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Michele Bachmann is cool to mainstream media, and an increasingly hot property

By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010; C01

Her tone was bright. "Thank you for giving me this opportunity," she said.

Michele Bachmann was on the phone. That alone was unusual. The Minnesota congresswoman generally does not speak to journalists doing stories about her, at least not to journalists from what she refers to as the "mainstream media." She and her communications director had granted a brief interview on the condition there would be no questions about her reelection race. She began by spending a few minutes reflecting on what she regarded as her key accomplishments.

"What I hear from my people back home is, 'Thank you for speaking up,' " she said.

No other House member in recent memory has risen so swiftly on the basis of speaking up. Although only in her second term, the Republican Bachmann is already better known than many senators in her party, widely popular with conservatives and "tea party" supporters. She has labeled the Obama administration a "gangster government" and expressed concerns that the president might harbor "un-American" views. At once revered and reviled, she is a talk-show producer's dream, a fundraising juggernaut. Along with a few firebrand conservatives including Florida Republican senatorial hopeful Marco Rubio, she has built a large army of small donors.

Now she voiced frustration with what she regarded as the "media's focus" on her "language." She listened to a question about comments she had made regarding a federal program designed to expand the national number of community volunteers, a measure authored by the late Massachusetts senator and liberal lion Edward Kennedy and signed into law by President Obama. She was asked about her charge that the program would lead to political "reeducation camps" for its young participants.

Dead silence came over the telephone line.

After a while, it was time for the mainstream media's next question. "Are you there, Congresswoman?"

The silence lengthened.

"Are you there, Congresswoman?"

The 'Hardball' moment

Bachmann's fans know her largely through tapes of her speeches and her frequent appearances on talk radio and television, where the well-dressed 53-year-old enjoys the star status reserved for unpredictable mavericks who deliver arresting sound bites.

Her quotable highlights span the spectrum of her worries and suspicions. She has asserted that Obama has secret plans to force anyone making more than $65,000 to pay the highest tax rate. She has derided the U.S. census as part of a White House scheme intended to guarantee indefinite congressional control to Democrats -- and suggested that census data could be utilized to "get" Americans. She has invoked World War II, telling the interested that the government "used the U.S. census information to round up the Japanese [Americans] and put them in the internment camps."

She has stirred the faithful in a way that has captured the attention of party elites around the country. The full measure of her stature revealed itself in April, when she appeared at a roaring Minneapolis rally alongside another telegenic lightning rod to whom she is increasingly compared, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who praised Bachmann for the ferocity with which she attacked the agendas of her political foes. "Michele doesn't say no," Palin said. "Michele says h-e-l-l no." Afterward, Palin joined her for a fundraising dinner that packed in 800 supporters at $500 a plate.

If there is a common thread to Bachmann's pronouncements, it is that, other than when issuing a press release, she makes no major pronouncement to anyone outside a favored corps of conservative television and radio talk-show hosts. Access to her became limited in 2008, after her appearance on Chris Matthews's MSNBC show, "Hardball." Expressing worries to Matthews that then-candidate Obama might have "un-American" sentiments, she suffered a backlash that made her reelection race alarmingly tight.

Although she appears occasionally on CNN's "Larry King Live," these days she sticks closest to the shows of conservative commentators who effusively support her. It was while on Sean Hannity's Fox News show one night that she blasted the idea of federal financial regulatory reform as tantamount to "the federal government coming in, in a very thuggish way, and taking over the boardrooms of private industry."

"She doesn't need mainstream media any longer," says Lawrence Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota and a longtime Bachmann watcher. "She has whatever cable show she wants to do, talk radio, the Internet, Fox TV. . . . This is likely the new way for many conservative politicians, many outsiders."

The man who has enjoyed the best and longest access to Bachmann is a sandy-haired, tanned 54-year-old who arrives at the Minneapolis studios of KTLK-FM to do his radio show in a golf shirt.

No figure was more instrumental in Bachmann's early political success than Jason Lewis. Although his show became nationally syndicated only a year ago, he has been a force in Minnesota for two decades, lacerating Democrats, centrist Republicans and conservative apostates. He is to Minnesota Republican politics what radio titan Walter Winchell was to New York politicians: a force capable of delivering migraines.

In his studio, he takes a seat now across from where Bachmann sometimes sits when she does the show. More often, he gets her on the phone. Having known each other for a decade, they are chummy on-air: A relaxed Bachmann doesn't receive uncomfortable questions, and Lewis, in turn, can steer her into intriguing discussions mainstream journalists can't.

She sounds liberated in Lewis's world. Recently, she meandered into a discussion of 2012 Republican presidential politics, taking veiled swipes both at former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney ("What happened in Massachusetts is not a good thing for the state," she said in reference to the Massachusetts health-care plan approved by Romney) and John McCain ("We need to get a presidential candidate who is a constitutional conservative with guts. No substitutes this time").

Lewis expresses sympathy with what he views as Bachmann's special burden in dealing with "the establishment media," a force with waning clout, Lewis believes. "They have Michele in their cross hairs," he declares. "They used to be the media gatekeepers, but no more."

One afternoon, Lewis drives past St. Paul, not far from the site of the annual Minnesota State Fair, the event where he interviewed Bachmann in person for the first time in 2000. She was in a primary challenge against a relatively moderate Republican state senator named Gary Laidig, a 28-year legislative veteran targeted for extinction by conservatives.

The disgruntled had gravitated to Bachmann, a well-known community grass-roots soldier. But Bachmann faced her own challenges. A year earlier she had lost in a race to become a school board member in the Twin Cities suburb of Stillwater, the upscale town on the St. Croix River where she still lives. And already she was the subject of controversy. While beloved by local conservatives for her protest at a clinic performing abortions, she was assailed by others who claimed that, while serving on the board at a public charter school, she had been part of an effort to censor artistic projects and pressure teachers into injecting Christianity into the curriculum.

"The students and teachers couldn't do something patterned after the film 'Aladdin' because it had to do with magic, and magic was somehow a problem," remembers Denise Stephens, a parent. "And they couldn't do a Native American dream-catcher's theme because that was associated with paganism, they said."

Supporters of Laidig portrayed Bachmann as an extremist who would have no hope of defeating a Democrat. Lewis, who regarded her as an up-and-comer with uncommon political backbone, threw the full weight of his show behind her. "I was leading the charge to get more House crazies elected," he remembers, grinning.

Bachmann soundly defeated Laidig, then won the general election, en route to three terms in the state Senate before winning election to Congress in 2006.

"Jason Lewis was the enthusiastic cheerleader who offered a platform for Michele Bachmann," says the University of Minnesota's Jacobs. " . . . This was part of what the new media was doing all over: It was the meshing of a niche audience with conservatives' message. The Bachmann phenomenon could never have happened without new media and people like Jason Lewis."

Her home district

Later, Lewis is driving through Bachmann's 6th Congressional District, which is about 96 percent white, leans Republican and includes a swath of eastern Minnesota bordering Wisconsin and stretching northwest to more working-class areas toward St. Cloud. "Salt-of-the-earth people" is how Bachmann describes her supporters.

The car turns into Bachmann's town, cruising down the main drag. "Stillwater is a kind of hoity-toity, progressive place," Lewis observes. "Not the best place for Michele, politically."

Bachmann has never run as strong in Stillwater as outside it. Nearby is Salem Lutheran Church, where Bachmann, her husband, their five children and many of their 23 foster children -- all grown now -- have attended over the years. Two church members, a couple named Vera and Vern Kumerow, met Bachmann there in the late '90s. Though they had developed loyalties to other politicians, the Kumerows quickly switched allegiances as they got to know Bachmann, captivated by her ideals. "She is strong and that is what people want to see," Vera Kumerow says. "She does not budge. And I see her at church and on TV."

Bachmann's national television appearances became frequent after she won election to the House in 2006. By early 2008, her opponents argued that Bachmann was more interested in developing a national profile than in the needs of her district.

Her only notable legislative triumph came in the adoption of a low-profile bill that has made technical changes to the obligations of merchants who deal with credit card and debit receipts. But Bachmann emphasizes that to focus on the passage of bills is to miss the whole point about her: She is in Washington, she says, to beat back government's attempt to "eclipse freedom in people's lives."

Meanwhile, some journalists have privately complained about their inability to have access to her, to even obtain a schedule of her public events. Her hometown newspaper, the Stillwater Gazette, ordinarily receives no notice about public events where a reporter might be able to pose a question to her.

John Wodele, once a press secretary for former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, says, "I feel they have an absolute responsibility to distribute her public schedule -- the public has a right to that."

But Wodele, like Lewis, sees Bachmann as a much underestimated political talent. Having worked against Bachmann in a campaign, he learned about her appeal the hard way. "She has captured the indignation of the low-tax, no-tax crowd," he says. "That truck driver who is coming home from his welding job or going off deer hunting on the weekends, the guy working hard and bothered by taxes? A lot of those people see her as one of them."

At the national level, many analysts believe that Bachmann's future within the Republican Party will turn on her willingness to temper what Jacobs calls her "full-throated firebrand nature." Some Republicans worry that her outsize profile might harm their ability to win elections in swing districts.

With his radio show over on a Friday evening, Jason Lewis meets his wife and friends for drinks and dinner. He is standing by the bar when a buddy, a 39-year-old man named Paul Hogenson, who makes his living in the mortgage business, says casually that he doesn't like Bachmann.

"Well, that's because you're a lib and Michele is a conservative," Lewis retorts.

"She's a wing nut," Hogenson says. "What Michele says is so far out in right field that I think she does it for political gain."

"That doesn't make sense -- the question is why she does it when she knows it sometimes hurts her here," says Lewis.

"Well, because she's a scrapper," Hogenson says.

A few people nearby are eavesdropping. Not one has failed to already make up his or her mind about the renegade they usually refer to here simply as "Michele."

'Yes, I'm here'

During the brief telephone interview with her, in the wake of the question about her use of the term "reeducation camps," a few more seconds of silence passed. Bachmann was asked again if she was there.

"Yes, I'm here," she said finally.

She expressed uncertainty about whether she wished to continue with the interview, declining to answer the question. "I'm not interested in an interview . . . with false caricatures of who I am," she said, adding that some questions were unfairly "pointing to extreme examples of who I am . . . extreme caricatures."

After a moment, however, she pressed on, eventually observing that "people have the sense of the bias of mainstream media." She indicated she had gone outside that mainstream to find new kinds of media outlets to even the political playing field. She lauded the "democratization of media," which, she said, included the Internet.

To that end, she said she wanted to urge everyone to sign the petition on her Web site calling for support of her bill to repeal the Democrats' new health-care plan. "I think I've kept faith with people back home . . . even if that has meant getting some editorial boards upset," she said. " . . . I lay my career on the line. . . . Freedom is messy. It is important to understand that we can't be here to play it safe."

She indicated she had said what she wanted to say.

The mainstream media thanked her for her time.

"Thank you for your evenhandedness," she concluded.

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