History (sort of) repeats itself: The Presidents’ reckoning with a Speaker Pelosi

Posted at 4:58 PM, Nov 08, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-08 19:12:19-05

November 8, 2006: President George W. Bush hastily called a news conference 12 years ago in the East Room of the White House.

The day before, Republicans lost majority control in the House, after a crushing midterm election. The Democratic takeover positioned one of Bush’s most vocal critics, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, to take the helm as speaker of the House of Representatives, the first woman to hold that powerful office.

As one of the reporters covering that press conference, I confronted Bush about his new political reality with this question:

“With all due respect, Nancy Pelosi has called you incompetent, a liar, the emperor with no clothes and, as recently as yesterday, dangerous. How will you work with someone who has such little respect for your leadership and who is third in line to the presidency?” I asked.

In his response, the confident President from Texas was humble and offered on olive branch to the incoming speaker.

“I’ve been around politics a long time,” he said. “I understand when campaigns end, and I know when governing begins. And I’m going to work with people of both parties. You know, look, people say unfortunate things at times, but if you hold grudges in this line of work, you’re never going to get anything done.”

It was a prescient message and a warning of what could come.

After Democrats regained control of the House this week, Pelosi is poised to possibly make history again, this time not as the first female speaker of the House, but as the first person to return to that coveted position since the legendary Sam Rayburn in 1955.

President Donald Trump, during his own East Room news conference a day after the midterm elections, began by offering what appeared to be an olive branch of his own, praising Pelosi for the Democrats’ dramatic capture of the House saying, “I give her a great deal of credit for what she’s done, and what she’s accomplished.”

But moments later, Trump changed his tone as he pledged revenge for any Democratic-led House investigations he deemed unfair, threatening to block legislation and effectively shut down the government, a far different tact than Bush’s soul-searching.

As for Pelosi’s part, at her own news conference at the US Capitol, she pledged not to allow any “scattershot freelancing” from those in her caucus investigating the administration. She emphasized “standing her ground” while “seeking common ground” with the President and said she had already talked with Trump about possibly working together on an infrastructure package.

But Wednesday, Pelosi seemed almost nostalgic for the Bush days. She touted a tax cut and PEPFAR — an AIDS relief program in Africa — as proof she “worked very productively” with Bush when Democrats had the majority.

In 2006, Bush acknowledged the midterms were in large part a referendum on the controversial war in Iraq. And he seemed aware of the results’ impact, candidly telling me, in what would later become a famous punch line, “it was a thumpin’,” Bush said.

A clear contrast to Trump who said Wednesday’s results were nearly a “very close to complete victory,” even though the GOP lost the House after holding it for several terms.

“There comes responsibility with victory” Bush quoted Pelosi in 2006. “That’s what she said … she wants to work together, and so do I.”

As my Blackberry started to buzz under my chair with reaction to Bush’s remarkable comments, the President wrapped up with his familiar Texan colloquialism.

“You know, this isn’t my first rodeo,” Bush said.

He continued, “In other words, I haven’t — this is not the first time I’ve been in a campaign where people have expressed themselves and in different kinds of ways. But I have learned that, you know, if you focus on the big picture, which in this case is our nation and issues we need to work together on, you can get stuff done.”