WASHINGTON People might understand Nancy Pelosi better if she were a heavy-set, cigar-chomping, fedora-wearing, big-city boss.
It would spare her questions like the one posed by NBC's Luke Russert at a postelection news conference where she announced her intention to remain as the House Democratic leader.
"Some of your colleagues privately say that your decision to stay on prohibits the party from having a younger leadership and hurts the party in the long run," Russert said. "What's your response?"
The congresswomen standing behind Pelosi erupted.
"Let's, for a moment, honor it as a legitimate question," Pelosi responded curtly, refusing to make eye contact with her questioner. "Although it's quite offensive, but you don't realize that, I guess."
Pelosi, after all, is 72 years old and working a job which requires 60-plus-hour weeks. She lost her post as speaker two years ago and has no chance of reclaiming it for at least another two years, if at all. She is independently wealthy, and there are nearly 400 younger members of the House, many clamoring to take her place.
That Pelosi found Russert's question offensive offers insights into why she is not retiring.
No one would have asked Mayor Richard Daley or Speakers Tip O'Neill and Sam Rayburn each of whom was still on the job at 72 the same question. And it's not just because Americans accept older men more readily than women (turn on the local news and try to find a female anchor older than her male partner.)
It's because people don't think twice about an elderly statesman making coldblooded political calculations in smoke-filled backrooms. However, many still have trouble wrapping their head around that role for a stylishly dressed, petite San Francisco Democrat.
Pelosi's gifts lie in the tactical skills she learned from her father the former congressman and mayor from Baltimore who incidentally was a cigar-chomping, fedora-wearing, big-city boss. (He once responded to a city hall reporter who insisted, "My desk needs an answer" by putting his ear to his own desk and telling her, "My desk tells your desk to f--- off.")
She replaced the Capitol's ashtrays with bowls of Ghirardelli chocolates but still brandished a controlling grip that irritated some while putting Democrats in a position to win elections.
If making her party's case before cameras were the top credential for House leadership, Pelosi would never have made it. And after picking up four new Democratic seats in California, her political skills show no signs of diminishing.
No doubt her policy role as minority leader rather than speaker is extremely limited, particularly in a body which, unlike the Senate, has no filibuster and allows the majority to rule with an iron fist. She will play no role in naming committee chairs or sending legislation to the floor.
However, Pelosi will command a group of at least 200 Democrats (the votes are not final yet in two states, so the total could rise to 202) narrowing the party's gap with Republicans by at least seven seats.
The looming fight over the "fiscal cliff," and any progress next year on taxes and spending, will require some of those votes. Any legislation Speaker John Boehner is able to pass with only Republican support in the House will surely fail in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
That provides Pelosi leverage when she sits down to negotiate with Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
For many of her colleagues and constituents, Pelosi said, "the thought of four men at that table was not an appealing sight."
Pelosi's decision has as much to do with politics as policy, if the two can be untwined.
There is no other Democrat with the exception of President Barack Obama with her money-raising ability. She raised more than $85 million for House Democrats in the 2012 campaign and more than $300 million over the past decade.
And there is the matter of her replacement. Pelosi doesn't like him. Or at least doesn't want him in power.
Steny Hoyer, the Democratic whip from Maryland who first met Pelosi when they both worked as young pups for a U.S. senator in the early 1960s, has been eyeing the speakership for much of his career. Hoyer and Pelosi battled for the top Democratic spot for nearly three years, culminating in a vote just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack. She won.
Though their voting records are quite similar, Pelosi is the darling of House liberals and labor, while Hoyer is more popular with conservatives and business. By biding her time, Pelosi can assess the chances for a Democratic takeover of the House in 2014, or at least help someone besides Hoyer get in position to succeed her as leader.
Pelosi's focus on politics was apparent even as she ended the suspense over whether she would stay. It was not about her, she insisted in front of the cameras, parading 60 Democratic lawmakers on the stage beside her.
"A lot of our male friends really wanted to come out here," she said. "This is girls' morning out."
The House has nearly four times as many women as when Pelosi arrived in 1987, a record high. However, men still make up roughly 75 percent of the House and 80 percent of the Senate.
Of the 12,000 or so Americans who have served in the history of the U.S. Congress, only 300 have been women. Fewer than a dozen have chaired House committees, and that includes Californian Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, who chaired the House Select Beauty Shop Committee in the 1970s.
Pelosi sees an opportunity to further enshrine Democrats as the party of women, a voting bloc that kept Mitt Romney from winning the presidency. Were it not for female voters, Bob Dole would have defeated Bill Clinton in 1996.
"As we move forward to debate our economic and fiscal challenges in the weeks and months ahead, one thing is clear: Our economic agenda, choices and decisions, will be viewed through the perspective and the eyes of our nation's women and their needs and those of their families," Pelosi told the assembled reporters.
There are tales of old lawmakers who would leave their posts only on a stretcher. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was dining just outside the capital when he said he felt tired and fell face first into his food. He died later in South Carolina at age 100, after serving more than 48 years in the Senate.
Pelosi is a quarter-century off from that milestone, and still has more energy than most of her young staffers.
This may be her swan song. Even Pelosi may not know.
"Politics at this level is insatiable," she said.
Stereotypes rarely shatter. They chip away piece by piece. By the time she is finished, Pelosi will have taken a sledgehammer to the image of women in politics.
It's not just that Pelosi was the first to earn the title "Madam Speaker," a milestone that will be enshrined in history books. It's that she practiced a brand of politics backroom, brass-knuckle politics that Washington had never seen or expected from a woman.