The Political Scene
The making of a Republican front-runner.
by Ryan Lizza August 15, 2011
The transformation of Michele Bachmann from Tea Party insurgent and cable-news Pasionaria to serious Republican contender in the 2012 Presidential race was nearly complete by late June, when she boarded a Dassault Falcon 900, in Dulles, Virginia, and headed toward the caucus grounds of Iowa. The leased, fourteen-seat corporate jet was to serve as Bachmann’s campaign hub for the next few days, and, before the plane took off, her press secretary, Alice Stewart, announced to the six travelling chroniclers that there was one important rule. “I know everything is on the record these days,” Stewart said, “but please just don’t broadcast images of her in her casual clothes.”
Bachmann, a two-term member of Congress from Stillwater, Minnesota, is an ideologue of the Christian-conservative movement. Her appeal, along with her rapid ascent in the polls, is based on a collection of right-wing convictions, beliefs, and resentments that she has regularly broadcast from television studios and podiums since 2006, when she was first elected to Congress. Often, she will say something outrageous and follow it with a cheerful disclaimer. During the last Presidential campaign, she told Chris Matthews, on MSNBC, that Barack Obama held “anti-American views” and then admitted, “I made a misstatement.” (In 2010, she said that she had been right about Obama’s views all along: “Now I look like Nostradamus.”) In the spring of 2009, during what appeared to be the beginnings of a swine-flu epidemic, Bachmann said, “I find it interesting that it was back in the nineteen-seventies that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat President, Jimmy Carter. And I’m not blaming this on President Obama—I just think it’s an interesting coincidence.”
After the second Republican Presidential debate, in Manchester, New Hampshire, on June 13th, Bachmann surged in popularity. Her success there was mainly the result of her clear enunciation of Tea Party talking points. But Bachmann and her campaign staff know that––like Sarah Palin and like Mitt Romney—her image depends on a carefully groomed glamour. As Stewart was spelling out the rules of the plane, a flight attendant solemnly carried a full-length white garment bag from Nordstrom down the aisle, as if she were carrying the nuclear codes. Close behind followed two more aides––Bachmann’s personal assistant, Tera Dahl, and the makeup artist Tamara Robertson, who had been asked to join the team because Bachmann so admired her work at Fox News.
Bachmann’s campaign was already, for the most part, highly professional. We were joined on the plane by her speech and debate coach, Brett O’Donnell, who has worked for George W. Bush, John McCain, and Sarah Palin, among other Republicans. He has also led the debate team at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University to the top ranking in the country. Keith Nahigian, who worked for John McCain, was also on board. He serves as a logistics guru, doing everything from retrieving luggage for reporters to holding up a sign during Bachmann’s speeches to remind her to mention her Web site.
The only senior member of the team not making the trip was Ed Rollins, Bachmann’s campaign manager. Rollins is famous in Washington for two things: managing Ronald Reagan’s successful reëlection campaign against Walter Mondale in 1984, and developing poisonous relationships with most of his high-profile employers since then. They have included George H. W. Bush (“the worst campaigner to actually get elected President,” according to Rollins), Ross Perot (“a paranoid lunatic on an ego trip”), and Arianna Huffington (“the most ruthless, unscrupulous, and ambitious person I’d met in thirty years in national politics”). More recently, he has managed the campaign of Mike Huckabee, appeared frequently on CNN, and worked in corporate public relations.
Bachmann and her husband, Marcus, had been the last to board. She is a tiny woman with a warm smile and blue eyes. She had just finished a round of Sunday-morning television interviews, and had changed out of a gray suit and pearls into a casual blouse and khaki cargo pants. Later, she walked down the aisle handing out candy and hand sanitizer from a wicker basket. An aide turned the cabin’s two monitors to the Fox News Channel. “Isn’t this an incredible way to fly?” Bachmann said to me at one point. “I’ve never been on a nicer plane in my life.”
It was a good day for Bachmann: a new poll showed her sharing the top position in Iowa with Mitt Romney. After we landed in Des Moines, an aide handed Bachmann a copy of that morning’s Des Moines Register. She swung around to face the press, displaying the front-page headline: “ROMNEY, BACHMANN LEAD REPUBLICAN PACK.” It was a perfect shot. The members of the press looked at her cargo pants and then at one another. Nobody took a picture.
Bachmann belongs to a generation of Christian conservatives whose views have been shaped by institutions, tracts, and leaders not commonly known to secular Americans, or even to most Christians. Her campaign is going to be a conversation about a set of beliefs more extreme than those of any American politician of her stature, including Sarah Palin, to whom she is inevitably compared. Bachmann said in 2004 that being gay is “personal enslavement,” and that, if same-sex marriage were legalized, “little children will be forced to learn that homosexuality is normal and natural and that perhaps they should try it.” Speaking about gay-rights activists, that same year, she said, “It is our children that is the prize for this community.” She believes that evolution is a theory that has “never been proven,” and that intelligent design should be taught in schools.
Bachmann’s assertions on these issues are, unsurprisingly, disputed. She is also often criticized for making factual errors on less controversial matters. As commentators quickly pointed out, the President during the first swine-flu outbreak was a Republican, Gerald Ford. She got into more trouble this spring when, during a trip to Iowa before she announced her candidacy, she told a long story about her family’s roots in the state.
In the speech, Bachmann said that her family arrived in the state in the eighteen-fifties and experienced a series of misfortunes: “the worst winter in fifty years,” “the worst flooding in forty-two years,” “the worst drought that anyone had ever recorded,” and then a plague of “locusts.” But they persevered, and even started the first Lutheran church in the area. The family came to Iowa, she said, after reading the Muskego Manifesto, a letter sent from Norwegian settlers in the town of Muskego to their families back home. Bachmann quoted the manifesto, which describes an America where people “have civil and religious liberty, and here we can choose whatever profession we want, and no one tells us what profession we go in.” Her ancestors, she said, read those words and “sold everything and took their five children and bought boat tickets to come to Iowa.”
In fact, Muskego is a town in Wisconsin, the state where Bachmann’s forebears, the Munsons, settled in 1857, twelve years after the manifesto was written. Then, in 1861, they moved west, to the Dakota Territory, near present-day Elk Point, South Dakota. That is where, according to the family history that Bachmann relied on, they encountered the awful winter and the flooding and the drought and what the text calls “grasshoppers.” The Munsons seem to have been part of the group that established the first Lutheran church in the Dakota Territory, but there were already Lutheran congregations in Iowa when they arrived there, in late 1864 or early 1865. As the author and historian Chris Rodda has pointed out, the story chronicled is not quite one of superhuman perseverance on the frontier; rather, it’s the story of a family fleeing to the relative safety and civilization of settled Iowa. In other words, Bachmann’s dramatic tale happened near Iowa, but not actually in it.
Since announcing her candidacy, Bachmann, who is fifty-five, has continued to emphasize her Iowa roots—though now she talks about the nineteen-sixties more than the eighteen-fifties. After landing in Des Moines, we travelled to Waterloo, where she was born, and where she lived until she was eleven. Standing in front of the red brick Snowden House, a local landmark built in an Italianate style, she declared, “Everything I need to know, I learned in Iowa.” The crowd cheered. She added, “I grew up here in Iowa.” During her first campaign for Congress, in 2006, her official biography noted that “Michele grew up in a broken home in Anoka, Minnesota.” Since then, her ambitions have shifted from local office to national office, and her emphasis, when she discusses her youth, has shifted accordingly.
After the speech, she did a round of interviews, including one with Fox News, in which she was able to slip in some references to famous Iowans. Then we all drove back to the airport. She seemed energized when she boarded the plane, heading to New Hampshire to continue her tour of the early caucus and primary states.
Soon, however, the mood in the cabin darkened. O’Donnell, the speech coach, had the Drudge Report open on a laptop. There was an unobjectionable picture of Bachmann onstage, backed by an enormous American flag, but below the image was the headline “CONFUSES JOHN WAYNE WITH JOHN WAYNE GACY.” In her interview with Fox, Bachmann had said that she was from Waterloo, “just like John Wayne.” John Wayne, the star of so many John Ford movies, was actually born in Winterset, Iowa. John Wayne Gacy, who killed thirty-three young men, lived in Waterloo.
Why would Drudge, an ardent conservative, publicize that gaffe? O’Donnell thought he knew the answer. “Matt Rhoades and Drudge are best friends,” he said, speaking of Mitt Romney’s campaign manager. Bachmann concurred. “You never see anything about Romney on Drudge—ever,” she said.
Someone turned on Fox News, and the team began discussing the second Bachmann story of the moment. The day before, the Fox anchor Chris Wallace had asked her whether she was a “flake.” Bachmann called the question “insulting” on the air, and viewers had reacted negatively to it. Wallace issued a video statement later in the day expressing regret. “A lot of you were more than perturbed, you were upset and felt that I had been rude to her,” he told the audience. “And since in the end it’s really all about the answers, and not about the questions, I messed up. I’m sorry.”
Bachmann was set to appear again on Fox News in the evening, this time with Sean Hannity. “If Sean says tonight, ‘Have you accepted that apology?,’ then what do I say?” she asked her campaign team. The consensus was that she would not accept it.
“He didn’t apologize to her,” O’Donnell said. “He just apologized for messing up. There are all sorts of apologies.”
The team began reviewing footage of Bachmann’s Waterloo speech. Marcus, who is not a small man, stood in the aisle, his white shirt untucked, and mouthed his wife’s words as he watched. When she arrived at her big applause line—“Make no mistake about it, Barack Obama will be a one . . . term . . . President!”—Marcus recited it out loud and raised his fist. “That’s powerful, that’s good, that’s excellent!” he said. “Yes, yes, yes!”
“That line, it’s become your signature,” O’Donnell said to Bachmann.
“It tested the best on Ed’s dial testing,” another aide said, referring to measurements that her pollster, Ed Goeas, had made of the enthusiasm for particular Bachmann phrases.
A little later, Bachmann read some coverage of herself on the Web site of the New York Times. She was pleasantly surprised. “Maybe it’s because he was so mean last time and he feels like he needs to do better,” she speculated about the author. She took out a white iPhone and, reclining in her seat, played Wallace’s video apology on the phone. “It was pretty weak, I gotta say,” she announced.
Marcus Bachmann plopped down on the seat next to me, in the back of the plane. He pointed at my laptop and asked if he could take a look. “All I want to know is what they’re saying about me,” he said. “Newsweek came up with the word ‘silver fox.’ Tell me what ‘silver fox’ means.”
“Do you want me to tell you honestly?” I asked.
“Oh, don’t tell me it’s something gay!” he said. “Because I’ve been called that before.” Marcus is a psychologist who runs a clinic that employs people Michele described in 2006 as “Biblical world-view counsellors,” who “reach out and try to bring the medicine of the Gospel to come and heal people.”
I explained that “silver fox” probably had more to do with the color of his hair.
“O.K., I can handle that,” he said. Tera, the assistant, assured him that it was a positive term.
“It’s better than Porky Pig,” Marcus said, with a laugh.
Marcus announced that he would now analyze everyone around him. He asked for three characteristics that a close friend might use to describe me. I demurred. He kept pushing: “So reporters are not that vulnerable?” “Maybe it’s a man thing.”
I tried to change the subject by asking him about the similarities between psychologists and journalists. But he would have none of it. “You are still asking questions about me!” he exclaimed. “That’s a trademark. Ai-yi-yi!”
I gave in and told him a story about one of my young sons. Marcus delivered his psychological verdict: “He takes after his dad: smart, perceptive—has a little control need at an early age.”
Marcus moved on: “O.K., earliest childhood memories. Not the safe one, just the first one.”
Suddenly, his face appeared on Fox. “Look, you’re on TV,” I said.
“It’s the Silver Fox!” he exclaimed as we descended into Manchester.
Inside the airport, another reporter pulled up an image of Buddy Garrity, from the TV show “Friday Night Lights.” The character, played by Brad Leland, is a dead ringer for Marcus, and the reporter showed him the image. “He does look like me,” Marcus said. “My goodness, you guys are quick, sharp, and complimentary so far—just until I get to know you long enough, and then you might even tell the truth.” He paused. “Which I’m really afraid of!” He grabbed a large suitcase from a cart—“I’m the high-maintenance traveller here, with the biggest, heaviest bag”—and he and Michele walked away.
Michele Bachmann’s father, a former Air Force staff sergeant, was an engineer who worked at a bomb factory in Iowa. He travelled around the country and to China, made his own wine, ground his own grain, and drove a gray Volkswagen bug. He was a Democrat and a student of the Civil War. “He didn’t appreciate it if any kind words were said about the South,” she said in a eulogy for him, in 2003. But he was also an “authoritarian.” In a Christmas letter to friends and family that year, she wrote, “He was a man of faults, and he was perhaps the most dominant human figure in my life.” Her parents separated in 1968, and in July, 1970, when Michele was fourteen, their divorce was finalized. The following month, in Las Vegas, her father married a woman twelve years his junior and moved to California. Bachmann, who has three brothers, says that the split devastated her and left the family impoverished. “We had to sell our home and sell most of the things that we had and move into a little apartment,” she told me. Her mother soon married a widower with five children.
In a speech in Minneapolis in 2006, Bachmann spoke of growing up with “the emotional struggles of not having a strong father in my life.” Two years after her father left, Bachmann joined a high-school prayer group. She had been brought up a Lutheran, but she knew little about the Bible. With the help of the members of the prayer group, she explained in the speech, she became a born-again Christian:
I didn’t know I wasn’t a believer. But they knew I wasn’t a believer, and they started praying for me. And all of a sudden the holy spirit started knocking on my heart’s door and I could hear the Lord tug me and call me to Himself, and I responded on November 1st of 1972, and I knew that I knew that I knew that I had received Jesus Christ as my lord and savior and that my life would never be the same after I made that commitment, because I knew what darkness looked like. I knew it from my home life. I absolutely understood sin, and I wanted no part of it. When Jesus Christ came in and cleaned out this dark heart, that was light. That was rest. That was peace. It was refreshment. Why would I ever want the world? I knew what that had to offer. This was great. That didn’t mean that I woke and all of a sudden I had money, all of a sudden I had position, all of a sudden I had education. It didn’t. But what it meant was that all of a sudden I had a father.
Bachmann told me, “It was very helpful to join the prayer group. That’s when I gave my life over to God, and it was a life-changing experience for me to recognize that I wanted him to be in control of my life rather than me being in control of my life.”
In 1974, the year Bachmann graduated from high school, she spent the summer on a kibbutz near Beersheba, Israel, with a program that was something like Outward Bound for Christians. The trip gave her a connection to Israel, a state whose creation, many American evangelicals believe, is prophesied in the Bible. (St. Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, says that Jews will one day gather again in their homeland; modern fundamentalists see this, along with the coming of the Antichrist, as presaging the Rapture.) “Our job was to get up at four in the morning and go out to the cotton fields and pick weeds,” Bachmann told me. “When we would go out in the morning, we would have soldiers that would go with us, and their job was to go through the fields to make sure that there weren’t any mines.”
In the fall of 1975, Bachmann enrolled at Winona State University, a small school in southeastern Minnesota, where she became more devout and tried to lead her dormmates to Christianity. There she met Marcus, whom, she has said, God called her to marry. She had a vision while praying “of me marrying this man in the valley where his parents have a farm in western Wisconsin.” According to Michele, Marcus was simultaneously having a vision about marrying her.
At the time, evangelicals were becoming a major presence in American politics. In 1976, like many other fundamentalist Christians, the Bachmanns supported Jimmy Carter, a born-again Baptist. The Bachmanns attended Carter’s Inauguration, in January, 1977. Later that year, they experienced a second life-altering event: they watched a series of films by the evangelist and theologian Francis Schaeffer called “How Should We Then Live?”
Schaeffer, who ran a mission in the Swiss Alps known as L’Abri (“the shelter”), opposed liberal trends in theology. One of the most influential evangelical thinkers of the nineteen-seventies and early eighties, he has been credited with getting a generation of Christians involved in politics. Schaeffer’s film series consists of ten episodes tracing the influence of Christianity on Western art and culture, from ancient Rome to Roe v. Wade. In the films, Schaeffer—who has a white goatee and is dressed in a shearling coat and mountain climber’s knickers—condemns the influence of the Italian Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Darwin, secular humanism, and postmodernism. He repeatedly reminds viewers of the “inerrancy” of the Bible and the necessity of a Biblical world view. “There is only one real solution, and that’s right back where the early church was,” Schaeffer tells his audience. “The early church believed that only the Bible was the final authority. What these people really believed and what gave them their whole strength was in the truth of the Bible as the absolute infallible word of God.”
The first five installments of the series are something of an art-history and philosophy course. The iconic image from the early episodes is Schaeffer standing on a raised platform next to Michelangelo’s “David” and explaining why, for all its beauty, Renaissance art represented a dangerous turn away from a God-centered world and toward a blasphemous, human-centered world. But the film shifts in the second half. In the sixth episode, a mysterious man in a fake mustache drives around in a white van and furtively pours chemicals into a city’s water supply, while Schaeffer speculates about the possibility that the U.S. government is controlling its citizens by means of psychotropic drugs. The final two episodes of the series deal with abortion and the perils of genetic engineering.
Schaeffer died in 1984. I asked his son Frank, who directed the movies—and who has since left the evangelical movement and become a novelist—about the change in tone. He told me that it all had to do with Roe v. Wade, which was decided by the Supreme Court while the film was being made. “Those first episodes are what Francis Schaeffer is doing while he was sitting in Switzerland having nice discussions with people who came through to find Jesus and talk about culture and art,” he said. But then the Roe decision came, and “it wasn’t a theory anymore. Now ‘they’ are killing babies. Then everything started getting unhinged. It wasn’t just that we disagreed with the Supreme Court; it’s that they’re evil. It isn’t just that the federal government may be taking too much power; now they are abusing it. We had been warning that humanism followed to its logical conclusion without Biblical absolutes is going to go into terrible places, and, look, it’s happening right before our very eyes. Once that happens, everything becomes a kind of holy war, and if not an actual conspiracy then conspiracy-like.”
Francis Schaeffer instructed his followers and students at L’Abri that the Bible was not just a book but “the total truth.” He was a major contributor to the school of thought now known as Dominionism, which relies on Genesis 1:26, where man is urged to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Sara Diamond, who has written several books about evangelical movements in America, has succinctly defined the philosophy that resulted from Schaeffer’s interpretation: “Christians, and Christians alone, are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns.”
In 1981, three years before he died, Schaeffer published “A Christian Manifesto,” a guide for Christian activism, in which he argues for the violent overthrow of the government if Roe v. Wade isn’t reversed. In his movie, Schaeffer warned that America’s descent into tyranny would not look like Hitler’s or Stalin’s; it would probably be guided stealthily, by “a manipulative, authoritarian élite.”
Today, one of the leading proponents of Schaeffer’s version of Dominionism is Nancy Pearcey, a former student of his and a prominent creationist. Her 2004 book, “Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity,” teaches readers how to implement Schaeffer’s idea that a Biblical world view should suffuse every aspect of one’s life. She tells her readers to be extremely cautious with ideas from non-Christians. There may “be occasions when Christians are mistaken on some point while nonbelievers get it right,” she writes in “Total Truth.” “Nevertheless, the overall systems of thought constructed by nonbelievers will be false—for if the system is not built on Biblical truth, then it will be built on some other ultimate principle. Even individual truths will be seen through the distorting lens of a false world view.”
When, in 2005, the Minneapolis Star Tribune asked Bachmann what books she had read recently, she mentioned two: Ann Coulter’s “Treason,” a jeremiad that accuses liberals of lacking patriotism, and Pearcey’s “Total Truth,” which Bachmann told me was a “wonderful” book.
This spring, during one of her trips to Iowa, Bachmann asked the audience if anyone had heard of or seen “How Should We Then Live?” Many people applauded. She continued:
That also was another profound influence on Marcus’s life and my life, because we understood that the God of the Bible isn’t just about Bible stories and about Bible knowledge, or about just church on Sunday. He is the Lord of all of life. Every bit of life, including sociology, theology, biology, politics. You name the area and walk of life. He is the Lord of life. And so, as we went back to our studies, we looked at studying in a completely different light. Not for the purpose of a career but for a purpose of wondering, How does this fit into creation? How does this fit into the code and all of life that is about to come in front of us? And so we had new eyes that were opened up as we understood life now from a Biblical world view.
Schaeffer “was a tremendous philosopher,” Bachmann told me. “He wrote marvellous books and was very inspirational.” She said that Schaeffer “took Christianity beyond the Bible,” and that he showed “how the application of living according to Christian principles has helped the culture for the better.” She added, “He really tried to call Christians to do more than just go to church, to have an application to how they live their lives, to have Christians think that whether they are called to be a dentist, or whether they are a doctor, or whether they are an artist, or whether they are a sculptor—whatever it is that they’re called to do—to give it everything that they have and to have a bigger purpose, a bigger meaning in all of it.”
The Bachmanns married on September 10, 1978, at Marcus’s family’s farm, in Montana, Wisconsin. The next fall, at Marcus’s suggestion, Bachmann enrolled at the new O. W. Coburn School of Law, at Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Bible, not the Constitution or conventional jurisprudence, guides the curriculum. For several years, the school could not get accreditation, because students were required to sign a “code of honor” attesting to their Christian belief and commitment. The first issue of the law review, Journal of Christian Jurisprudence, explains the two goals of the school: “to equip our students with the ability to bring God’s healing power to reconcile individuals and to restore community wholeness,” and “to restore law to its historic roots in the Bible.”
Among the professors were Herbert W. Titus, a Vice-Presidential candidate of the far-right U.S. Taxpayers Party (now called the Constitution Party), and John Whitehead, who started the Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal-advocacy group. The law review published essays by Schaeffer and Rousas John Rushdoony, a prominent Dominionist who has called for a pure Christian theocracy in which Old Testament law—execution for adulterers and homosexuals, for example—would be instituted. In a 1982 essay in the law review, Rushdoony condemned the secularization of public schools and declared, “With the coming collapse of humanistic statism, the Christian must prepare to take over, he must prepare for victory.”
In 1980, Bachmann volunteered for Ronald Reagan’s Presidential campaign. She and Marcus also “began to pray outside abortion clinics and serve as sidewalk counselors to people considering abortion,” according to an official biography that she no longer uses. During a later protest against a county-funded hospital that performed abortions, she told the Star Tribune that she felt that, since Roe, “I have been a landlord of an abortion clinic, and I don’t like that distinction.”
At Oral Roberts, Bachmann worked for a professor named John Eidsmoe, who got her interested in the burgeoning homeschool movement. She helped him build a database of state homeschooling statutes, assisting his crusade to reverse laws that prevented parents from homeschooling their children. After that, Bachmann worked as Eidsmoe’s research assistant on his book “Christianity and the Constitution,” published in 1987.
Eidsmoe explained to me how the Coburn School of Law, in the years that Bachmann was there, wove Christianity into the legal curriculum. “Say we’re talking in criminal law, and we get to the subject of the insanity defense,” he said. “Well, Biblically speaking, is there such a thing as insanity and is it a defense for a crime? We might look back to King David when he’s captured by the Philistines and he starts frothing at the mouth, playing crazy and so on.” When Biblical law conflicted with American law, Eidsmoe said, O.R.U. students were generally taught that “the first thing you should try to do is work through legal means and political means to get it changed.”
“Christianity and the Constitution” is ostensibly a scholarly work about the religious beliefs of the Founders, but it is really a brief for political activism. Eidsmoe writes that America “was and to a large extent still is a Christian nation,” and that “our culture should be permeated with a distinctively Christian flavoring.” When I asked him if he believed that Bachmann’s views were fully consistent with the prevailing ideology at O.R.U. and the themes of his book, he said, “Yes.” Later, he added, “I do not know of any way in which they are not.”
Eidsmoe has stirred controversy. In 2005, he spoke at the national convention of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a defiantly pro-white, and anti-black, organization. (Eidsmoe says that he deeply despises racism, but that he will speak “to anyone.”) In Alabama last year, he addressed an event commemorating Secession Day and told an interviewer that it was the state’s “constitutional right to secede,” and that “Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun understood the Constitution better than did Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Webster.” In April, 2010, he was disinvited from a Tea Party rally in Wausau, Wisconsin, because of these statements and appearances.
Bachmann has not, however, distanced herself, and she has long described her work for Eidsmoe as an important part of her résumé. This spring, she told a church audience in Iowa, “I went down to Oral Roberts University, and one of the professors that had a great influence on me was an Iowan named John Eidsmoe. He’s from Iowa, and he’s a wonderful man. He has theology degrees, he has law degrees, he’s absolutely brilliant. He taught me about so many aspects of our godly heritage.”
In 1986, after Bachmann graduated from O.R.U., she and Marcus moved to Virginia Beach. Marcus earned a master’s degree in counselling at Pat Robertson’s C.B.N. University, now known as Regent University. Michele enrolled at the College of William and Mary and, in 1988, got a master’s of law in taxation. They had had their first child while she was on a break from law school, and their second arrived while they were living in Virginia. They then moved back to Minnesota. She spent the next four years as a lawyer at the I.R.S. Office of Chief Counsel, in St. Paul, representing the commissioner of the I.R.S. before the U.S. Tax Court and advising agents who were conducting audits and collecting tax assessments.
Bachmann usually describes herself vaguely as a “former federal tax litigation attorney,” but, in part because she was new, she didn’t do much litigating. I talked with six of Bachmann’s former colleagues in the small I.R.S. office where she worked. Three of them still work there. No one would speak on the record, but they all said that Bachmann was not on the job long enough to gain much experience.
Two of Bachmann’s five children were born while she worked for the I.R.S., and all six former colleagues said that the primary fact they remembered about Bachmann was that she spent a good portion of her time on maternity leave—the I.R.S. had a fairly generous policy—and that caused resentment.
“Basically, the rest of us that were here were handling Michele’s inventory,” one former colleague said. “In her four years, she probably didn’t get more than two, two and a half years of experience. So she was doing lightweight stuff.” A second colleague said, “She was an attorney here, but she was never here.” (Bachmann declined a request to respond.)
Many of the cases she worked on were settled without going to trial, and there is only one Bachmann case on file that ended up in a courtroom. According to court documents, in 1992 Bachmann sought six thousand dollars in taxes from a Chippewa Indian who failed to report three years of income from Youth Project, Inc., a community-organizing nonprofit dedicated to “social justice and peace.”
Bachmann doesn’t like to say directly that she worked for the “I.R.S.,” but she often cites her work in the tax office as part of the reason she’s qualified to be President. The job, her campaign Web site declares, “solidified her strong support for efforts to simplify the Tax Code and reduce tax burdens on family and small business budgets.”
After the birth of her fourth child, in 1992, Bachmann left the I.R.S. to be a stay-at-home mother. The Bachmanns also began taking in foster children, all of whom were teen-age girls and many of whom had eating disorders. Bachmann’s motivation seems to have been to save the girls, in the same way that she had been saved. “In my heart, God put something in me toward young people that I wanted to make sure the Gospel would go out to young people,” she said, in 2006. “So that young people could come to know Jesus at an early age, the earlier the better, so that they wouldn’t have to go through those pitfalls.”
In total, the Bachmanns took in twenty-three girls; I spoke with one of them (she did not want her name used), who stayed with the Bachmanns for three and a half years and now lives in Colorado. She said, “I owe the Bachmanns everything. They offered me the structure I needed and taught me how to figure out goals. They really encouraged me to figure out who I was rather than who I was becoming. I turned my life around one hundred and eighty degrees.”
In 1993, Bachmann became disturbed by schoolwork the foster children were bringing home. One high-school math assignment involved a coloring project. She began to wonder what had happened to the disciplined education system of her youth. When she was in school, she said in a speech, “the shop teacher also had a board hung up in the shop class with holes bored in it, and he would use that on the backside if somebody got out of line. Anybody remember those days? That’s when I grew up. And it worked really well.” Her foster children’s homework, she continued, “had more to do with indoctrinating kids than educating kids. And the indoctrination had to do with anti-parent themes, anti-Biblical themes, anti-education themes, anti-academic themes.”
In 1993, she and six others founded the New Heights charter school, in Stillwater. The school was designed for at-risk kids, and the charter agreement, signed by all seven co-founders, mandated that the publicly funded school “is and will be non-sectarian in all programs, admission policies, employment practices and all other operations.”
The minutes of the school’s board meetings show that Bachmann, who was a member of the board, and her fellow-administrators repeatedly violated that rule. The C.E.O. of New Heights was Dennis L. Meyer, an evangelical-Christian activist and former schoolteacher who ran a prison ministry. At one of the first meetings, on July 20th, Meyer set the tone for how the school would be run: “Denny encouraged the board to do things and move forward not because we ‘think’ it should be done a certain way, but because God wants us to.”
The July 30th meeting opened with a prayer: “If we stay focussed God will keep being glorified by the things He does through us.” At the August 4th meeting, the board agreed to rent space at the school to a Minnesota church and heard from Dr. Robert Weaver, of Bethel University, an evangelical school in St. Paul. They discussed a “possible Bethel connection.” At the August 11th meeting, Meyer read from Deuteronomy: “Do not go out and strike rock; move by faith.”
Soon after the school year started, parents began to notice that New Heights had a strong Christian orientation. At an October meeting, a board member asked whether a document called “20 Key Principles of Christian Management” was officially part of the school’s “documentation,” as Meyer had claimed in a memo to the board. Denise Stephens, a parent of a student at the school, told G. R. Anderson, Jr., a reporter for the Minneapolis City Pages, that creationism was being advocated and that students were not allowed to watch the movie “Aladdin,” because it involved magic and paganism. The school district warned New Heights that it risked losing its charter. “I told Mr. Meyer and Ms. Bachmann some of my concerns and indicated that I was not going to be able to support something that seemed to be headed in a direction contrary to the state law,” David Wettergren, Stillwater’s superintendent of schools at the time, told me. About six months after the school was founded, Bachmann and Meyer resigned from the leadership. With the two of them gone, the school purged the curriculum of its religious orientation. “The school pulled itself together, so we continued to charter it,” Wettergren said.
Bachmann often describes her and Marcus’s work at New Heights as a major accomplishment. “We felt a challenge; we started a charter school,” she said in a speech in West Des Moines earlier this year. “It is still going on today. We got together with about five other couples. We started this charter school for at-risk kids. And it’s a very special niche, and we’re proud of the fact that that school has been started and it’s ongoing.”
The state senator from Bachmann’s district at that time was Gary Laidig, who is now sixty-three. His father was a Methodist minister, and, after church every Sunday, the two would watch the talk shows—“Face the Nation,” “Meet the Press”—and discuss politics. Even though Laidig’s father was active in the Republican Party, “there was never politics from the pulpit and there was never religion at the precinct caucus,” Laidig told me recently at his home, in St. Paul.
Laidig served as a marine in Vietnam and was elected to the Minnesota House, as a Republican, in 1973. For generations, the state’s parties had been divided primarily on economic issues. But now, after Roe, they were splitting along more polarizing lines, with members switching sides based on their abortion views. Laidig had no interest in social issues. “I wanted to learn the budget, and work on the environment, parks, trails, land stewardship,” he said. In 1983, he was elected to the State Senate. Each year, he picked a single issue or problem, studied it, and then determined whether he should propose legislation. He is most proud of getting Minnesota to adopt a statewide computerized system for hunting and fishing licenses and to require child safety seats in automobiles.
In the late nineteen-nineties, William Cooper, a wealthy bank executive and conservative activist, became chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, and started to demand more ideological purity. “He began a purge of people like me,” Laidig said. “No abortion, so if your daughter is raped or if you find out your child is going to be permanently a vegetable you have the kid. Not every abortion is birth control, O.K.? So really hard-core stuff.” He ticked off a long list of local pro-choice and moderate Republicans who were targeted for defeat. “We became persona-non-grata.”
Bachmann was getting interested in politics just as her party was getting interested in people like her. In the late nineteen-nineties, she began travelling throughout Minnesota, delivering lectures in churches, and writing pamphlets, on the perils of a federal education law known as School to Work, which supported vocational training, and a Minnesota education law known as Profile of Learning, which set state education standards. In one pamphlet, she wrote that federal education law “embraces a socialist, globalist worldview; loyalty to all government and not America.” In another, she warned of a “new restructuring of American society,” beginning with “workforce boards” that would tell every student the specific career options he or she could pursue, turning children into “human resources for a centrally planned economy.”
Around this time, Bachmann became interested in the writings of David A. Noebel, the founder and director of Summit Ministries, an educational organization founded to reverse the harmful effects of what it calls “our current post-Christian culture.” He was a longtime John Birch Society member, whose pamphlets include “The Homosexual Revolution: End Time Abomination,” and “Communism, Hypnotism, and the Beatles,” in which Noebel argued that the band was being used by Communists to infiltrate the minds of young Americans. Bachmann once gave a speech touting her relationship with Noebel’s organization. “I went on to serve on the board of directors with Summit Ministries,” she said, adding that Summit’s message is “wonderful and worthwhile.” She has also recommended to supporters Noebel’s “Understanding the Times,” a book that is popular in the Christian homeschooling movement. In it, he explains that the “Secular Humanist worldview” is one of America’s greatest threats. Bachmann’s analysis of education law similarly veered off into conspiratorial warnings. “Government now will be controlling people,” she said during one lecture on education, at a church in Minnesota. “What has history shown us about planned, state economies in the last one hundred years? Think Fascism, think Communism, think socialism. Think, the state-planned economies, totalitarianism. Think Cuba! Do you want Cuba’s economy or do you want the United States of America’s economy?”
Laidig defended the education laws in the State Senate, which made him a target for Bachmann. “Michele came to me on several occasions and to my face said, ‘If you don’t vote to get rid of School to Work and Profiles, I will run against you,’ ” he said.
In 1999, Bachmann ran for a seat on the Stillwater school board, but, dogged by the charter-school debacle, she lost. The following year, however, she made good on her threat to Laidig. She and her fellow-activists crowded into the Republican endorsement convention, at a middle school in St. Paul. The activists first attacked a moderate Republican, Mark Holsten, but Tim Pawlenty, who was then the Minnesota House majority leader, rounded up votes to save him. Laidig was not so fortunate. Bachmann beat him easily, and went on to win the general election.
For many years, Bachmann has said that she showed up at the convention on a whim and nominated herself at the urging of some friends. She was, she suggests, an accidental candidate. This version of history has become central to her political biography and is repeated in most profiles of her. A 2009 column by George F. Will, for example, says that “on the spur of the moment” some Bachmann allies suggested nominating her.
But she already had a long history of political activism—the Carter and Reagan campaigns, her anti-abortion and education activism, her school-board race—and she had been targeting Laidig for a year. According to an article in the Stillwater Gazette, on October 6, 1999, Bachmann was talking about running against Laidig months before she went to the convention. “I tried to present information to Senator Laidig on Profile of Learning, he was not interested,” she said. “And I told him that if he’s not willing to be more responsive to the citizens, that I may have to run for his seat.” She told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that she had decided to run against Laidig a year earlier.
Once in the State Senate, Bachmann rallied Republicans against Profile of Learning, and the statute was eventually repealed. She led fights to defend the public display of the Ten Commandments and to ban same-sex marriage. A gay member of the State Senate says that she once prayed over his desk. In 2006, she was elected to Congress, and, within a year, because of her frequent, and controversial, appearances on cable TV, she had become one of the most recognizable faces in the Republican caucus. Soon, evangelical activists were talking about her as a potential Presidential candidate. This year, Bachmann was selected by the Tea Party to give its response to Obama’s State of the Union address.
Back on her campaign plane—Bachmann dubbed it her “Barbie jet,” in homage to Barbie’s pink Glam Vacation Jet, sold by Mattel—on June 28th, as we headed from New Hampshire to South Carolina, Bachmann was celebrating the P.R. victory over Chris Wallace. The “flaky” comment made him look mean, even sexist, and her refusal to accept his non-apology made her look tough. He finally called Bachmann personally and offered a clearer apology, which she accepted.
Bachmann marvelled at how the controversy “seems like it happened years ago.”
“There you go, exaggerating again!” an aide joked. Everyone laughed
But, on the plane’s television, Sean Hannity, of Fox News, was discussing the latest Bachmann controversy: an interview with George Stephanopoulos, in which she defended an earlier statement that the Founders worked tirelessly to end slavery. Even though Hannity reliably supported Bachmann, David Polyansky, the deputy campaign manager, groaned. “I wish he wouldn’t replay it,” he said. O’Donnell, the speech coach, nodded. The campaign veterans did not see the benefits of their candidate chatting about American slavery. But Bachmann was still not convinced that she was wrong. Someone had sent her research to back up her claim. “Did you get that e-mail saying that there’s more of them that we can talk about?” she asked, from the front of the plane. Polyansky and O’Donnell glanced at each other, but neither of them responded.
Bachmann’s comment about slavery was not a gaffe. It is, as she would say, a world view. In “Christianity and the Constitution,” the book she worked on with Eidsmoe, her law-school mentor, he argues that John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams “expressed their abhorrence for the institution” and explains that “many Christians opposed slavery even though they owned slaves.” They didn’t free their slaves, he writes, because of their benevolence. “It might be very difficult for a freed slave to make a living in that economy; under such circumstances setting slaves free was both inhumane and irresponsible.”
While looking over Bachmann’s State Senate campaign Web site, I stumbled upon a list of book recommendations. The third book on the list, which appeared just before the Declaration of Independence and George Washington’s Farewell Address, is a 1997 biography of Robert E. Lee by J. Steven Wilkins.
Wilkins is the leading proponent of the theory that the South was an orthodox Christian nation unjustly attacked by the godless North. This revisionist take on the Civil War, known as the “theological war” thesis, had little resonance outside a small group of Southern historians until the mid-twentieth century, when Rushdoony and others began to popularize it in evangelical circles. In the book, Wilkins condemns “the radical abolitionists of New England” and writes that “most southerners strove to treat their slaves with respect and provide them with a sufficiency of goods for a comfortable, though—by modern standards—spare existence.”
African slaves brought to America, he argues, were essentially lucky: “Africa, like any other pagan country, was permeated by the cruelty and barbarism typical of unbelieving cultures.” Echoing Eidsmoe, Wilkins also approvingly cites Lee’s insistence that abolition could not come until “the sanctifying effects of Christianity” had time “to work in the black race and fit its people for freedom.”
In his chapter on race relations in the antebellum South, Wilkins writes:
Slavery, as it operated in the pervasively Christian society which was the old South, was not an adversarial relationship founded upon racial animosity. In fact, it bred on the whole, not contempt, but, over time, mutual respect. This produced a mutual esteem of the sort that always results when men give themselves to a common cause. The credit for this startling reality must go to the Christian faith. . . . The unity and companionship that existed between the races in the South prior to the war was the fruit of a common faith.
For several years, the book, which Bachmann’s campaign declined to discuss with me, was listed on her Web site, under the heading “Michele’s Must Read List.”
“If there was one word on a motivation or world view, that one word would be ‘liberty,’ ” Bachmann told me in early August, when I asked about her world view. “That’s what inspires me and motivates me more than anything—just the concept of freedom, liberty, what it means. Whether it’s economic liberty, religious liberty, liberty in our finances, liberty in being able to choose the profession we have. That’s what inspired my relatives to come here back in the eighteen-fifties. It was the concept of liberty. That’s what motivates me today as well.”
Liberty is the concept—or at least the word—most resonant with the Republican Party’s Tea Party faction, which Bachmann’s Presidential aspirations depend upon. It is a peculiarity of the current political moment that a politician with a history of pushing sectarian religious beliefs in government has become a hero to a libertarian movement. But Bachmann’s merger of these two strands of ideology is not unique. In fact, the Pew Research Center, in its recent quadrennial study of the American electorate, noted that “the most visible shift in the political landscape” since 2005 “is the emergence of a single bloc of across-the-board conservatives. The long-standing divide between economic, pro-business conservatives and social conservatives has blurred.”
The two wings are now united by the simplest and most enduring strain of conservative ideology: a dislike and distrust of government. Religious and fiscal conservatives have been moving toward this kind of unity for decades, and Bachmann, in her crusades against abortion, education standards, gay marriage—as well as in her passionate opposition to raising the debt ceiling—has always cast government as the villain, often using terms that echo Schaeffer’s post-Roe warning that America risked falling into the hands of “a manipulative and authoritarian élite.”
Bachmann and her political consultants also know that her inoffensive ode to liberty is necessary because many voters don’t respond well to religious language. The more Bachmann talks about God, the more she is likely to be asked about Schaeffer, Eidsmoe, Noebel, and some of the other exotic influences on her thinking. The success of her campaign will rest partly on her ability to keep these influences, which she has talked about for years, out of the public discussion. As I started getting deeper into a conversation with her about Schaeffer, she abruptly ended the interview. She said she had to leave for an appearance on “Hannity” but would try to set up another time to talk. I didn’t hear from her again. Her press secretary later told me that Bachmann “wasn’t comfortable with the line of questions, and that’s why there wasn’t a follow-up conversation.”
The second risk to Bachmann’s campaign is one that’s harder to control. Part of what’s so appealing about her is that she speaks passionately and off the cuff. But she often seems to speak before she thinks, garbles words, mixes up history, or says things that don’t make sense. At some point, when more people are paying attention, she might go just a bit too far.
On the campaign trip, as we got ready to leave Iowa after her Waterloo speech, Bachmann leaned over to look at pictures from the event on an aide’s laptop.
“I like that one,” she said, pointing.
“Yes, I love that. It tells our story.”
“This is the over-the-shoulder shot.”
“It’s so pretty with the green grass and trees in the distance. Oh, and the flags! Go back to the flags. I like that, I like that!”
“Looking good!” the aide said.
The engine started to rev as we taxied. Bachmann stood up straight and punched the air. “Shoot, aim, score!” ♦
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