Minor scandals that are easily comprehended can be major problems.
Nancy Pelosi has great hair.
Say what you will about the 80-year-old speaker of the House — that she is a cynical crackpot, a content-free culpably vicious partisan hack, the kind of ward-heeler who gives ward-heelers a bad name — her hair is perfect, like that werewolf drinking piña coladas at Trader Vic’s.
But nothing great comes without a cost.
Madame Speaker is in an embarrassing position. In San Francisco, where her nominal constituency is located, it currently is illegal for hair salons to offer services indoors, owing to the epidemic. But members of the nomenklatura are entitled to their petty privileges: Bernie Sanders has his lakeside dacha, where he retires to practice his jeremiads against economic inequality, and Nancy Pelosi has her hair appointment.
The salon in question is closed, officially. It has to be. But the stylists who work in such salons are usually independent operators who simply rent a chair from the salon owner, who is more of a landlord than a cosmetological entrepreneur as such. Representative Pelosi was caught on camera getting serviced indoors, and — angels and ministers of grace defend us! — going about her beauty business without a mask.
Pelosi is not the first politician to have a sacrosanct tonsorial engagement. Bill Clinton as president famously sat on Air Force One at LAX getting a $200 trim — “the most famous haircut since Samson’s,” the Washington Post called it. Clinton being Clinton, there were rumors at the time that it wasn’t a haircut that the president was getting. You never knew with that guy.
Texas governor Ann Richards had a very famous hairdo, and staff interrupted her regular hair appointments at their peril. Thanks in part to the work of some of my college-newspaper colleagues in Austin, a story broke that the governor’s protégé had lied on her résumé: She had not, as claimed, graduated from the University of Texas and — particularly embarrassing for a former member of the legislature who presented herself as an expert on Hispanic issues — she had failed courses in Mexican-American studies and the history of the Texas legislature. (She had also claimed to have been Phi Beta Kappa, an honor for which she, as a journalism major, was ineligible.) The governor had to be informed during her hair appointment, and her response, I was told at the time, was: “Somebody get that f*****g bitch on the phone!”
You’re always the bitch when you get in the way of a politician — or a “bimbo” or trailer trash, if the politician in question is a Clinton.
Pelosi protests that she was “set up” by the salon owner. There is nothing new in politics: Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry, caught on film smoking crack in a hotel room with a hooker, raged over and over again: “The bitch set me up! The bitch set me up! The bitch set me up!” That didn’t play as well in the courtroom as he might have hoped, but, being a Democrat in the District of Columbia, he was reelected after serving his time.
Pelosi is demanding an apology from the salon owner for allegedly setting her up. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to do something obviously sketchy and then demand an apology for being exposed. But here, too, there is precedent. When young Barack Obama was first running for president, he was criticized for belonging to the congregation of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who preached crackpot racist sermons from his pulpit. A lesser politician might have tried to wiggle around some, but Barack Obama’s political instincts are almost as on-point as Nancy Pelosi’s hair. Embarrassed by his own association with a vicious racist, Obama went on television and lectured the rest of the country on their supposed racism. This was an elevated version of “I know you are, but what am I?” and — damnably — it worked.
Little scandals often matter more than big scandals. The Obama administration’s IRS abuses and related shenanigans, which went almost nowhere as a scandal, were in substance more corrosive than the relatively minor check-kiting scandal that rocked Congress back in the 1990s. Donald Trump may have led audiences in chanting “Lock her up!” but it is an obscure Democrat-run prosecutor’s office in Texas that has in fact corruptly indicted major political figures (Tom DeLay, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Rick Perry) on laughably trumped-up felony charges, only to see them thrown out. Back in the 1990s, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s dodgy cattle-futures profits spoke to a much more serious kind of corruption than did Bill Clinton’s intern-bothering. But most people who are not members of the Ayn Rand Society know what sex is, and nobody gets futures trading. Try explaining it to Joe Voter and see how far you get before he’s lost in Drake’s latest Instagram post. On the other hand, relatively minor scandals that are easily comprehended can be major problems. The most easily comprehended of such scandals is the scandal of hypocrisy, which is what Nancy Pelosi is guilty of.
There are worse things than hypocrisy, and Pelosi will brazen through this. She has a pretty good poker face to go along with the first-rate hair.