The Jan. 6 hearings will go down in history as an invaluable record of how our democracy teetered dangerously on the brink and offers Americans a clear picture of what really happened that perilous day when then-President Donald Trump's supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol. But the testimony also reveals an important picture of two profoundly different models of American leadership; that of an aspiring strongman —Trump — and a truly strong woman — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Trump showed the world exactly the kind of leader he was on Jan. 6, refusing to concede defeat, inciting a coup to subvert the will of the people, then refusing to intervene while watching the mayhem unfold from the safety of his White House dining room. Trump’s behavior that day was appalling but hardly out of character. He was never interested in public service or American ideals. He built his power by subjecting the GOP to authoritarian-style party discipline, demanding unwavering personal loyalty, punishing internal dissent and celebrating, even encouraging, violence against anyone who opposed him.
In those same hours on Jan. 6 of last year, and throughout her tenure as House speaker, Pelosi’s leadership stands in dramatic contrast. At 81 years old, in her 17th congressional term, she built her power over decades by garnering the respect of a diverse coalition of colleagues, incentivizing sometimes strange political bedfellows into coalitions and partnerships to achieve transformational public policy for the American people. From universal healthcare to the end of "don’t ask, don’t tell," no speaker has wielded soft and hard power more effectively. Now we know that on Jan. 6, she saved democracy too.
As video filmed by her daughter Alexandra Pelosi and released by the Jan. 6 committee shows, she not only kept her calm in the face of imminent personal threat but remained laser-focused on her duty to preserve the bedrock principals of American democracy by certifying Joe Biden's presidential victory that night. Not for a moment does she put her self-interest first.
Trump frequently made Pelosi the target of his ire, and as House speaker and third in line to the presidency, she was in real danger on Jan. 6. "They’re pounding on the door trying to find her,” one of her aides hiding under a desk whispered into a phone.
Even while being rushed to safety, Pelosi displayed a steely resolve. Again and again she pushes for one thing — that Congress do their duty and certify the election. "There has to be some way we can maintain … some confidence that government can function and that we can elect the president of the United States" she told members around her. Meanwhile, Trump supporters like Richard "Bigo" Barnett were occupying her office, putting his feet on her desk in contempt and disrespect. "Nancy, Bigo was here, you b----," he wrote in a note left on the desk that day.
Against the backdrop of the abusive, violent, brutish and lawless leadership of Trump, a female leader wielding a wholly different kind of power, taking charge and putting country first in an unprecedented crisis is inspiring.
In the upcoming midterm elections, Americans will be asked to choose which of these leadership models they want. Many candidates around the country are like Trump, building their power on fear, intimidation and lies. Also, on the ballot are those who seek to put country ahead of party, who want to serve and get things done for the American people. It remains to be seen which model Americans will chose.
Questions have been swirling in Washington about the speaker’s future. She has publicly committed to remain in the speakership until after the fall midterms. If Democrats hold the majority, the president, and the entire Democratic party should be begging her continue as speaker. As the Jan. 6 video reinforced, there is no leader in Congress more effective, dedicated, and yes powerful than the woman so many sought to harm.
History has a habit of overlooking, undervaluing, even dismissing the contributions of powerful women. Discounted as weak, strong women like Pelosi are too often relegated to the sidelines while self-centered, domineering, dangerous, ultra-macho men are hailed as great. In the most critical moment for our country since the Civil War, it was a woman’s leadership that prevailed to all our benefit. To overlook the importance of her leadership that day, and so many days before and since, does a disservice to both the facts and to history itself. She saved democracy, not by force and intimidation but by sticking to principles and values greater than herself.
As the first female speaker, Nancy Pelosi changed the face and model of leadership in Washington and beyond. Now we understand why hers is the right one to ensure enduring democracy too. As the midterm elections approach, let’s hope Americans, and history, take note.