Michele Bachmann’s new book matches her political message

November 22, 2011

The day the president came to Minnesota to stump for first-time congressional candidate Michele Bachmann, she let her mother talk her into “dressing like a lady would have in the 1940s or 1950s — that is, all dolled up.”

“I listened to my mother; that’s what a dutiful daughter always does,’’ the Republican presidential hopeful writes in her new book, “Core of Conviction,’’ released on Monday. Which is how she wound up wearing a “deeply discounted” pink suit with matching pumps, purse and “over-the-top” gloves to meet George W. Bush in 2006. “Lose the gloves,’’ he told her in the limo, so she wouldn’t look silly in a photo of the two of them enjoying a summer treat of frozen custard from a roadside stand.

Her detailed account of that moment — her disappointment that his car didn’t seem quite as big inside as she had expected, and her giddy disbelief that she was in the position of handing off her custard cup to Karl Rove — makes this the rare campaign bio in which the candidate comes off as more human than carefully humanized. It’s a “girlier” book than most female candidates would dare, offering glimpses of her worrying about her looks, shyly practicing cheers with the blinds drawn and dateless on prom night, maybe because she didn’t “fool around.’’

But her willingness to show some vulnerability could also make readers of any political stripe like her more. Stuck at 4 percent in opinion polls, down from 16 percent in July, and pegged as “tutti-frutti” by that kidder Herman Cain, it’s perhaps a shame for Bachmann that the autobiography didn’t come out sooner.

On the campaign trail in her birth state of Iowa, the Minnesota congresswoman tells many of the same stories that are in the book, yet comes off as far more severe. She defines herself first and most frequently as the mother of five biological and 23 foster children: “I want you to know you are looking at the old woman in the shoe,’’ she says in the gym of a Lutheran church in Fairfield, a comment that elicits a laugh in part because her French manicure and trim figure are so at odds with the zaftig, kerchiefed granny the nursery rhyme calls to mind.

But Bachmann plays the mom card differently than others have. In an interview between Iowa campaign events, she says that what she offers voters above all, in drawing on her experience as a parent, is the ability “to know when to say no, and that’s tremendously applicable’’ in a country that she says must be forced to stop “overindulging.’’

Instead of the warm-and-worried “mom in tennis shoes” that Patty Murray (D-Wash.) ran as for the Senate, or the ferocious, angry “mama grizzly” that her friend Sarah Palin is, Bachmann is running as the disciplinarian mom, who says no all the time — less, “Have a cookie and tell me what’s bothering you” than “You are so not leaving the house like that.”

Child-rearing experts tell us that what kids really crave are boundaries, the refusal to cave. And despite all evidence to the contrary, the conservative congresswoman is running on the proposition that good boundaries (and maybe a timeout) are what voters want, too.

In the Fairfield gym, Bachmann shares the origins of her resolve. After her parents divorced when she was 13, she remembers seeing every nice thing her mom owned — her “pretty china” and other wedding gifts — set out on card tables in the driveway to be sold for pennies. From that time on, she tells 100 people in Ottumwa, she herself was on the hook for “my clothes, my glasses, and if I wanted lunch at school,’’ then for that, too. “That’s life.’’

That’s also, she says, how the country should be run.“We went overnight to below poverty, but we didn’t get on aid; we all got jobs. . . . It was actually a forming experience for us, and a good experience.” So good, in fact, that she thinks others in need should try it.

Her biographical narrative and political message are the same: She is a self-made survivor, shaped by adversity and saved by faith, positive that coddling is the road to a hell she would like to save you from.

She assures a man who pays no taxes because he doesn’t make enough that when she becomes president, he will. More than one voter suggests, in the nicest possible terms, that her approach to people in trouble strikes them as a little harsh. If someone with diabetes loses his job, one asks her, “are they supposed to lose everything they have” paying for medical care? Although her family has benefited from government programs, collecting $239,332 in federal farm subsidies from 1995 to 2009, she maintains that private solutions are best: “There are enough people with good hearts,’’ she says. “They’ll help out.’’

Another man asks how her approach squares with Jesus’s directive to care for the least among us. She sits on the edge of the small stage, directly in front of him, and tells him earnestly that “the best way to be compassionate is out of your excess. . . . When Christ spoke, he didn’t speak to governments; he spoke to people.’’ Then she tells again about acting as a mother to 23 foster girls.

Even when asked in a GOP debate about the role of government in preventing home foreclosures, she worked in the “M” word multiple times: “Most of the time, I’m talking to moms across this country. When you talk about housing, when you talk about foreclosures, you’re talking about women who are at the end of their rope because they’re losing their nest for their children and for their family. . . . I’m a mom. I talk to these moms. I just want to say one thing to moms all across America tonight. . . . Hold on, moms out there.’’

Although she has been bypassed by candidates with far less careful preparation, she insists in the interview that she has never felt as though she was held back or held to a different standard as a woman – well, except maybe in terms of the extra attention paid to her appearance. Most criticism, she says, has nothing to do with gender.

Since Bachmann was elected to Congress five years ago, the primary caregiver for their oft-mentioned kids has been her husband, Marcus Bachmann, back home in Minnesota. “We’ve been a tag team,” she says. Only, her husband has been “it” for the past five years, hasn’t he, despite her Bible-based belief that wives should be submissive to their husbands?

“My husband is the head of the household,’’ she says, but “we’re equals. If it came down to it, I’d probably let him have the last word.” But in 33 years, she adds, this has never happened. “Every decision has been a negotiated settlement.’’

From the beginning of her professional life, she says, she was in a sense the mom candidate: “I always felt in law school I had an unfair advantage because my oldest, who’s now a physician, was such a wildcat at 3.”

But motherhood actually gets easier after the third child, she insists. “By the fifth one, you’ve got a system, then the more you have, the easier.” A system? The shimmery promise of such a thing is enough to make any mom perk up like a dieter in the presence of Jillian Michaels.

Whatever else happens, there could be a parenting bestseller in Bachmann’s future. She came up with “a buddy system,’’ she explains, along with “a nighttime checklist, so no mad-dash scramble, and a one-activity rule. Once you have your system, you just have to stick with it.”

The problem with presidential politics, though, is that whatever system there is keeps changing, and never more so than this year.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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