Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

21 March 2010

All Hail the Speaker!


When I was little, my late mother kept a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I on our family piano. There was the Queen, five inches high, wearing a stiff, pleated, uncomfortable collar. With her hair drawn back under her small crown, she looked attractive, severe and monarchical―a little like Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen.

English royalty fascinated my mother. But unlike many Americans, she not only knew their names and numbers. She also knew what they had done, in detail.

Having no interest in royalty myself, I wrote off her obsession as a rare mental aberration. Years later, I discovered that my mother had been a closet feminist long before the word or the movement existed. It was decades before I myself got interested in history and learned that Queen Elizabeth I had altered its course.

Yesterday the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal ran stories of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s full-court press to get health-insurance reform done. The Wall Street Journal reported the words of a young Congressman and Iraq veteran on Pelosi’s style. His “respectful conversations” with her, he said, imposed “no more pressure than flying missions out of Baghdad.” I’ll bet recalcitrant dukes and officials in Queen Elizabeth I’s court felt much the same way, after she had focused her rapier-like wit and imperial mein on them.

I don’t mean to compare Speaker Pelosi with Queen Elizabeth I. Few leaders in human history, male or female, can match that Queen’s impact. Elizabeth I took a fractious island full of feuding religions and warring family clans and turned it into the foundation of modern England and our globalized world. Modern science, modern technology and modern economics are in part byproducts of her rule.

She didn’t do it all herself, of course. Lots of good and important things were happening in England at about that time. Among them was Shakespeare admonishing us “above all, to thine own self be true”―advice that Abe Lincoln and our current President had to repeat in their times. Yet the culture of enlightened pragmatism that Elizabeth I instilled in England eventually came to enrich the world and make English a universal second language.

Nancy Pelosi’s speakership comes at a different sort of turning point. A great nation―the successor to England’s enlightened pragmatism―is in decline. The cause of the trouble is much the same as in the monarch’s time: incessant squabbling among unruly boys. The squabbling is no longer bloody and by force of arms, but it is similarly destructive. By ramming health-insurance-reform through the House and knocking heads to do it, Speaker Pelosi may have helped set our culture back on the track of enlightened pragmatism.

Queen Elizabeth I never married and had no children. Although no one knows whether she died a virgin, in the male-obsessed society of her time she knew she could rule well only alone. What a difference we have today, when Speaker Pelosi can take the helm of the House as a happy grandmother!

Our best president in forty years couldn’t do it alone. Renowned “pit bull” Rahm Emmanuel wimped out and argued for half measures. Squabbling among Democrats, coupled with the unrelenting obstinacy of the Party of No, threatened to make our country ungovernable. Who could have guessed that our own Iron Lady would rise to save the day, and that she would be a still-pretty, seventy-year-old Catholic grandmother from the “ultra-liberal” city of San Francisco. Now, at last, the nation’s girls and women have a real leader to emulate!

When the dust settles, Speaker Pelosi should write a book―maybe several―explaining how she did it. News articles, blogs and TV interviews won’t be enough to teach our children, let alone posterity.

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