By Margaret Carlson
Nov. 16 (Bloomberg) -- I'm rooting for Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker of the House of Representatives, the way I root for all firsts to succeed.
She has many things going for her. A family political pedigree going back to her father serving as mayor of Baltimore, a late-in-life election on her own after raising her children, a pleasant manner when she's not using what she calls her ``mother- of-five voice'' to keep the troops in line.
She has a few liabilities, the major one being the parenthetical ``San Francisco liberal'' permanently affixed to her name. When she went down Pennsylvania Avenue to meet with President George W. Bush for the first time since the Democrats won control of Congress, gone was the hyper-partisan who called the president a ``liar'' a week earlier. In its place, was a stateswoman saying she entered the Oval Office as speaker of the House, not speaker of the Democrats.
If only she could bring some of that inside the House. You would think Pelosi would know that, like sausage, committee assignments and dispersing the few perks of power are not something you want to be seen making.
Pelosi's first act was to float the idea of pushing aside the ranking member on the Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman, in favor of Alcee Hastings, a representative from Florida. It looked like identity politics of the worst sort, a signal that she would do anything to please the Congressional Black Caucus, even appoint an impeached federal judge to a delicate position. It also looked petty, evidence that there wasn't enough oxygen in a state as large as California for two high-powered females.
Pelosi then compounded the first mistake by taking sides in a leadership fight that would depose her current No. 2, Representative Steny Hoyer, in favor of John Murtha. In this she is ignoring speakers past who knew enough to deal with the messy machinations of leadership in a backroom, a place that has lost its smoke in recent years but not its utility.
Instead, Pelosi has gone public, writing a letter on Murtha's behalf, staking her rise to power on his victory. What speaker wants to seize the reins of power already weakened in a battle she didn't need to wage?
Murtha has a lot to recommend him --- the rumpled vet from central casting put his military expertise and a strong relationship with the Pentagon behind getting out of Iraq, which proved to be a winning election issue for Democrats.
The problem for Murtha is that before becoming famous for his stand on Iraq he was famous for being implicated in Abscam.
Circulating now on the Internet is a grainy video with the production values of a porn flick in which Murtha considers an offer from undercover FBI agents to help a phony Arab sheik in exchange for cold, hard cash.
To his credit, Murtha doesn't take the money. To his discredit, he says he's not interested ``at this point'' in the cash piled up in an open drawer, thus leaving the door open wide enough to drive a felony through. ``You know, we do business for a while, maybe I'll be interested, maybe I won't, you know,'' he said.
Murtha calls Abscam ancient history dredged up by enemies who are trying to ``swift-boat'' him. Indeed, Murtha cooperated with authorities and was not charged. Still, the counsel for the investigating committee resigned in disgust with the deal Murtha cut. And while Murtha turned down the bribe, you can see him on YouTube considering whether it was worth the risk.
Murtha has so many good points, it's a shame to see him on that tape. But with ethics front and center, it's a killer. Publicly Murtha said ``wait until you see the ethics package we support . . . No meals, no trips, no nothing.'' Behind closed doors, speaking to a group of Democrats, he called ethics reform ``total crap.''
King of Earmarks
After the Jack Abramoff scandal and the Bridge to Nowhere, this is impolitic to say the least, though it may actually represent his sentiments. Murtha has yet to meet an earmark he doesn't like for his Pennsylvania district. He resisted beefing up ethics rules last year. As do many members, Murtha has former staffers and family members who have become lobbyists, working Capitol Hill for the favors he can deliver.
It's not illegal, but it does smell. Just ask soon-to-be- former Representative Curt Weldon. His daughter is a lobbyist whose house was raided by the FBI looking for evidence that Weldon had sent business her way.
Could Pelosi not have known what she was getting into? If she didn't, shame on her. If she did, what does her support for Murtha mean after she pledged on election night to lead ``the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history.''
Blinded by the Leadership
Pelosi may have been blinded by Murtha's leadership on Iraq and by old grudges in her relationship with Hoyer. An affable, nuts-and-bolts man familiar with the arcane ways of the House, Hoyer in his off-the-rack suits and Maryland twang wouldn't overshadow the urbane, glamorous Pelosi. His one mistake was to challenge Pelosi for the whip job in 2001.
They also have issues, friends say, from playing at one time in the small sandbox of Maryland politics. In the same vein, Pelosi has issues with Harman arising from playing in the larger sandbox of California politics. But that doesn't justify supporting an impeached judge or someone caught up in Abscam, even if it was so long ago.
If you were elected to clean up, you have to be sure the people around you are pristine.
(Margaret Carlson, author of ``Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House'' and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at email@example.com .
Last Updated: November 16, 2006 04:00 EST