WASHINGTON – There were at least three gavels wielded during the drama of Sunday’s marathon health care debate and vote.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., lent House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the gavel he used when presiding over passage of Medicare in 1965. Dingell, whose father tried to pass national health insurance legislation in 1943, also lent her a super-size gavel, which she carried when House leaders made a very public walk to the House chamber before the vote. And the speaker had a third, crab-mallet gavel she used, minting it as a new historic object to mark the passage of the legislation.
But that second, highly persuasive hammer is likely the one that will be remembered among the iconic images of Sunday’s vote. After an emotional meeting of House Democrats, it was a prop chosen to add levity, a herding-cats gavel to show wayward Democrats that the speaker meant business. Cradling it like a croquet mallet, Pelosi carried it through an often hostile crowd, walking in a phalanx from the Cannon Office Building to the Capitol around noon.
Since Democrats retook control of the House in January 2007, the gavel hasn’t been just a symbol of the speaker’s power. It has been a particularly volatile image from the moment she was photographed receiving it from John Boehner, R-Ohio. The outgoing Republican majority leader wasn’t just yielding power after an electoral thumping, he was yielding it to a woman, the first woman to sit only two heartbeats from the presidency.
Right-wing blogs frequently use that image, often without explanation, as if it is manifestly obvious that the world is upside down if a woman from San Francisco in a tailored cabernet-colored suit is brandishing the implement.
Pelosi isn’t the first to opt for the symbolism of an oversize gavel. When then-Rep. Jim Wright, a Democrat from Texas, became speaker in 1987, he brought with him a Texas-size gavel donated by the speaker of the Texas House, Gib Lewis.
Gavels, plural. Unlike the Senate, which replaces its gavel every century or so (the current ivory one is a 1954 gift from India), the House has multiple gavels, many of them the handiwork of Ivan Hache, who produced a few hundred utilitarian hammers about a quarter-century ago, according to Anthony Wallis, a research analyst with the House of Representatives Office of the Historian.
Whether it was intended as a provocation or not, Pelosi’s very public walk with a large, almost clown-size wooden mallet was red meat to her political foes. But what about its power as political imagery? Will the image implode, as the Mission Accomplished photo op did for George W. Bush? Or will it redefine the Democrats as a can-do party after more than a year of seeming disarray?