Ruth Marcus
Columnist August 10, 2011

I keep staring at the Newsweek cover. Actually, it keeps staring at me: Michele Bachmann and the Crazy Eyes.

This may surprise you, because I am no Bachmann fan, but I think she was done wrong — and not just by the photo. The accompanying headline, “The Queen of Rage,” does her an equal disservice. Bachmann is misguided, in my view, about nearly everything. But she is not the Queen of Rage.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

I happened to see Bachmann at the National Press Club a few weeks ago, and rage was not the impression I came away with. Quite the opposite. The Minnesota congresswoman was smooth, without evident edginess or bristling. She was, in short, the un-Palin. A similarly conservative worldview, perhaps, but Bachmann had all the bitterness and sarcasm of Sarah Palin buffed away.

She was, in between incoherent assertions about the debt ceiling, rather charming. Palin would have launched a jab at the lamestream media assembled to hear her. Bachmann began by saying it was a “humbling experience,” and added, “I have no doubt if I’m not humbled now I will be at the conclusion of the question and answer.”

When her allotted 30 minutes were up, Bachmann turned to the host for permission to continue, saying, “I don’t want to impede on the question-and-answer time.” When that time arose and the moderator posed a question about Bachmann’s family finances, she responded with disarming humor: “These are the fun questions now that we’re getting.”

Indeed, compare and contrast Bachmann and Palin on their controversial Newsweek covers. When Newsweek showed Palin in skimpy running shorts, she unloaded. “The out-of-context Newsweek approach is sexist and oh-so-expected by now,” Palin sneered. “The media will do anything to draw attention — even if out of context.”

Bachmann, who had more reason to blast the magazine, opted not to engage. “We’re just not going to address that,” her press secretary, Alice Stewart, said. “We’re focused on what’s important, which is meeting with the people of Iowa in advance of the straw poll.”

So what to make of the Newsweek cover?

First, that Newsweek editor Tina Brown is a brilliant businesswoman. When was the last time we were all talking about a Newsweek cover? The Boston Globe’s Joan Vennochi nailed this: “The Queen of Buzz knew exactly what to do with the Queen of Rage,” she wrote. “Put her on the cover of Newsweek magazine in a way that gets people yapping.”

Second, that good business does not necessarily equal good journalism. It takes some effort to make the photogenic Bachmann look bad, and I suspect Brown & Co. knew exactly what they were doing. “The intensity in her eyes is in all the photographs of her,” Brown said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Wednesday.

Perhaps, but this was a photo that made Bachmann look especially deranged. It reminded me of those open-mouthed shots of Hillary Clinton that right-wing Web sites use to make her look more like the Madwoman of Chaillot than secretary of state.

Third, and pause here for sigh, the sexism question. I think we need to come up with a better word for the gender-related issues we keep grappling with in politics — something that connotes less intentionality, more stumbling through the minefield of gender politics. The cover shot was chosen by a female editor for a story written by a female reporter. Any ill motive seems more directed at diminishing Bachmann as a conservative than as a woman.

Still, the unavoidable fact of the matter is that, at least for the near term and most likely beyond, readers and viewers are going to focus more on female candidates’ looks and clothes than they do when men are involved. This is a phenomenon that journalists and fellow politicians need to keep in mind when choosing words and images.

In fact, the phrase “Queen of Rage” may be more troubling than the photo that’s created so much fuss. Both words — “queen” and “rage” — are fraught. Queen has its Marie Antoinette-esque overtones. Would a male candidate be dubbed the “King of Rage?” And “rage” conjures unhinged, out-of-control anger, raging hormones and all that. Not a place you want to go when a female candidate is involved, even if you’re referring to her followers.

In the end, the cover may be a win-win. Newsweek benefits from the buzz. And Bachmann benefits from the combination of public outrage and her above-the-fray stance. Not a bad deal for one unflattering photo.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com