Self-Inflicted Wound: How Pelosi Got into the CIA Mess

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi emerged from her offices with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a photo op on Tuesday – her first open media event since last Thursday's disastrous press conference on what the CIA may or may not have briefed her about regarding its interrogation techniques — she was met by a wall of dozens of cameras. There's always been a lot of media interest in the first female Speaker, but Pelosi is learning the hard way that there's a difference between receiving attention for being a pioneer and receiving attention for fouling up on the job.

A lot has been written about Barack Obama's learning curve in his first 100 days in office — understandably, given his rapid ascent. But if Obama is a rookie acting like a veteran, Pelosi, a career politician, has all too often filled the role of the bumbler in 2009. In her initial press conference on what the CIA told her, she fumbled through her notes, departed the podium, returned to the podium, departed again and accused the CIA of lying to her — a charge she had clarified the next day by blaming the Bush Administration. To call it a disastrous public performance would be polite. (See an interactive guide to the first 100 days.)

Pelosi fueled her rise through Congress by always being overprepared — almost pathologically so. One of the most common phrases uttered by members about her is: "Nancy Pelosi probably knows more than the members themselves about X" — with X including everything from the names and ages of each member's grandkids to the demographics of their districts to the nuances of the latest global-warming bill. But Pelosi's current problems can be traced back to two ways in which she either failed to prepare or failed to let her homework speak for itself. (See pictures of Pelosi over the course of her career.)

First, Pelosi has long considered media training — the kind that teaches you never to leave your own press conference — a waste of her time. (Her daughter Alexandra Pelosi, a documentary filmmaker, gave up trying to convince her otherwise years ago.) Clearly she should no longer do press conferences unrehearsed. Second, for all her careful planning, Pelosi can be rash, even impetuous, when confronted with a surprise, as she was at her CIA presser. "Her biggest fault? Impatience," says Representative Dennis Cardoza, the only moderate member of Pelosi's leadership team. "She's tenacious. Still, when tenaciousness becomes stubbornness, that becomes a challenge."

The GOP hasn't quite got Pelosi in checkmate; she's still essentially a governing queen to Obama's king. But the CIA fracas has presented Republicans with a rare crack in Pelosi's usually impervious armor. Some, including minority leader John Boehner, are demanding an investigation, while others, pointing to her 39% approval rating – about the level Newt Gingrich enjoyed when he was blowing up President Clinton's agenda during his first year as Speaker — suggest that in front of an open mike, she has become a liability to her party.

John Spratt, chairman of the House Budget Committee, says Pelosi's kitchen cabinet, of which he is a member, is too small. "She would benefit from greater diversity of opinion," he says, adding that her small circle of confidants leaves her isolated and vulnerable to missteps when unanticipated issues arise. In the wake of the AIG bonus scandal, for example, Pelosi and other leaders moved quickly to pass sweeping legislation to drastically tax executive compensation. Such a gesture might have done incredible damage to the market had cooler heads in the Administration and the Senate not prevailed.

The same thing has happened with the truth commission that Pelosi so ardently wants, in order to investigate the Bush Administration's policies on torture. Obama has long resisted looking back, in part for what most people agree are shrewd political reasons. Pelosi, however, leaped at the Obama Administration's recent release of the Bush Administration's torture memos to renew her call for the commission. Republicans accused her of complacency with the policies at the time – turns out she was briefed on the extreme interrogation methods in September 2002 – and we all found ourselves looking back, combing through the records, commission or no. (See pictures of the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay.)

Pelosi has taken pains to centralize the power of the Speaker's office. Members can't take trips abroad, get on a committee or even sign out a room for a meeting without her permission. But that kind of omnipotent power works only when members are confident it will be exercised under control. Despite her missteps, Pelosi has been able to run the most unified caucus in half a century. But if she wants to keep it unified — and keep running it — she might need to stick to her own playbook.

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