If incoming U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had planned this week’s swearing-in festivities for, say, her husband instead of herself, she might have been praised for her creative and gracious hostessing.

Instead, her critics have been grousing about Nancy overexposure interfering with the people’s business. As though those same whiners haven’t generated an exasperating distraction the past few years.

You don’t have to be a hard-line feminist to appreciate the significance, for our history and our future, of Pelosi’s taking the oath of office as the first female speaker of the House. And you don’t even have to like her to appreciate the way she interweaves traditional values with modern ones.

The product of an Italian-American Catholic family, Pelosi attended a college founded by nuns, married and declined to plunge fully into politics until she felt that her five children were old enough. She first ran for Congress in 1987, when she was 46 and her youngest daughter was a high school senior.

Pelosi’s a grandmother, too. But as leader of the Democrats while the Republicans ran the House, she could sound as shrill as that irascible, acid-tongued grandmother/aunt character that Cloris Leachman has perfected in several television roles.

Pelosi dubbed President Bush incompetent and the Republican-led Congress corrupt. She sounded impolite and impolitic. But not entirely off-base, you know.

No matter how many times her opponents repeat the epithet, Pelosi can’t be mistaken for a left-coast looney.

She grew up in Baltimore, after all – a girl with five older brothers who even in a 1950s family apparently taught her how to come out swinging when necessary.

But it wasn’t just her jousting skills that brought her to the third most powerful position in U.S. politics. It was organization, planning, coalition-building, ability to raise money, discipline – and her talent, as one admirer described it, for seeing the field and the location of the other players.

She learned politics from her father, a Baltimore mayor. (A brother also served in that office.) But no doubt she polished some of her skills mothering the four daughters and a son she had with Paul Pelosi.

Nancy Pelosi has campaigned as “A Voice That Will Be Heard.” And anyone who’s had a strong mother – or been one – can attest to the true meaning of that slogan.

If the politics were stripped away, Pelosi’s celebratory events (mostly paid for by campaign funds) might be seen as embracing values that many Americans cherish: heritage, religion, education, family and roots. She attended Mass at her alma mater (Trinity University in Washington) and a tea. There was a prayer service for members of the military at a church near the House office buildings and a Capitol Hill reception. A Baltimore street-naming recognized her hometown, a dinner featuring Tony Bennett touted her current home.

(A Tuesday report on “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” portrayed Pelosi as too moderate for self-styled San Francisco radicals but too liberal for its GOP business types.)

House Democrats have set an ambitious agenda for their first 100 hours in the majority, and Republicans already are grumbling about inadequate input. Pelosi will be tested to make more progress than the previous Congress but with as much bipartisan support as possible, knowing that some opponents are determined to see her fail.

New ethics rules that cut lobbyist influence and make bill-drafting more transparent will be an important first step. But that can’t be followed by a series of missteps.

Though Pelosi told CBS’ “60 Minutes” that being speaker would enable her to “show the American people that women know how to use power,” her leadership shouldn’t be seen as valuable only for women.

Pelosi brings experience from the Intelligence, Appropriations and Banking committees. And the issues she’s highlighted – wages that can sustain a family, energy independence to keep the planet livable, affordable health care, more widely accessible college and fulfillment of our obligations to military veterans – matter to all of us.

The new Congress includes 71 women in the House (50 Democrats, 21 Republicans) and 16 in the Senate (11 Democrats, five Republicans), according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. But the numbers matter less than what gets accomplished.

Women in national politics will really have crushed the marble ceiling when there are at least two major female candidates for the presidency, not just one who’s reviled by about as many people as adore her.

Until then, I’d settle for Pelosi’s fulfilling her pledge of “integrity, civility, fiscal soundness in how we operate the government and how we deliberate in Congress.”

Linda P. Campbell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may write to her at 400 W. 7th Street, Fort Worth, Texas 76102, or via e-mail at lcampbellstar-telegram.com.

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