Back during the second impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump we learned, via video footage, exactly whom many of the Jan. 6, 2021, rioters were looking for as they marauded through the U.S. Capitol. “Oh Naaaancy,” some of them called out in a menacing, sing-songy voice. The mob demanded that Capitol Police “bring her out,” as one rioter demanded. Or else, they warned, they would go in and get the House speaker themselves.
On Thursday afternoon’s House hearing — probably the last public one held by the select committee — we learned for the first time what Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was doing while American democracy and her own life hung in the balance: She was governing.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to stay in touch,” Pelosi politely asked Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) on the telephone as they discussed his state sending in law enforcement to quell the mob.
The behind-the-scenes footage, shot by Pelosi’s daughter, Alexandra, is a striking study in professional composure under outrageous circumstances. As the speaker rushed through magnetometers, presumably evacuating to a safer location, she again kept her phone pressed to her ear, explaining to the person on the other end that the proceedings to certify the election must be completed, “or else [the rioters] will have a complete victory.”
At one point, she gravely told a roomful of her colleagues: “It’s going to take time to clean up the poo-poo they’re making, literally and figuratively, in the Capitol.”
Pause for a moment on this quote and everything it entails.
If ever there was a time to let loose with a four-letter word, this was it. Pelosi was not giving a televised campaign speech behind a lectern; she was huddling with confidants about how to continue with their work amid the greatest domestic assault on the Capitol in the history of the country. But Pelosi would not allow the horror of the situation to impact the decorum with which she would address it. “Poo-poo” is a word used by parents who know their role means remaining steady despite an abundance of crap. Pelosi’s language was that of a caretaker assuring the country that it would be wiped after it had defecated on itself.
Please note, also, the use of “cleaned up.” In the moment in which rioters were calling her name in tones normally reserved for horror movies, the speaker was not seen raging about ways the rioters could be captured and punished; she was talking about ways the Capitol, and the democratic process, might be restored to order.
She knew it would “take time.” She was not making an empty, churlish demand for justice now. Rather, it was an somber acknowledgment that the invasion was a shattering event with implications that members of Congress were only beginning to understand. She spoke of wanting to instill “security” and “confidence” in the American people.
The fact that Pelosi did not appear cowed by the presence of a mob that she surely knew was hunting her in particular is a testament to her statesmanship. And, frankly, this display of reserved statesmanship must either baffle or irritate supporters of the insurrection. Throughout her tenure as House Speaker, Pelosi has been painted by Trump supporters as an unhinged harridan: crazy, conniving and hungry for power. But there is a difference between being power-hungry and being powerful.
One is about having the will to win at all costs. The other is about having what it takes to remain in control enough to keep the country from losing itself.
As the afternoon of Jan. 6 progressed, we saw via the video footage that Pelosi moved from location to location, meeting with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), talking on the phone with Vice President Mike Pence, receiving security briefings and, above all else, strategizing about how to make this all stop. How to deal with the poo-poo, so Congress could do its duty.
“They’re breaking windows and going in. Obviously ransacking our offices and all the rest of that,” she told acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen on the phone. “That’s nothing. The concern we have about personal harm … it transcends everything.”
Was she mindful of being filmed? Maybe. But while watching the footage, I didn’t get the sense that Nancy Pelosi was preening for her daughter’s camera. There was too much to do, too much to clean up. Everything she was shown doing on that day was an illustration of calm, dignified governing. While pro-Trump rioters tried to derail the government, she tried to keep it on track. While the president of the United States stood down, she stood up. It was exactly what made the rioters hate her and exactly what the country needed.