A generation of congressional leaders fought back tears on Wednesday as they unveiled the official portrait of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the first woman to hold the chamber’s gavel, and the first to have her likeness immortalized in the Speaker’s Lobby.
In her remarks, Pelosi thanked her colleagues for helping her craft such a storied congressional career, noting that she made history as the first female House speaker only because her caucus “had the courage to elect a woman.”
“I’m honored to be the first, but it will only be a good accomplishment if I’m not the last,” Pelosi said.
Figures including former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) joined Pelosi in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall to celebrate her portrait and speakership. While Pelosi will remain in Congress, she will not serve as speaker, or in House Democratic leadership, in the next session.
An emotional Boehner recalled the many times he and Pelosi worked together in Congress, despite being on opposite sides of the aisle.
“Madam Speaker, you and I have disagreed publicly on many things over the years, but we were never disagreeable to each other,” Boehner said.
The former speaker noted that his daughters asked him to tell Pelosi “how much we admire her.”
“The younger generation today has a saying: ‘Game recognizes game,’” Boehner said. “And the fact of the matter is: No other speaker of the House in a modern era, Republican or Democrat, has wielded the gavel with such authority or with such consistent results.”
Pelosi, Boehner added, is “one tough cookie.”
In her remarks, Pelosi thanked Boehner, who was teary at times, and noted that she would have been “a little disappointed if he did not get emotional.”
Pelosi’s portrait was created by artist Ronald Sherr, who died last week. Sherr also painted Boehner’s official Capitol portrait, and Pelosi noted how the artist was able to capture “the intricate details of the House chamber.”
Her decision to step back from House leadership came after her husband, Paul Pelosi, was violently attacked in their San Francisco home by an intruder who was searching for her. Paul Pelosi was left with a skull fracture and serious injuries to his arm and hands.
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The crowd gave a standing ovation to Paul, who wore a hat as he appeared in Statuary Hall to celebrate his wife’s achievements Wednesday. The speaker thanked him in her remarks, calling him her “loving partner for life, my constant, constant pillar of support.”
Two of Pelosi’s closest Capitol confidantes, fellow California Democratic Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Lucille Roybal-Allard, defined the speaker as a role model who, in Lofgren’s words, proved to “countless” women and girls that they “can play not just a part, but a leading role in bringing the change they wish to see in the world.”
Pelosi was first elected to the House in 1987 and became the first female speaker in 2007, serving until 2011. She became speaker for the second time in 2019, succeeding Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).
In her more than three decades of service, she has earned a reputation as a force of power in the face of male colleagues who at times undermined her work and opinions. She pushed over the finish line a remarkable number of legislative victories on her party’s top priorities, and she has received bipartisan recognition for her ability to keep Democrats united.
Pelosi stepping down as top House Democrat after 2 decades in leadership
Schumer, who was teary-eyed as he celebrated Pelosi, said the power to keep Democrats in line is one of the things he will “forever admire” about her.
History, Schumer added, will remember Pelosi as a lawmaker who “did it all.”
“We cannot talk about the Affordable Care Act without mentioning Nancy Pelosi. We cannot talk about the American Rescue Plan without mentioning Nancy Pelosi,” Schumer said. “We cannot talk about the [bipartisan deal on] infrastructure, or the Violence Against Women Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Act, repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — and so much more — without mentioning Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi.”
Former president Barack Obama also spoke via video, reminding the crowd that his love for the speaker “is well documented.”
“Whenever I get stressed about what’s happening in Washington, I always feel better knowing that Nancy is on the case,” Obama said. “And that’s because for Nancy, nothing is impossible.”
Pelosi, he said, was the Democrat who did not give up on his signature ACA in 2009, not even after Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) died, leaving Democrats with one fewer vote in the Senate.
“She would always say: ‘If the gate is closed, we’ll push it open,’” Obama recalled.
Pelosi, he said, “will go down as one of the most accomplished legislator leaders in American history.”
“And even after insurrectionists literally broke into her office,” Obama said, “she never stopped defending democracy here at home and around the world.”
Footage from the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol showed that, while rioters strode through the building’s hallways with bear spray and body armor in search of Pelosi — yelling “Where are you, Nancy?” and “Bring her out!” — she remained calm as she made efforts to reach the National Guard and procure the safety of her fellow lawmakers.
“In the face of insurrection, there was Nancy with us in the same room, unshaken, calm, determined to secure the building and keep democracy going,” Schumer said.
Few leaders in U.S. history, Schumer added, have been “as effective, as driven, as successful as Speaker Pelosi.”
“Somewhere out there, a future Madam Speaker awaits her chance to make a difference,” Schumer said. “And when that day comes, she will be standing on my friend Nancy Pelosi’s shoulders.”