Transcript of interview of Rep. Nancy Pelosi by Joe Feuerherd

Following last Novemberís election, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was elected Minority Leader of the House of Representatives by her Democratic colleagues. She is the first woman to lead a party in either the House or Senate. In a wide-ranging interview with NCR Washington correspondent Joe Feuerherd, Pelosi explained where she hopes to lead House Democrats, her position on war with Iraq, and what it means to be a high-profile Catholic in public office. Excerpts of that 40-minute conversation follow.

Q: The recently released national security policy states that “Our enemies have openly declared that they are seeking weapons of mass destruction, and evidence indicates that they are doing so with determination … America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed.” Does the “Bush Doctrine” -- a policy of preemption -- represent a significant policy shift for the U.S.? Do you support it?

A: Stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has been a pillar of our national policy for a long time. It is essential that we do that. We have looked the other way too many times when countries have been developing or proliferating technology or weapons of mass destruction…we’ve looked the other way for commercial reasons, for political reasons, for whatever reasons, but we’ve looked the other way. So I fully commend the president for placing a value, a high priority, on stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

But we’ve got to be consistent or we can’t be credible. For example, the Chinese helped build the Pakistani program and we looked the other way. The Chinese and the Russians are helping the Iranians. We make an issue of it with the Russians, [but] we don’t make much of an issue of it with the Chinese. We look to the end user of some of this technology, rather than the source, and we must do both. We must stop this proliferation at the source.

Q: Is the policy of preemption articulated by the administration a shift in strategy?

A: There definitely is a shift. I believe there is a shift when we talk about a preemptive strike or what they call preventative war, which to me is an oxymoron: If you’re having war than you haven’t prevented it.

While I think we should never hesitate under certain circumstances to use force and that countries will have to know that we are prepared to use force, we have a moral responsibility to exhaust every possible remedy first. Some of those are diplomatic; some are technological, in terms of deterring and stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction…

I think it would be a step backward that we would [engage] in preventative war; what we want to have is preventative diplomacy so that we avoid war. Because no matter how you twist and turn, you are now in an era where the weapons of mass destruction …can be used against our young people, placing them in harms way…

And if we say that if you use weapons of mass destruction, chemical or biological, then we’ll use nuclear on you, then I don’t think we are advancing the cause of civilization.

Q: Last October when the House was considering the resolution authorizing military action against Iraq, you stated that you had “seen no evidence or intelligence that suggests that Iraq indeed poses an imminent threat to our nation.” Have you seen such evidence since then?

A: No, what I’ve said in the context of that, is that when the Director of Central Intelligence [was] asked what threat Iraq posed to the United States, [he] said that if unprovoked the probability was low that Iraq would use chemical or biological, would use weapons of mass destruction against the U.S. However, if we went into Iraq with the intention of regime change, and backed Hussein up against the wall, the probability was high that he would use chemical or biological [weapons] against us.

I saw nothing in the intelligence that said what the administration was positing -- that you had to go into Iraq because they were developing a weapon of mass destruction to be launched against the U.S. They don’t have that technology, and they certainly don’t have the technology to launch against the U.S., so I didn’t see that as a justification for war. And we knew of no plans or intentions from an intelligence standpoint that Iraq was thinking about doing this, recognizing that they didn’t have the technology to do it. Maybe if they had the technology they would…[but] they do not have the indigenous capacity in Iraq to produce [such] a weapon of mass destruction, they don’t have the fissile material, they have to get it from some place else, and they have to get the technology for the launch capacity from someplace else. So let’s stop it at the source rather than going to war at the end user.

Having said that, if the president of the United States makes a decision to place our young people in harm’s way because it is his judgment that we have to do that to protect the American people, I know that we will all be 100 percent behind the president and in support of our young people in the military.

Q: Is war justified absent an imminent threat?

A: I’m not the commander-in-chief. If war is justified with Iraq on the basis of their development of weapons of mass destruction, the threat they pose to the United States, and the treatment of their people…than I think there are several other countries which are candidates for us to go to war with.

One that immediately comes to mind is Iran, which is a proliferator, an exporter of terrorism to the Middle East, a threat to its neighbors, [and] is developing weapons of mass destruction. It is as much or more of a threat to the stability of that region, which is important to our national interest, to the Persian Gulf and the Middle East region.

Certainly the North Koreans have nuclear weapons and the launch capacity -- they can’t reach the U.S. yet, we don’t think -- but we have tens of thousands of our young people on the border there; they are a threat to their neighbors, they have the technology and they are major proliferators of weapons of mass destruction.

Q: Broadly speaking, conservatives say the Democratic Party is out-of-step with the country on national security and taxes and that was reflected in the November election results; others contend that the party has lost its way -- that it failed to take on the Republicans on such issues as tax cuts, the minimum wage, and health care for the uninsured. What happened in the last election?

A: Not enough people voted Democratic for one.

…We have to diagnose them one district at a time, and we haven’t finished making that diagnosis, but I think it’s pretty clear we can’t go into another election unless we have a clear message of what the Democrats stand for in a very positive way and make a clear distinction between Democrats and Republicans on issues of concern to the American people.

I think that distinction will serve as well because I believe the American people are with us…in terms of investing in the education of our children and life-long learning for our American workers; they’re with us in promoting growth in the economy that will create jobs, be fair, and be fiscally responsible; they’re with us in talking about access to quality health care; they’re with us on protecting the environment. So I think that on most of the issues that people are concerned about, or look to government for some remedy, they will support the Democrats.

We saw the Republicans co-opt some of our issues. To hear them tell the tale, they were for a prescription drug benefit, a patient’s bill of rights, you name it. So while they tried to label us and mischaracterize us on the one hand, they were taking up our issues, in my view, not legitimately.

Q: What is the Democratic House agenda?

A: If I was to put it in a sentence I would say the Democratic House agenda is to promote the safety and soundness of the American people. Safety -- certainly in our national security and our homeland security - a top priority first mentioned in the preamble of the constitution… to provide for the common defense.

On the soundness side …the Democratic agenda is to develop a Democratic plan for economic growth that promotes jobs, that is fair, that is fiscally sound and that enables all Americans to participate in the economic success of our country. [The Democrats released their plan January 6.]

Q: What about increasing the minimum wage?

A: It’s a priority.

If you ask me what are the three most important things facing the Congress, I always say the same thing: our children, our children, and our children. Their health, their education, the economic security of their family, which includes the pension security of their grandparents, the environment in which they live, and the world at peace in which they will thrive.

On the economic piece of that I believe increasing the minimum wage is very important. To tell children to value work, to have a work ethic that is important to their self fulfillment and survival economically …. they get a message from that. So I think that increasing the minimum wage and trying to strive as fast as we can, as is economically feasible, to a living wage, would be a very important advance…

Q: The version of last year’s welfare reform bill that passed the House was considered overly harsh by critics, including the Catholic Bishops. The bill ultimately stalled in the Senate. Will you be able to alter the welfare bill this year?

A: You can’t have real welfare reform that demands that single moms go to work unless you have access to quality child care. We certainly salute and value motherhood in our country -- there have been Republican initiatives to give tax benefits to moms who stay home to care for children -- and yet they want poor moms to leave the house and go to work without the kind of education they should have to get a quality job and [without] child care that is necessary for their children.

I would hope that we would have welfare reform that would count education as part of the work requirement so that they are moving into a place where they are enhancing their earning capacity and that would, again, have a strong component of child care.

Q: Is being a Catholic in public life a blessing or a burden?

A: Oh, it’s a blessing. I have more people praying for me.

In the family I was raised in, love of country, deep love of the Catholic Church, and love of family, were all the values I was raised in. I don’t like to have religion and politics come too closely together, but I will say that I am motivated by the Gospel of Matthew, as many people in politics are. I find it an inspiration.

What did I see the other day? The divinity in me bows to the divinity in you. The respect that we have for the individual because of the spark of divinity that we all carry serves me well in politics - to respect people and their point of view. I say that, I hope it doesn’t sound patronizing, …in a very respectful way.

My upbringing -- working on the side of the angels with my parents -- to help people, again according to Gospel of Matthew, and the idea …. [that we] look upon God’s creation as an act of worship - to ignore the needs of God’s creation is to dishonor the God that made them. And that we have that responsibility, all of us.

It’s part of me, it’s immediate in my life, it’s immediate in the lives of many of my colleagues.

Q: You were recently quoted as calling yourself a “conservative Catholic.” Are you?

A: I think so. I was raised, as I say, in a very strict upbringing in a Catholic home where we respected people, were observant, were practicing Catholics and that the fundamental belief was that God gave us all a free will and we were accountable for that, each of us. Each person had that accountability, so it wasn’t for us to make judgments about how people saw their responsibility and that it wasn’t for politicians to make decisions about how people led their personal lives; certainly, to a high moral standards, but when it got into decisions about privacy and all the rest, than that was something that individuals had to answer to God for, and not to politicians.

I have five children, five grandchildren; I try to abide by all the teachings of the church in relationship to family. I think my family speaks very clearly to that.

Q: Two litmus tests that help define “conservative” and “liberal” in the church: Married priests and women priests.

A: What can I say? The record speaks for itself in some respects. I have always thought that there should have been a stronger role for women in the church. When I was little my mother always wanted me to be a nun. I didn’t think I wanted to be a nun, but I thought I might want to be a priest because their seemed to be a little more power there, a little more discretion over what was going on in the parish. I think the reality of life is that wherever God sends a vocation that marriage should not bar anyone from following that vocation. I know that that is in the future, I just don’t how long it will take.

Q: Women as priests?

A: Oh absolutely…Why not? Why not?

Q: You’ve work with the church leadership on many issues over the years -- Central America, China -- and other domestic concerns. Have the scandals of the past year damaged the church’s credibility?

A: I don’t think so. I think the church has high moral standing on issues of lifting people up and reducing violence in the world. I don’t think there’s anybody in the world who is a more credible messenger for social improvement in the lives of people than his Holiness [Pope John Paul II]. I say that without any question.

Of course, in different parishes and different dioceses it’s different, but …in my diocese years ago…our archbishop got a standing ovation for standing up on issues related to disarmament. And our churches in San Francisco and across the country we have worked together on issues relating to sanctuary for people from El Salvador and to end the violence in Central America. The Pope is the leader in the world in helping on alleviation of poverty in terms of the debt… All of these issues are not only important values that the church has taken the lead on, worked closely with its parishioners and [its] following on, [but has provided] moral leadership for the rest of the world.

Having said that, the tragedy for some of us is that as much as we have worked on alleviation of poverty, and [on] social issues, and reducing violence in the world, and respecting the other person, and meeting the needs of other people, and [seeing] God’s creation as an act of worship - those relationships have been sadly affected by the decision on the part of some in the church to disassociate themselves from [some political leaders] because of our position on choice.

Q: Is it more difficult today to be a pro-choice Catholic then it was, say, ten years ago?

A: It’s about the same. Now when I traveled across the country when I was campaigning for candidates this last time, when I was in another city on a Sunday, I would try to find a Catholic church nearby. I heard some of the sermons in some of the churches down south, so I understand what some of our colleagues undergo in the church -- it was difficult. We’ve had those sermons in California, but a little more subtlety than I was hearing down south. It gave me a better understanding of what some of my colleagues are going through.

I have never in my district in California, in my archdiocese…if I was going to [be allowed to] receive communion; I never knew if this was the day it would be withheld. And that’s a hard way to go to church. Fortunately, I’m invited -- I have a big family -- I go to a lot of weddings, I’m in a different church every week. I’m a moving target. I travel, so I’m not exactly a target in terms of always being in the same church, although I go to St. Vincent DePaul, which is my neighborhood parish.

In addition to that, on many occasions the archdiocese has told the nuns that I couldn’t be the speaker at some event. And that’s hurtful because we have so much in common. But it’s the decision the church has made.

Q: On the flip side of the abortion question, how big a tent is the Democratic Party? Is it big enough to welcome Democrats who oppose abortion?

A: I think it is a bigger tent than people realize. I come myself from a family that does not share my views on choice.

Q: That must make for some interesting dinner table conversations.

A: Interesting in that they get back to the point that I made earlier - that we are all blessed by the creator with a free will [to] which we are answerable and I will step back to that. And that seems to be common ground [among the family].

Having said that, I think there are occasions where they would like me to be less visible, that they don’t like to see any disagreement between the church and any of us.

National Catholic Reporter, Posted January 22, 2003