Baltimore roots gave Pelosi the grit required to stand up to bullies

Last week, President Trump tweeted a photograph intended to mock House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In the photo she is standing at the table in the Cabinet Room wagging her finger at Mr. Trump, who’s surrounded by a table full of other men also sitting, some with heads bowed. Along with the photo he tweeted, “Nervous Nancy’s unhinged meltdown.” The president’s penchant for alliteration and redundancy notwithstanding, the photo soon went viral.

Remember that photo from February 2015, of the dress? Remember back in 2015 when we had to manufacture things about which to argue? The one that had the internet arguing over whether the dress was blue and black or white and gold? So too this viral photo gauged and revealed and challenged people’s perceptions. Either Ms. Pelosi was nervous and unhinged and having a meltdown or Ms. Pelosi was the only one in the room with sufficient courage to stand up to the bully.


While I am of the school of thought that what Ms. Pelosi did was courage and dignity incarnate, both sides are claiming victory in their interpretation of the already iconic photo.

If we are the sum of our experiences, and how can we not be, then I like to think that Speaker Pelosi’s Baltimore experiences fostered the courage required to — perpetually and repeatedly — stand up to the bully.


Ms. Pelosi was born in Baltimore in 1940 to Italian American parents and lived and was educated here until she went to Trinity College in D.C. Her eldest brother, Thomas D’Alesandro III, a former Baltimore mayor, was still living in the city when he did Sunday of stroke complications.

I do not know what it was like to live in Baltimore in the 1940s and 1950s. It was much bigger then. In 1950 the population of Baltimore city was 950,000, making it the sixth largest city in the country. Today it has 602,000 residents. It was surely a bit more genteel — the whole world was surely a bit more genteel back then. There were more jobs. In 1950, the Bethlehem Steel Plant just outside the city at Sparrows Point employed more than 31,000 workers.

But it just as surely had some semblance of the city it is today. Choose an adjective: unpolished, rough, authentic, rugged. Let’s avoid quirky.

To that end, the city itself is the same kind of blue and black dress or gold and white dress ink blot test. Is it a place to be feared and loathed, or is it a place that fosters grit and tenacity and perseverance?

Surely, Ms. Pelosi never had to deal with squeegee boys. But just as surely, she learned something about grit and tenacity and perseverance while she lived here. Baltimore was often the scene of highly disruptive and highly visible Civil Rights marches and sit-ins and protests. Her brother was mayor from 1967 to 1971 — a time that encompassed riots in 1968, racial tensions and various worker strikes in the city.

Surely one learns from this. Surely one develops a certain view of the world — a much different view than one ascertains while living in one of those best places to live identified in the panoply of magazines who identify such places. Burlington, Vt., has great tree lined streets and parks. But does it cultivate tenacity? Probably not.

Grit, tenacity, and perseverance are abstract concepts, frequently clichéd. They encompass goals, challenges and ways of managing these. A positive attitude and familial support help. But socio-cultural context plays an important role too. A social setting can be a significant determinant of what people value and want to accomplish, the types of challenges they face and the resources they can access to accomplish them.

Elijah Cummings was born in Baltimore in 1951. His parents were sharecroppers. He lived and was educated here, graduating from Baltimore City College High School. The scar over his left eyebrow? That came from when some white kids threw a bottle at him when he integrated the Riverside Park Pool in South Baltimore. That must have hurt. But it was building tenacity. And after getting hit with a bottle, getting peppered with tweets must feel like child's play.


The Pelosi photo also serves as a good ink blot test when contrasted with another famous finger-wagging incident photo. That photo, taken in 2012 on an Arizona tarmac, shows then Gov. Jan Brewer finger wagging in the face of then-president Barack Obama. Critics of Pelosi’s finger-wagging claim they’re similar incidents. Such a comparison is less like that blue and black or white and gold dress scenario and more like that activity in Highlights Magazine for Children — the one where two photos are situated side by side and you have to spot five differences between them.

So here’s your test: Can you spot the differences between the Pelosi photo and the Jan Brewer photo?

Gary Almeter ( is an attorney in Towson. His book “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” was published in March.