'I'm emancipated now': Nancy Pelosi enjoying life after leadership

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 9, 2023: Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) smiles in her office in-between meetings at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC on Thursday, March 9, 2023. (Bonnie Cash / For The Times)
Nancy Pelosi smiles in her office in between meetings at the Capitol in Washington. (Bonnie Cash / For The Times)
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For the record:
6:54 a.m. March 21, 2023: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Rep. Joseph William Martin Jr. was the last top House Republican or Democrat to leave their leadership post but remain in Congress. In fact, Martin was the last top Republican or Democrat to leave their leadership post and complete another term in Congress.

"Now we're going to have some fun," Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) says enthusiastically, winning a giggle from her daughter.

It's a little past 6:30 p.m. on a recent Thursday. The former House speaker is sitting in a packed black SUV with a reporter on her left, a driver and a member of her security detail in the front and her daughter Christine and two top congressional aides squeezed into the backseat.

The group is en route from the Swedish Embassy, where Pelosi was the keynote speaker at an event supporting Ukraine, to the St. Regis Hotel for "Thank You, Madam Speaker," a reception celebrating her legacy.

A woman gestures while speaking from a stage
Nancy Pelosi speaks during an event at the House of Sweden in Washington. (Bonnie Cash/For The Times)

The Times spent a day with Pelosi and her team to see how the former House speaker is adjusting to life outside of leadership. She began it with ice cream for breakfast and finished it church-style dancing to a performance of the Resistance Revival Chorus.

"You never can dance too much," she advises.

This is Pelosi in her newest chapter, living her best life without the stresses of having to steer congressional Democrats past political pitfalls and through policy quicksand. Her colleagues say she's essentially a national congresswoman — a woman who represents a single district but has a platform that extends far beyond the borders of San Francisco — and is someone other Democrats look to for advice and wisdom.

Pelosi, 82, insists that she's not looking over the shoulder of the new leadership team she paved the way for. She says she's enjoying her new freedom as Nancy on the Hill instead of the speaker of the House.

Pelosi's new role is a mixed bag, though. She's able to speak her mind more freely, but she still wants to pick and choose her moments because she no longer speaks for the House Democratic Caucus. She's given up the 24/7 schedule of a party leader, but she has to find new ways to fill her calendar because she has no committee assignments and loathes downtime. And as she's traded in her leadership title for the honorific speaker emerita, Pelosi has lost the bulk of her staff and coveted office space.

Two smiling women stand together closely in a crowd
Nancy Pelosi and her daughter Christine Pelosi embrace while watching a tribute video during an event called "Thank You, Madam Speaker" at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington. (Bonnie Cash/For The Times)

Pelosi has served in Congress since she won a special election in the summer of 1987. She spent two decades in leadership, including two historic stints as the first — and so far only — female speaker of the House. She announced in November that she would step down from leadership but continue to represent her San Francisco district in Congress.

Rep. Joseph William Martin Jr. (R-Mass.) in the 1950s was the last top House Republican or Democrat to leave their leadership post and complete another term in Congress. Pelosi is carving out a new role in Congress without modern precedent, and making it up as she goes.

An image of Nancy Pelosi is at the center of a collage of former speakers of the House
An image of Nancy Pelosi is at the center of a collage of former speakers of the House in her office in the Longworth House Office Building in Washington. (Bonnie Cash/For The Times)

Congressional leaders have to be cognizant of how their words will play beyond their individual districts.

Now that she's freed of that obligation, Pelosi feels unbound and unfettered, she says.

She digs into her lunch, a foil-wrapped hot dog with mustard and relish.

"I'm," she says, leaning in and speaking with a whisper, "emancipated now!"

Her full voice returns: "Liberated! Freedom! Free at last!"

She says she's been busy since leaving leadership but found time in January to see a pair of plays — "Leopoldstadt" and the last show of "The Music Man" — and San Francisco jazzman Chris Botti. Going to the theater wouldn't have been possible if she were still Democratic leader, she says; she likely would've been traveling.

She has other news. "I haven't had time yet," she says, "but I'm writing a book."

She doesn't provide any details about her book but says to read it. She'll be fair, she adds with a laugh.

With her newfound freedom, Pelosi also intends to be more vocal about preserving the nation's democracy. "I probably will be saying some things about our democracy and what the Republicans and the court have done to narrow it," she says.

Nancy Pelosi reviews notes while speaking to another person off-camera
Rep. Nancy Pelosi reviews notes before a meeting with the European Parliament's Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality at the Capitol in Washington on March 9 (Bonnie Cash / For The Times)

She condemns House Speaker Kevin McCarthy's (R-Bakersfield) decision to hand over 41,000 hours of Jan. 6, 2021, surveillance footage to Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who told his audience that the attack on the Capitol was "mostly peaceful chaos." McCarthy's decision, she says, was thoughtless, dangerous and reckless. She deploys that term — "reckless" — a half-dozen times within a 20-second span.

"That was in keeping with their home address: reckless," she says. "That's what all roads lead to with the Republicans: reckless."

Pelosi has a hideaway — a secret space inside the House where she hosts meetings — and an office in the Longworth House Office Building. Her hideaway sends conflicting messages about who Pelosi wants to be at this stage of her career. A sign above the entrance reads "Ms. Pelosi." Along the same wall are two gavels, one of which is in a display case, memorializing the passage of the American Rescue Plan. Farther down the room is a wall where flags flank a government seal acknowledging Pelosi's title as speaker of the House of Representatives.

Challenge coins with Nancy Pelosi's signature displayed on a desk in her office in the Capitol.
Challenge coins with Nancy Pelosi's signature displayed on a desk in her office in the Capitol. (Bonnie Cash / For The Times)

Inside her office in Longworth is a glimpse of her news diet: two stacks of newspapers from the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Politico, the Hill and Roll Call. A table full of self-portraits awaiting her signature offer further proof that she's no ordinary member of Congress.

Though Pelosi is no longer in leadership, a security detail follows her movements across the Capitol and the capital city. Her office is adorned with numerous awards, medals and plaques, some of which sit on the floor, demonstrating that the honors she's accumulated over a decades-long career stretch beyond the limits of her new office space — or that her dramatically downsized staff has been too busy to find them a home.

Pelosi takes pains never to mention former President Trump by name. "Don't write that down," she says after letting the T-word slip out during lunch. "Just say she burped."

Nancy Pelosi opens a hot dog with mustard and relish for lunch in her hideaway.
Nancy Pelosi opens a hot dog with mustard and relish for lunch in her hideaway. (Bonnie Cash / For The Times)

After lunch, Pelosi pops into a drop-by meeting with some of her San Francisco constituents, then heads back to her office to catch President Biden's speech outlining his budget proposal. She sits in a chair positioned just a few feet from an entertainment center with four small Samsung TVs inside. On the top left screen is MSNBC's broadcast of the president's address. On the bottom left screen is C-SPAN2, where the Senate is taking up a judicial nominee.

Pelosi can't resist coaching the president, even though he can't hear or see her.

She groans when Biden alludes to Trump as "the former president — and maybe future president."

"Oh, please. Don't even say such a thing," she says. "That isn't kidding. That's horrible."

Pelosi, who rises about 15 minutes into the speech to snack on a large chocolate chip cookie, gives the president light applause at different moments of his address, but also tries to will him into pivoting back toward the camera after turning his back to it, wagging her index finger in a circle as she urges him to turn around.

"He's going to raise her a million dollars by mentioning her name," she laments after Biden references "the gentlelady from Georgia," Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

"Guess what," she tells her communications director, who told her Biden's speech eclipsed an hour. "I didn't know it was going to be that long."

A woman sits in an office watching television
Nancy Pelosi watches on television as President Biden discusses his budget for 2024. (Bonnie Cash / For The Times)

She switches the top left TV from MSNBC to CNN to see the network's analysis of the president's remarks. After a while, she gets restless.

"I've got to get to work," she says. "I don't spend time watching TV. This is the longest I've watched TV, to watch the president's speech."

Pelosi summons her team over for a quick huddle to go over her evening plans. She's set to speak briefly at a Ukraine event and then a reception in her honor. But the events overlap.

"My choice is between staying at the other event and listening to a panel discussion or going to this and seeing three videos that the groups have put together about my service," she tells her team. "I don't think there's any contest there because as a courtesy to the people that put that together I should be there for them rather than a moderated conversation, which we could record and I could see later, so let's revise this thing to say after I speak, I leave, OK?"

She feels a combination of relief and regret about leaving leadership, she says.

Nancy Pelosi taps on her smartphone screen
Nancy Pelosi catches up on messages and news during a break between meetings at the Capitol. (Bonnie Cash / For The Times)

"I'm so relieved because it is a 24/7 — there are not enough hours in the day — job," she explains. "My only regret — real regret — is that I wasn't leaving it in the majority. I fully intended to do that, and we came very close."

House Republicans had predicted a red wave in the 2022 midterms. But they instead took control of the chamber this year with a razor-thin majority, in which any five Republicans can sink legislation that Democrats unanimously oppose.

Although colleagues describe Pelosi as a "resource" for Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Minority Whip Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands), Pelosi insists she's trying to stay on the sidelines. She wants to see her successors lead on their own, utilizing their fresh perspectives and taking risks along the way.

"Unless asked, I wouldn't say anything. I don't know why people think, well, I'm here so I'm going to be looking over their shoulder," she says. "I certainly am not."

One sad part about stepping down, Pelosi admits, is losing "the best staff in the history of Congress." She is heartened, however, that some of her staff have moved to new leadership offices or taken positions as chiefs of staff with new members.

"We have a much smaller staff," she says, "but we have much less responsibility."

Nancy Pelosi embraces House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries
Nancy Pelosi embraces House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y) as other representatives look on during an event called "Thank You, Madam Speaker" at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington. (Bonnie Cash / For The Times)

She intends to complete her term. "God willing," she says. "I've said it over and over again: I'm here for the full term. There's absolutely no question."

Asked about the best feature of her changed role, Pelosi recalls a speech she gave at a recent fundraising breakfast for freshmen and vulnerable incumbents in battleground districts. (She donated $1 million, she tells The Times.)

"What I said to them there was, 'There are 435 people in the Congress — only one in your district,'" she says. "With all the honors that have been bestowed upon me — to be whip and then leader and then speaker — nothing touches me more than the people of my district when I walk onto the floor of the House to know that I'm walking there because the people of San Francisco said, 'We want you to speak for us.' That for me is like the core joy. The rest of it is wonderful, but that is the core joy."

Pelosi's biggest worry about her reduced responsibilities is finding herself with too much free time. "I'm not good on down time," she says. Time, she adds, is "the most valuable commodity that any of us has."

These days, she spends that time investing in the next generation of Democratic leaders. She speaks gleefully about freshman Democrats. New members of Congress reinvigorate Capitol Hill every cycle — just as the founders intended, she notes. She wonders who among them will become congressional leaders, seek higher office or even be elected president.

Boxing gloves embellished with a rhinestone "N" and "P" rest on a table next to orchids in Nancy Pelosi's office
White and pink boxing gloves embellished with a rhinestone "N" and "P" rest on a table next to orchids in Nancy Pelosi's office in the Longworth House Office Building. (Bonnie Cash / For The Times)

"I love it, listening or meeting with or hearing from members, especially the new members," she says. "We just see them so hopefully, and I just tell them things like keep the home fires burning, remember that — that's your strength — reach across the aisle. Those kinds of things."

Most Democrats call her "Nancy," she says, but some still call her "Madam Speaker."

"I love when people call me by my first name — here or in my district — because it symbolizes a longer-term relationship," she says. "We all come by the designation 'Honorable,' whether we are or not, but I hope that they would consider me worthy of that title."

Last month, Pelosi issued a surprise conditional endorsement for Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) in his Senate bid against Reps. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) and Barbara Lee (D-Oakland). The condition was that she would support him only if California Sen. Dianne Feinstein didn't seek reelection. The endorsement was a consequence of her emancipation: She likely would've stayed out of the race if she were still in leadership.

"Adam Schiff is one of the best people that I have ever served with in the Congress for 35 years," she says.

Pelosi, a former chairwoman of the California Democratic Party, recalls telling the House Democrats' campaign arm during the 2000 election cycle that she would "take care of California" and win four seats there. The party needed to flip seven seats across the country to regain the majority. California Democrats ultimately flipped five, but the party fell short in its quest to win control of the House.

"Our state would be magnificently served by Adam Schiff," she says. "I'm just a big fan of his. Always have been. Oh, that night, in 2000, he was one of my five."

After Biden's budget speech, Pelosi autographs some photos and then heads to the House floor to vote against two GOP-backed bills that stand little chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate. Soon, it's time to leave the Capitol for the Ukraine event at the Swedish Embassy and the "Thank You, Madam Speaker" reception at the St. Regis.

"Y'all ready?" Pelosi asks her daughter and staff as the SUV approaches the swanky hotel. "Ready for a hot time in the old town tonight?"

Nancy Pelosi speaks during an event titled "Thank You, Madam Speaker" at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington.
Nancy Pelosi speaks during an event titled "Thank You, Madam Speaker" at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington. (Bonnie Cash / For The Times)

She playfully touches up her hair before she's escorted out of the vehicle and makes her way inside. She spends the next half-hour being swarmed by adoring fans anxious to greet and get pictures with — or of — Pelosi. She watches a tribute video and later speaks for over 20 minutes before finding herself dancing in front of the stage as a choir performs.

As Pelosi claps on beat, twisting her hips and tapping her feet, it feels easy to believe a claim she made over her hot dog lunch.

"I love being a member of Congress," she said. "It's actually fun."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.