When Ted Kennedy dropped by College Station in 2003, the pissed-off Aggies turned out in droves, mocking the late senator with a look-alike contest, a grape-juice toast and a sing-along round of “Ted the Magic Driver.” When President Obama came three years ago, 1,000 demonstrators railed against his presence, with “pissed-off seniors” cruising in from hundreds of miles away to disapprove of Obama more personally.
So the news that U.S. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was spending her President’s Day holiday in Aggieland—the heart of Rick Perry “treat ‘em pretty ugly down in Texas” territory—looked like the setup for a thrilling third round of culture clash. A student group called the Texas Aggie Conservatives promised they’d be there to greet the former House speaker with scathing political street theater. Commenters screamed “liberal hag” and “San Francisco communist” at the news of Pelosi’s coming, announcing they’d canceled their membership in the A&M alumni Century Club, and wondering why A&M doesn’t just invite Mao Zedong to speak next. (Since that TED talk on desert farming co-ops, Mao’s been a star on the lecture circuit.)
With the stage thus set, the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum threw open its doors Monday evening for a polite and well-dressed crowd of hundreds who were interested in what the highest-ranking woman in Congressional history had to say. She spent an hour chatting with Bush’s former deputy chief of staff (and George W. Bush’s chief of staff) Andrew Card, and was eminently deferential to the former president, who looked on from a wheelchair in the front row. It was, after all, his holiday and his museum.
“He was strong enough and confident enough in his strength to talk about a kinder, gentler America,” she said. She recalled Bush’s civility during his time in office, even with his political rivals, “something badly needed today.”
As it turned out, all that vitriol brewing against Pelosi in College Station erupted with a hiccup of a dozen protesters—a sign, maybe, of a kinder, gentler College Station. No “pissed-off seniors” came in from miles away. Nearly all the demonstrators were Texas Aggie Conservatives, the same folks who hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus, and celebrate Ronald Reagan’s birthday by passing out slices of a big cake frosted with the president’s face.
As the much older audience waited outside for the talk, the unhappy students lined up a few hundred feet away. One student wore a ball and chain around his ankle and held a sign reading, “Unchain the American Employer.” Another dressed as Death, complete with the grim reaper’s cloak and scythe, with a paper mask of Nancy Pelosi’s face. “Pelosi = Job-Killer!” his sign explained.
Reporters with questions were directed to speak with Cary Chesire, a group leader who said he was happy with the turnout, and was glad some of the folks waiting to get in to the talk came by to chat about health care and tax policy. “We’ve had a large number of supporters from the crowd,” Cheshire said.
“And curse words,” Death interjected, sounding a little hurt.
Cheshire cut back in. “It’s a great way to get our message out,” he said.
Beside them, two more students said they’d turned up to support the Catholic church’s right to exclude birth control from its health insurance coverage. Their pink signs set them apart from the others. “You can’t be Catholic and pro-choice,” A&M freshman Laura Campos said.
Pelosi, who is Catholic, addressed the issue inside, in response to what Card said was a question from the audience submitted ahead of time.
“I’m from a family that you’d call pro-life. I was raised in that atmosphere. I understand it, I respect it,” Pelosi said. “This is so personal… I’m of an age, we don’t really talk about these things in public.”
“The issue is, in my opinion, not about contraception. It’s about women’s health.” It was her biggest applause line of the night.
“Women have traditionally been discriminated against in the health insurance industry,” she said, making insurance harder to get or more expensive if they are or have been pregnant. “One of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act is that being a woman will no longer be a preexisting condition.”
Pelosi kept reminding the crowd that even her career ambitions were old-fashioned, too—that she’d been a wife and a mother of five first, and ended up in Congress almost by accident. But that was 25 years ago, she said. “It is really urgent that women take responsibility for leadership in the decisions that need to be made for our country,” she said.
She drew lots of applause for that line, and a little less when she suggested campaign finance reform was the way to get there. Women running for office are consistently out-raised by men running against them, she pointed out. “If we can reform the role of money in our political system,” she said,” I promise we will have many more women elected to public office.”
“Change the whole environment [to] one that is much more conducive to us having full participation,” Pelosi urged. “Otherwise, it’ll be incremental for the rest of eternity.”