Nancy Pelosi is the highest-ranking elected woman in the history of the American government. This is the fact that I keep repeating in my head as I wait on hold while her press secretary connects us for this interview. I am, suffice it to say, shitting myself.
I have cleared the house of all children and loud adults, switched off any electronic device within a 500-foot radius and settled into the most reliably non-squeaky chair I can find, taking deep Lamaze breaths and trying not to jump out of the window. I have prepared enough questions to generate a multivolume biography for the speaker, who has served in Congress as representative to California in three districts (covering San Francisco) since 1987, with this speakership her second following a first post from 2007 to 2011. My list of questions has been drawn up despite knowing I have a tight 30 minutes with her — which is taking place in the middle of a week of contentious hearings over whether to impeach the U.S. president. Still, I want to ask her everything, from how she feels about Hollywood’s investments in China to whether she predicts legislation to curb Facebook, but the moment I hear her voice, my mind liquifies into fondue and I am overcome with an intense desire to sob.
This woman is on the front-lines of the battle to save our nation and, in many ways, our planet from the tiny hands of a reckless maniac. It is easy for most of us in Hollywood to spend our days raging against the current national crisis, but Nancy Pelosi is in the thick of it, and tirelessly, fearlessly handling it.
What I learn from this conversation is that our speaker of the house has no time for whining and needs all of us to “stop agonizing and start organizing.” It’s not about asking for a seat at the table, it’s about sitting at the “head of the table,” she says. And the most important thing? “Know your why.”
There is so much profundity flowing my way, I am overwhelmed and just close my eyes and try to absorb it all directly into my body. Thirty minutes of mainlining Pelosi wisdom has given me a century’s worth of energy to fight for this country.
After stammering through a clumsy goodbye and pledging my allegiance to her cause, I hang up, find my banished children and tell them Nancy says we have work to do.
Madam Speaker, this is special for me on several levels. One is that my mother, Leslie Cockburn, ran for Congress last year in Virginia’s 5th district. It was incredible to see the sacrifice required in campaigning for office. She ended up losing to Denver Riggleman. I was heartbroken because she was so ready to fight for her constituents.
Let me just say, we all were in awe of your mother. She knew why she was running and had the courage to get out there and do it. This is not for the faint of heart, as you observed. So congratulations to her for a great race. She may not have won, but she certainly won the campaign by demonstrating her “why”: why she was running, what she knew about and cared about, how she wanted to get something done, and just making a beautiful connection to the people of that district. It’s a tough district. I don’t know what comes next for her, but maybe she’ll try again.
Thank you! Of course a record number of women did win House seats in the 2018 midterms, and I’m so curious how that influx of female energy has changed the process.
Putting it in the context of so many women running, one of the joys of — I wouldn’t say joys [with] the horrible thing that happened in the 2016 election; I won’t call it a silver lining, maybe a pewter lining — was that women reacted the way they did. The day after the inauguration, women marched. You’ve marched, now you have to run. So women marched, women ran, women voted and women won. And it’s just transformational for our country in my view.
I am proud to say we have 116 women in Congress, the first time we’ve had more than 100 in the House, point A. Point B, we’ll have that number when we observe the 100th anniversary of women having the right to vote next year. And the third point I’ll make is that of the 116 women who won, 94 of them were Democrats. Now, we’ve been working for a long time to have many more women in Congress. When I came to Congress, there were 12 female Democrats and 11 Republicans in the House. Barbara Boxer and I were two of those Democrats, and we made a decision that every election year, we would add to our numbers. So it’s exciting to have them there, and the new women members of Congress were effective from the start. Because as with your mom, they knew their “why.” They knew why they were coming there, what they wanted to work on — and not just on women’s issues, however important they are, but also considering every issue a woman’s issue, whether it’s our national security or economy and issues that men had considered their turf but have been changing for a long time.
They got wonderful committee assignments, and I am proud to say that 10 of them have a gavel. They are chairs of subcommittees or of committees. Not only do they have a seat at the table, they have a seat at the head of the table in many cases.
Speaking of the seat at the head of the table, now going into the presidential election, do you think America has a problem with powerful women? We have seen India, the U.K., Germany and New Zealand vote women into high office, and yet there persists this narrative that America is not ready.
Let me say this, Olivia, I do think that some people in our country have an issue with it, but I don’t think the country does. And I don’t think we can be held back by somebody else’s problem, that they may have a problem with women in power.
I was first elected speaker in 2006. I thought we would have a woman president long before we ever had a woman speaker because Congress has had an over-200-year pecking order, one white man after another. And there was this, “Who said she could run?” I said, “Well, I don’t need anybody to tell me I can.” And it was a jolt [for some of them]. That’s why I always thought Congress might not be ready, but the country is definitely ready.
So I don’t think you wait around for people to be ready. Power has never been given to anybody. You go out there, you show them why. What is your vision for America? What is your knowledge about what you want to present? What is your strategic thinking on how you’re going to get things done? And how do you connect? Just as your mom did in her race, but in a larger sense to the whole country. Just take your message to the country.
I think that we will have a woman president, and it will be soon. I don’t know who it will be, but I do think the country is ready for it. Now, is there misogyny? Yes, there is. But we don’t agonize, we organize. You can’t worry about somebody else’s hang-up, you just have to go out there and show why you are the best.
By the way, I would never — nor did I ever when I ran for speaker — ask anybody to vote for me because we should have a woman speaker. That is the worst thing I could say. Someone running for president has to show why they would be best — if they happen to be a woman, that is an enhancement, but people just want to know what your strength is, how you believe that you could do a better job than any other person.
The tragedy of it all is that Hillary Clinton was as well prepared as anyone to be president of the United States, more prepared probably than her own husband when he came into office and George W. Bush. By dint of experience, judgment and vision for our country, she would’ve been spectacular, which makes the fact that she did not win all the more heartbreaking because of the quality of leadership she would have brought — and of course the lack of leadership that we have now.
And of course she won the popular vote. We know that there now is so much more support for the progressive policies that she was championing than she is being given credit for. Is there anything you want us to keep in mind when determining whom to support in 2020?
It’s cliche, but it is a fact: The fate of our nation is riding on this election. We must win. Our democracy is at stake because of some of the things this president has done. We have heard people say from time to time, this is the most important election of our time. Well, this one really is. (Laughs.)
I’m very proud of all of our candidates. I think that they give us hope in so many different ways. Any one of them would be a better president than the current occupant of the White House. The best thing they can be is themselves — authentically, seriously, energetically. But my message is to the rest of us: Unity is absolutely essential. Some people stayed home because they thought [Clinton] was going to win. You can’t assume anything. I say to my colleagues: Our diversity is our strength, but our unity is our power. All of us have to get behind whomever the nominee is to ensure that our country survives [from the effects of] the past three years.
What do you think about Hollywood endorsements — are they helpful or hurtful to presidential candidates?
I would say that celebrity endorsements, whether it’s Hollywood or sports or whatever it is, are valuable in that they attract to the idea that there is an election and that people should be involved. To the extent that celebrities bring knowledge on a subject, what I have seen be very productive and successful is when they come to the Capitol, for example, to talk about an issue they have standing on. Saving the planet or health care for all Americans or a woman’s right to choose — they have spent time on the issue, became self-credentialed on it.
I have seen such dedication, like last week, we were with Richard Gere, and of course he has devoted most of his life to Tibet, so when he comes to speak about it and to its Zen philosophy and the following of the Dalai Lama, it’s so impressive and it does attract attention.
We’re all supposed to be in the attraction business. You are, we try to be. People are attracted to celebrity. If that celebrity happens to be knowledgeable about their cause, it is very valuable because people will be attracted to the message.
Storytellers can be so valuable in communicating an idea, just as your daughter has done as a documentary filmmaker. Has anyone from the entertainment industry offered to help shape the messaging on the impeachment inquiry?
Thank you for recognizing my daughter, Alexandra. When I go around the country, I’m Alexandra’s mom! People in airports, everywhere I go, say, “I love your daughter’s films.”
I do believe that the arts unify our country [with ideas] conveyed in film or a photo or music. It’s a place where we laugh together, cry together, we’re inspired together, we forget our differences. I’m depending on the arts to be the unifying [factor].
In communications capitals, whether New York and my city of San Francisco, the candor [and] critiques of what we are doing or suggestions of how it might be better are plentiful. I think it would be important to learn from those who know how to send a message better than others because that message will make all the difference in how people understand what we have to do. So without going into who has been more brutally honest or positive, yeah, we have some friendships that share their candor and their guidance.
And actually, when the president called me a couple weeks ago about his “perfect phone call” [in which Trump demanded political favors from the Ukraine president, a point of contention in the impeachment inquiry], he started the conversation by saying, “I’m just calling to talk to you about all the progress we’re making on gun violence prevention.” Because he knew that would get my attention early in the morning. Of course they’ve made no progress, he was just using it as a loss leader, as we say. Then he went on to tell me about his “perfect phone call,” which I said was perfectly wrong.
What of Hollywood’s role in making Donald Trump a reality TV star? Do you blame the industry for the current state of U.S. politics as it relates to Trump?
Well, let me say I’ve never seen his reality show, so I don’t know if it was any good or what. I do think that he was assisted by the communications industry, not just Hollywood, but the press as well, because all they do is enable him, and that is really a sad thing.
I’ve said to many of my friends in the press, “You’re accomplices, whether you want to be or not,” [and they say,] “If he’s saying it, then it’s news.” I don’t think it’s news, but it monopolizes the airwaves. So there is a lot of responsibility to go around in terms of the creation of whatever that is in the White House.
But he has a tactic, one that is used by autocrats, which is, “Just as long as they’re talking about me, no matter if it’s bad, then you’re not talking about my opponent.” When [the press was] talking about him, they weren’t saying what Hillary was going to do about health care, to make our economy fair.
What we have to do is make sure that our own message is very positive, that we assume nothing about the public’s understanding of how one candidate is not authentic. Nonetheless, if you can fake authenticity, as Jean Giraudoux has said, you have it made.
I see everything as an opportunity. I see what he is as an opportunity for us to have a very sharp, sharp contrast to what that is, to bring America back to a place where our hearts are full of love, for our country, for each other, and that we do not become like him in order to gain power but instead honor what our founders taught us: E pluribus unum, from many one.
And so forget about him.
Thank you, Madam Speaker, from the bottom of my heart. It is such a dream come true to speak with you. We are behind you completely and just thank you for everything you’re doing every single day.
I thank you for the opportunity. And if you ever want to go to a political event, I’m sure it would draw a big crowd!
Yes, I’m there — tell me when you need me, I have your back.
So when we talk about how does Hollywood help or hurt, it depends on who it is, and it would be wonderful, especially as new, young voters are concerned. Say hi to your mom for me!
Interview edited for length and clarity.