“Her Prerogative”

For the first time in the history of the Republic, a Speaker of the United States House of Representatives barred a President of the United States from entering the House. 

In 1986, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill refused to let President Reagan address the House before it voted on an aid package for the Contras, right-wing Nicaraguan rebels for whom Reagan hoped to persuade Congress to appropriate $100 million.  O’Neil offered a joint session with the Senate instead, but Reagan turned it down because he wanted to focus on the purse strings of the House. That’s the only time anything has happened remotely like what we’ve just witnessed.

It’s worth repeating: For the first time in the history of the Republic, a Speaker of the United States House of Representatives barred a President of the United States from entering the House.

This is completely within the rights of the Speaker’s power, since the Constitution specifies that no president may set foot on either the House or Senate floors without a concurring resolution from both chambers. Remember that the Speaker is the most powerful post in Congress, directly in succession to the presidency after the vice president. Nor is it coincidental that the Constitution established the House (Article I Number II), even before the Senate, as the primary legislative body of the land.

So you might reasonably think that my colleagues in the media might report this occasion—the first time a Speaker locks out a President and dangles a future invitation as a strategic carrot—would be treated by my colleagues in the media as the successful, historic event it is. Yet the confrontation has been described as a “petty scuffle,” a “kerfuffle,” a “tit for tat ego squabble,” and a “toe to toe scrap.” 

Gee, I wonder why.

Let’s recap briefly. In the saga of whether and where Trump would deliver the State of the Union address during his own shutdown of most government functions,  Pelosi had courteously suggested he not deliver the speech in the House, citing such sensible (and face-saving for him) reasons as security forces being decimated during the shutdown, and diplomatically leaving unspoken long-term reasons like Listen, buddy, the House of Representatives is now speaking for the people again and refuses to let you throw a tantrum whenever you don’t get what you want in the future by closing down the United States.

Trump, whose approval rating dropped another 10 points in the last month to around 33 percent, decided to defy her. He tweeted that he would deliver the address as planned, “on time, on schedule, and very importantly, on location!”  

(Wait. What? On location? Does he think the Oval Office is a movie set so if he speaks elsewhere he’s on “location”?)  

Pelosi was utterly unmoved. Trump, still unwelcome, began muttering to reporters,”We will do something in the alternative.” There you go! Forget the Constitution and all that stuff about a President having to report to Congress, the Judiciary, and the nation once a year as to what the Executive branch has been doing (sort of an annual job review). Oh, no, Trump would stage a rally instead, where his dwindling number of fans could buy hats and cheer his racist, sexist comments! Yes, he would, so there, take that, even if he had to hold the State of the Union in a Walmart parking lot!

He dared Pelosi to literally bar him from the House. Pelosi (probably yawning delicately, like a bored cat) replied with a cool “I look forward to welcoming you to the House on a mutually agreeable date for this address when the government has been opened.” He blustered. He ranted and raved. He pounded things. Finally, she made it flatly, icily clear that she would not entertain a concurring resolution with the Senate to lift the rule that a president must be invited by both houses before he can enter either one. Doubtless, Trump had never heard of a concurring resolution—but neither did he want to be met by a locked door with the lights turned out. 

Everyone in Washington had talked about how a bully caves when someone actually stands up to him, but Democrats lacked the clout and Republicans the spine to do so. Then came the midterm elections—with their consequences. And in the dark of Wednesday night, using an almost civil tone, Trump tweeted total defeat. He surrendered. Gave in. Lost. He would postpone the speech until the shutdown was lifted, and he acknowledged that it was within the Speaker’s prerogative to make him do so. Well, well, well.

In her prerogative. 

It was in her prerogative when each of all the women he pursued had turned him down, only to have him assault them anyway. It is in the prerogative of refugees and immigrants to seek asylum. It is in the prerogative of the American people to hold fair and free elections and not to be held hostage for a vanity project wall.

Hard-right pundits mourned that Pelosi had ”emasculated” Trump. Pelosi applied even more pressure, responding to him that she hoped to invite him soon, as she hoped he would end the shutdown soon by supporting the Democrats’ bill that offers to negotiate, plus money for border security. But. None. For. His. Wall.

Which is basically what he did two days later.

Trump became (his own term:) a loser. Pelosi won

 She won a rescue for the nation to begin recovering from his disastrous shutdown. She won against sexist troglodytes who still sneer that women lack the toughness of spirit to be real leaders. She won against the juvenile sniping of some newbie members in her own caucus who had dismissed her as too old or too “establishment” to demonstrate worthiness of leading their radical inexperience. Most important, she won by modeling for everyone how to reinstate the crucial, co-equal powers of the three government branches. (Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts, take note: with work, you too could become a profile in courage.)

Does the above battle sound like a kerfuffle or a spat to you? Would anyone dare characterize it as such had both parties been men? Oh no, headlines would have blared Titanic Duel! Mano a Mano! Speaker Wins Historic Triumph!

Now. What follows below may seem like a lateral leap to a different subject, but it’s not. Read on and you’ll see. 

Last week, the nation observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I remember the long struggle to make it a national holiday, and I’m deeply glad we prevailed. But let’s fill in some background. 

Fifty years ago, Daisy Bates, head of the Little Rock, Arkansas, NAACP chapter, had helped recruit nine black teenagers and escort them through violent white mobs into their first classes. Bates lost her vision, was jailed, threatened with death, and survived the Ku Klux Klan burning an 8-foot cross on her lawn. Naturally, she was invited to the famous 1963 March on Washington, when Dr. King delivered his “I have a dream” speech. 

But Bates had to march with the wives of male leaders. 

Rosa Parks was invited too, and Pauli Murray, the feminist lawyer who staged the first sit-in at a Washington restaurant, back during World War II. They also had to walk with the wives—and stay away from photographers. Murray said later, “Not a single woman was invited to make one of the major speeches or to join the delegation of leaders who went to the White House. The omission was deliberate.”

Dorothy Height, President of the National Council of Negro women (who was frequently cropped from photos of organizational leaders), pleaded with King to include at least a token woman among the speakers, nominating Diane Nash, the student leader who was perhaps the person most responsible for the success of the Freedom Riders in the South. But as Height later wrote, ”Nothing that women said or did broke the impasse blocking their participation.” The men said women already had participation—because singers Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson were going to perform.

None of the women made their protests public at the time, in solidarity and for fear their criticism might be taken as ”emasculating” all black men, many of whom historically had suffered literal castration by white racists who were other men.

Yet King’s first success had been as the public face of Montgomery, Alabama’s bus boycott, made possible because a college teacher, Joanne Robinson, and a group of other middle-class black women, organized it.

Rosa Parks herself, a long-time activist, was represented by movement spokesmen as a seamstress too weary to give up her seat on the bus, because the men thought that was more passive-sounding and pitiable than acknowledging her years of activism. 

Gloria Richardson, who famously waved away the bayonet of a National Guardsman during a Cambridge protest in 1963, and Dorothy Cotton, who taught students how to protest peacefully even as people taunted, beat, and kicked them—no speaking at Dr. King’s March for them, either.  

Nor for Ella Baker, possibly the greatest organizer the Civil Rights Movement ever had. She also was rejected for the directorship of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which she helped found and which she ran as “acting” director—a rejection, she noted, because “I was female. I was old. I didn’t have a PhD.” So she organized college students, forming the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), instead.

Surely, these women had earned the entitlement to walk side-by-side with the male leaders, and to speak at King’s March on Washington. Surely it was their due, their right, their prerogative.

Why doesn’t this country have a Baker Day, a Parks Day, a Bates Day? Why don’t we have days, streets, statues, and schools honoring Height and Nash and Murray and Robinson and so, so many others?

And will a future statue stand in the halls of the U.S. House of Representatives celebrating Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro Pelosi, the way the House honors a select few of the greatest Speakers in the history of our Republic?

Just asking.