Pelosi's Coming-Out Party

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It just so happens that incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be launching her career as Democratic House leader the same week that the District hosted memorial service for Gerald Ford. That small twist of fate points up one of the capitol's cardinal rules: in Washington, you never run out of chances to make a first impression.

After all, the Gerald Ford being honored this week is not the same man who tried to jolly America out of economic doldrums with "whip inflation now" buttons. He's also not the same person who came into the White House to begin with. Ford served as President for two and half years; he served in the House for 24 years. He arrived in 1949 as a surprise winner in his G.O.P. primary, who got to Congress largely because of his tenacious campaigning and charm. He was known as a congenial back-slapper and talented maneuverer among the House's often-vicious rivalries. When Nixon tapped him for the White House, the Vice Presidency came at the cost of giving up what Ford told colleagues was his true dream: Speaker of the House.

As Nancy Pelosi knows, that is the more powerful position — at least, it traditionally has been. The speaker's power comes not from public pomp or grand acts of statesmanship, but from hundreds of small ones, usually far beneath the radar of the general public. When Americans notice who the Speaker of the House is, it's usually because they've done something wrong — unless, like Tip O'Neill, they've been in office longer than any of the Presidents they served. Newt Gingrich's notoriety was a rare exception — and his steep fall from grace a cautionary example.

So who can begrudge Pelosi her four-day "coronation," as right-wing wags have dubbed it? The events themselves are hardly ostentatious: there's a mass, a tea, and prayer service. The most raucous thing on the schedule is a concert by Tony Bennett. Add a tote bag and it'd be a PBS telethon. Indeed, the demographic-pleasing tenor of the events reeks of a self-conscious desire to highlight all soft-focus interest groups that come with the Pelosi package: Italian, female, Catholic, grandmother. With so many facets illuminated, perhaps Pelosi's people are hoping no one notices what's been left out: the only nod to Pelosi's actual home district and voting record may well be Bennett's theme song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

Ford's minor claim on a presidential legacy came about in part because the skilled House gamesman was not prepared to manage expectations once he was elevated into the presidency. Observers assumed that he would tack hard to the side of openness and sunlight to escape Nixon's shadow. But he wound up relying on a coterie of insiders — Nixon's own shadows — from Henry Kissinger to the young Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who had no less zeal for the imperial presidency than their predecessors under Nixon.

Pelosi's first challenge is similar to Ford's, and may provide the same kind of disappointment: To succeed, she needs to provide a solid counterpoint to the corruption and arrogance that doomed the G.O.P. Yet the Democrats' "100-hour agenda" already entails suspending the gauzy promise of bipartisan civility that moderate Democrats ran on. Rather, the Democrats will use House rules to prohibit opposition measures — the exact sort of "tyranny of the majority" that the former minority party has been railing against for years. Whatever the stage set (tea or Mass), the week ahead will likely be less a coronation for Pelosi than a long, behind-the-scenes horse-trading auction.

And yet this could be the good news. As the first female Speaker and a San Francisco liberal, Pelosi can use this moment in the spotlight to define herself as anything but a bleeding heart. Pelosi's brazen decision to have her "People's Open House" be invitation-only could paint her as cynical or, with the right spin, as simply a savvy realist. A successful reintroduction for Pelosi should combine the warm fuzzy of a northern California family woman with the bare-knuckle skills of a backroom pol: the iron grandma.

If Pelosi can pull it off, perhaps there's hope for another prominent female politician, whose White House ambitions have been dogged by an apparently immutable public image: Hillary Clinton. The last event of Pelosi's swearing-in celebrations is the renaming of the 200 block of Albemarle St., in Baltimore, as Via Nancy D'Alesandro Pelosi. President Street is only a block away.