By MARSHA MERCER
“Whenever men screw up, they call on a woman to bail them out.”
That line comes from Saturday night’s Gridiron Club show, a spring rite in which Washington journalists poke fun at politicians and themselves. It was referring to the time 35 years ago when the all-male club finally invited its first woman member, the redoubtable Helen Thomas.
But the line also sums the news about President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and passage of health-care reform.
After it looked like Obama had let reform slip away, Pelosi raised it from near death, giving the president the victory he sorely needed.
Attaining her goal made Pelosi the poster child for anti-Washington fervor. Days before the House passed and Obama signed health care reform, just 11 percent of people surveyed by CBS News thought favorably of Pelosi, and 37 percent regarded her unfavorably.
The good news for Pelosi, if you can even call it that, was the 36 percent who said they hadn’t heard enough about her to make a judgment and the 15 percent who were undecided. The poll was even worse for Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who had an 8 percent favorable rating.
Fortunately, despite the fatuousness of our politics, Congress doesn’t run on polls or popularity. It runs on power.
Pelosi carried a symbol of her power – an over-sized gavel -- on a walk Sunday through angry crowds to the Capitol for the final vote. She marshaled her power to keep 219 antsy Democrats in line and passed the biggest social measure since Medicare in 1965.
While Republicans couldn’t kill the bill, they did beat it to a bloody pulp. Their scare talk about death panels and a government takeover of one-sixth of the economy took its toll with the public.
In the aftermath, Obama celebrated and then hit the road to give the new law a new image. Republicans raked in almost $1.5 million in a fundraising campaign aimed at dumping Pelosi.
On gop.com, an unflattering picture of Pelosi with her fists clenched was set against a flame background. The headline: “FIRE PELOSI.”
Perhaps more telling, the Republican National Committee also promised “40 Seats Means No More Madam Speaker.” Returning the House to Republican control not only means the end of the Pelosi era but also putting a man back in charge, a return to “Mister Speaker.”
For some reason, the most powerful women in politics – Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton and Pelosi – provoke more hatred among both sexes than powerful men do.
Pelosi is a latest female lightning rod. The left sees her as a strong and courageous leader, praised by a grateful president. Commentators and political analysts gush that she’s the most powerful woman in American history, the most powerful speaker in 100 years, the next Ted Kennedy.
The right sees her as a machine politician, an archenemy whose name – like Ted Kennedy -- brings out pens and checkbooks
House minority leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said, “She is a strong (House) speaker, there isn’t any question about that.” But he added, “So you pass a very unpopular bill. You shove it down the throats of the American people and you lose your majority. How good is that? How smart is that?”
For her part, Pelosi, mother of five and grandmother of 10, seems unfazed by vitriol or adulation. Gracious in triumph, she praised Obama’s commitment to reform.
When Diane Sawyer, the first female anchor of ABC’s “World News” asked Pelosi about being called the most powerful woman and House speaker, Pelosi laughed and said, “That sounds good.” And she added, “I don’t take it personally – except I take it as a compliment for all women.”
Nor, apparently, does she take the attacks personally.
“I’m in the arena,” she told Sawyer. “You’re the target.”
When Pelosi was sworn in as the first woman House speaker in 2007, she acknowledged that she had made history. “Now let’s make progress,” she said.
This woman bailing out a man has now made both history and progress.
And, as Women’s History Month ends, it’s worth noting that even if Republicans win the 40 seats and take back the big gavel, they can’t put the genie back in the bottle. There will be more Madam Speakers.
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.