Not a lot of people had heard of Nancy Pelosi when she first went to China. It was 1991; she was a 51-year-old congresswoman in her second full term in the House, a backbencher from a liberal San Francisco district who had yet to make much of a mark in Washington.

On the last day of their congressional delegation to Beijing, Pelosi and two other members of Congress told the Chinese authorities they were too tired for the trip they were supposed to take to the Great Wall. Then they sneaked out the back of their hotel and took a taxi to Tiananmen Square. One of the other members, Ben Jones, had played Cooter on The Dukes of Hazzard before being elected as a Democratic congressman from Georgia, and he tipped off a CNN cameraman he knew about where they were going.

When they got there, Jones pulled out a black cloth banner with silver lettering that he had gotten from some democracy activists in Hong Kong and smuggled into China in his underwear. In both English and Chinese, it said, To Those Who Died For Democracy In China. Pelosi addressed the cameras, saying innocently, “We’ve been told for two days now that there’s freedom of speech in China.” Then the police moved in. Chinese officers chased them and detained some of the journalists who were filming their protest as the three politicians hightailed it out of the square.

“Ideals Versus Deals”

The incident made the evening news—you can still see the video—and helped Pelosi make a name for herself as a crusader for human rights in China. The issue would pit her against administrations of both parties; years later, when Bill Clinton went back on his promise to her to condition Chinese trade on improvements in human rights, she was sharply critical of him. It wasn’t necessarily in her political interest, either—a lot of Chinese business interests in her district opposed her stance. She called it a matter of “ideals versus deals.”

Pelosi’s aggressiveness is all the more remarkable for a woman born in 1940 and raised to be a nun.

The China crusade is one of my favorite stories in my new biography, Pelosi, because it exemplifies her sense of moral clarity—critics would say self-righteousness—and her boldness. The House Speaker who ripped up Trump’s State of the Union address has always been willing to get in people’s faces. Within a few years of that trip she would take on the male-dominated House power structure, winning a hard-fought leadership race to become the first woman to lead a party in Congress. (When word reached her that the men were grumbling, “Who said she could run?,” she responded, “Light my fire, why don’t you?”)

“We’ve been told for two days now that there’s freedom of speech in China.” Then the police moved in.

After 9/11, when many Democrats were afraid to challenge President George W. Bush’s push for war in Iraq, Pelosi—who, as the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, had seen the flimsy evidence on which the administration’s case was based—whipped her colleagues against the war. Then, after she became Speaker in 2007, she was on the other side, staring down the liberals who wanted her to impeach Bush. (Sound familiar?) When President Obama started to go wobbly on health-care reform in 2010, it was Pelosi who steeled his spine and urged him not to settle for less. And when, in a 2019 meeting with Trump, a roomful of men were averting their eyes, it was Pelosi who stood up at the table, stuck her finger in the president’s face, and said, “All roads with you lead to Putin.”

This kind of aggressiveness is all the more remarkable in a woman born in 1940 and raised to be a nun. But Pelosi grew up with five older brothers and a fiery Italian-American mother. According to family lore, her mother once punched a poll worker who gave her trouble and even put L.B.J. in his place when she thought he was disrespecting her husband, the former mayor of Baltimore.

My favorite part of the Tiananmen story is how it ends. That night, the Americans were scheduled to dine with the Chinese foreign minister. And even though their protest had caused an international uproar, Pelosi insisted they still go to the world’s most uncomfortable dinner. She had to show she wasn’t going to back down.

Molly Ball’s Pelosi is out now from Henry Holt