Advice From a Political Daughter: ‘Every Woman Needs a Paul Pelosi’

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was glued to CNN the night after the 2020 election, while her husband, Paul Pelosi, sat nearby unwrapping a package.

“What is that?” she asked him in a scene from the new HBO documentary, “Pelosi in the House,” directed by their daughter Alexandra Pelosi.

“Dish towels,” Mr. Pelosi responded with a hint of irony as he popped the bubble packing. Ms. Pelosi smiled and then turned her attention back to the election coverage.

It was just one instance of a dynamic on display throughout the film: Mr. Pelosi, who was brutally attacked at the couple’s San Francisco home by an assailant who was said to have been targeting the speaker, takes care of what their family refers to as the “business of living.” That leaves his wife, who will step down as speaker when Republicans assume the House majority on Jan. 3, free to focus on her work.

It is the kind of relationship that women in politics rarely talk about, but can sometimes help make the difference between success and failure: a partner willing to take on the mundane tasks and supportive role that traditionally fell to political wives. And although the Pelosis are wealthy and can get all the household help they need, the documentary captures that being a political spouse can mean simply showing up, and then standing off to the side.

Throughout the film, as Ms. Pelosi does business on the phone with Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Chuck Schumer or Joseph R. Biden Jr., who was then a presidential candidate, Mr. Pelosi, 82, a multimillionaire businessman who founded a venture capital investment firm, is often in the same room dealing with the day-to-day necessities of their lives.

In one scene, Ms. Pelosi was in her pajamas strategizing on a call with Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, about the first impeachment of President Donald J. Trump while Mr. Pelosi, sitting across from her, was on his cellphone dealing with a contractor trying to access their San Francisco home to fix a broken shower.

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“I don’t know what happened to that key,” Mr. Pelosi said, using an expletive.

Paul and Nancy Pelosi met as college students while taking a summer class at Georgetown University in 1961. They married two years later and had five children in six years. Ms. Pelosi spent her early years in the marriage as a stay-at-home San Francisco mother and did not run for Congress until she was in her 40s. What followed was nothing that Mr. Pelosi ever pictured for his wife, or his family, according to his daughter.

“I don’t think this is what he signed up for in 1987,” Alexandra Pelosi said in an interview, referring to the year Ms. Pelosi was first elected to Congress. “He just had to get over it.”

The couple had five children in six years.Credit…Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

Mr. Pelosi, according to his daughter, never caught the political bug. He forbids political talk at the dinner table. But over the years he has been at his wife’s side at her big political moments, and has taken on many of the duties of the homemaker. He does the dishes, deals with contractors, pays the bills and shops for Ms. Pelosi’s clothes.

“She’s never ordered dish towels in her life,” Alexandra Pelosi said. “That’s what he’s been doing forever. He does the shopping for her, from the dish towels to the Armani dress.’’

“He’s got Armani on speed dial,’’ she added, referring to the Italian designer Giorgio Armani, one of the speaker’s favorites. “He’s the full-service husband.”

Ms. Pelosi had more to say: “The dress she wore to the state dinner; he ordered it for her, and he sent my sister to go try it on.” (Ms. Pelosi was referring to a gold sequin gown by another Italian designer, Giambattista Valli, that her mother wore to a White House state dinner early this month for President Emmanuel Macron of France.)

The documentary, focused on Ms. Pelosi’s rise and professional accomplishments, offers glimpses into how a marriage to a supportive spouse helps create the space for a woman’s work — in her case, operating years as the most powerful political force in the Democratic Party in recent years.

Other than Hillary Clinton, few women in politics have risen to Ms. Pelosi’s stature, and there are not many male spouses like her husband. Former President Bill Clinton played the role of supportive spouse during Mrs. Clinton’s two presidential campaigns, but after he had already had his turn.

Doug Emhoff has assumed a supporting role to Vice President Kamala Harris, but that has also meant becoming a public figure in his own right. Mr. Pelosi never wanted anything close to that.

“He’s a private person with a private life with a very interesting collection of friends, including Republicans,” Alexandra Pelosi said. “He didn’t sign up for this life.”

But, she said, he has made it work. “Every woman needs a Paul Pelosi.’’

The Pelosis met in 1961, while taking a summer class at Georgetown University. Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

In one scene in the documentary, Mr. Pelosi was scraping breakfast dishes in a robe while his wife spoke on the phone to Mr. Pence. At one point, she put herself on mute and blew kisses at her husband.

In a scene shot during the 2020 presidential campaign, Ms. Pelosi was on the phone with Mr. Biden advising him “don’t go too far to the left.” Mr. Pelosi was sitting next to her, reading his iPad, only half paying attention to his wife’s conversation.

Mr. Pelosi appeared at ease in his supporting character role.

“Are you in line to get a picture with the speaker?” his daughter shouted at him from behind the camera at a gathering at the U.S. Capitol ahead of one of Mr. Trump’s State of the Union addresses, while Ms. Pelosi was working a photo line.

“Oh I am,” he joked.

The following year, there he was again, sitting and snacking while Ms. Pelosi worked the room.

“I heard Paul Pelosi was here,” his daughter joked.

“I just came for the pistachios,” he said.

As Ms. Pelosi prepared to enter the House chamber — where she would eventually tear up Mr. Trump’s speech and dismiss it as a “manifesto of mistruths” — her husband was with her in her office offering moral support.

“You look great, hon,” Mr. Pelosi told her.

Despite his appearances in the documentary, Mr. Pelosi is not always at the speaker’s side, including in May, when he was in a car accident in Napa County, Calif., and afterward pleaded guilty to a single count of driving under the influence of alcohol. Ms. Pelosi was across the country, preparing to deliver a commencement address at Brown University.

“He’s there for the days that matter,” Alexandra Pelosi said. “It’s really just because she says you have to come. These kinds of people need a family to be there for support on days that matter.”

In October, Mr. Pelosi was beaten with a hammer at the couple’s San Francisco home by an assailant who was said to have been targeting the speaker. He suffered major head injuries, but has appeared in recent days by Ms. Pelosi’s side, including her portrait unveiling at the Capitol and at the Kennedy Center Honors celebration.

Still, his daughter said he was on a long road to recovery. “He has good days and bad days,” she said, noting that he has post-traumatic stress and tires quickly.

The attack on the man who has been a quiet pillar of the Pelosi family life has taken a toll on all of them. The speaker told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in a recent interview that “for me this is really the hard part because Paul was not the target, and he’s the one who is paying the price.”

“He was not looking for Paul, he was looking for me,” she added.

His daughter said one of the most uncomfortable parts of the ordeal has been the glare of the public spotlight on a person who has tried to avoid it.

“He’s remained out of the limelight as much as he could,” she said. “He almost got to the end without anyone knowing who he was.”

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