marble ceiling.”

Even Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who might have been speaker if his party had held the House, put aside partisanship and the obvious after-gloom of defeat.

“My fellow Americans,” he told the House, “whether you are a Republican or a Democrat or an independent, today is cause for celebration.”

Pelosi’s personal story and the speech that highlighted it managed to co-opt the Republican values platform in one fell swoop, highlighting her deep Roman Catholic faith, her 43-year marriage, her five children who gave her the confidence to “go from the kitchen to the Congress,” and her grandchildren who have seemed omnipresent throughout this week’s celebrations.


When the speech ended, she invited all the children in the chamber to come up and touch the big gavel, ever the cunning politician expertly scripting the perfect photo: America’s new House speaker, second in line for the presidency, surrounded by the satin ribbon and miniature blue blazer set.

The day seemed to be her answer to outgoing Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who had asked voters before the election: “Do we really want Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco values leading the culture war?”

Those tuning in to watch a wacky liberal were probably disappointed.

She made prominent mention of her long marriage to Paul Pelosi; of her brother, a former mayor of Baltimore; of her deceased parents, who devoted their lives to public service and are now with “the angels.”

Her short speech was laced with enough biblical references to rival the GOP’s most religious right, including a prayer from St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of San Francisco: “Where there is darkness, may we bring light, where there is hatred, may we bring love, and where there is despair, may we bring hope.”

Opening day is a rare opportunity for members to bring children into the chamber, and both sides of the aisle were crawling with them. At times, the House floor looked like a nursery.

Pelosi’s brood hung in for about an hour, then got fidgety. The blue blazers started coming off. The baby made cameo appearances asleep, awake, with a bottle, with his grandmother, with his mother on the floor.


When Pelosi’s older grandchildren took a break in the hall, some other kids moved in, staring at her as if she were the Pied Piper in a purple suit (a symbolic color, purple being the hue that comes from mixing red and blue).

If the pageantry at times seemed a little rich, the children offered a refreshing counterpoint.

Paying no attention to the partisan custom of withholding applause in silent protest (such as when Pelosi called for a new direction in Iraq), children of both parties clapped for everything. One who came up to touch the gavel walked away with it. And when ceremonies went on too long, four little ones in the front row started to whack each other, in what may foreshadow congressional conduct.

The House is known as a raucous bunch, always enthusiastic -- the victors, anyway -- in times of change.

And there was no lack of high spirits for this milestone.

Singer Tony Bennett was in the gallery. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) wandered away from her chamber’s proceedings to witness the ascension of her fellow alumna of a Baltimore private school, wearing her class ring as tribute.

Casting votes for speaker in a marathon roll call with a suspense-less outcome, members dropped in references to their granddaughters, Jesus, the biblical Esther, the Ohio State Buckeyes and even Elvis.


The magnitude of the moment seemed to erase, however temporarily, some wellpublicized hard feelings among Democrats.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, whose ascension Pelosi tried to torpedo last month in leadership elections, turned his vote for her into a tribute to “Maryland’s favorite daughter ... and California’s pride.” Pelosi, known to hold a grudge, hugged him hard.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), whom Pelosi refused to name as head of the Intelligence Committee in a rather public feud, kissed the new speaker.

It’s likely that never has a House speaker been kissed so many times.

When it was over, Pelosi had effectively recast the Democrats as the Mommy Party, protector of a nation at war and at risk from unseen enemies.

“For all of America’s children,” she said, convening the 110th session with three raps of the gavel, “the House” -- bang -- “will come” -- bang -- “to order” -- bang.