A Tribute to Michele Bachmann (Video)
Would it surprise you if I disclose that one of the most important pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten came from Rep. Michele Bachmann?
As the Minnesota Republican bids farewell to Congress, I’m not reflecting about her bombast or her penchant for causing trouble within her party.
Sure, she is fun to cover, and has given both reporters and comedians plenty of material during her nearly eight years in Washington. Her politics can and have invoked visceral reactions as she made a national name for herself, in part by using over-the-top language to describe her opposition to President Barack Obama and his policies.
But I’m going to devote this column to defending the first congressional tea partyer. She happens to be a very nice person.
I’m not just talking about the old Minnesota nice cliché. And I’m not talking about Washington polite. She has a kindness in her that can surprise even her sharpest critic. At the same time, she has an unapologetic aggression for her principles that happen to be further from the mainstream than your typical member of Congress.
The whole package has made her one of #ThisTown’s larger-than-life personalities, and I’ll miss her.
Last week during her final speech, Bachmann repeatedly talked about the “privilege” of serving, making sure to mention she was the first female Republican elected from Minnesota. She spoke in broad sweeps, suggesting she feels she is one “link” on a chain of democracy and history.
And you know that when she declared the well of the House floor the “freest square feet in the world,” she meant it.
The Bachmann wearing a black jumper and a smile for her first floor speech on Jan. 18, 2007 is not so different from the woman who said goodbye last week. She talked about the size of government and her efforts to curb it, and what it was like to raise her five children and 23 foster children after coming from humble beginnings.
We’re all here in Washington for a reason, and I happen to think believing in what you do is a pretty good one. I’m not sure there’s anyone who can match Bachmann’s tireless advocacy for the causes she believes in.
This is a woman who is authentic. She doesn’t care what anyone thinks about her, and she sticks up for herself and her ideals, even when she’s the last person standing. She may have failed in her presidential bid, hold a slim list of legislative accomplishments and lack true respect from House Republican leadership, but make no mistake — Bachmann has had an influence on her party.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., told me in 2011 that he saw Republicans begin to follow her lead as the tea party movement grew. “They didn’t make her; they are catching on to a shooting star,” he said.
She was fighting her own party before it was cool — battling against the Troubled Asset Relief Program in September 2008 as her opening salvo — although leaders don’t view her as being as instrumental as she made herself sound on the campaign trail and in presidential debates.
A few years later she founded the Tea Party Caucus and promised she would do everything in her power to stop the Affordable Care Act from becoming law. In 2009, Bachmann announced on Fox News she would be holding a tea party rally at the Capitol. Initial skeptics signed on as it became clear thousands were flocking to Washington to join her.
Taking the stage that autumn afternoon, Bachmann beamed at the more than 8,000 gathered on the West Front. “You came!” she shouted. “You came for an emergency House call!”
She hasn’t let up since, regularly criticizing party leaders for what she calls compromising positions and voting against major pieces of legislation. (Though our CQ Members team finds she still has a party unity score of 96 percent.)
It’s probably fitting that one of Bachmann’s final acts as a member of Congress was giving Obama her foreign policy prescription at his White House holiday party this month. Bachmann urged the president to “bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities.” (Mostly overlooked from the party were her cheery photos on social media with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.)
In her farewell speech, Bachmann paid her own tribute to the people in the Capitol, from her staff to employees who help Congress function.
There’s James. “who runs the railroad car in Rayburn basement,” who “has become a wonderful friend,” and Maria who works in the Speaker’s Lobby, the “elevator lady,” and especially the cafeteria cooks “who make wonderful sandwiches” and even spot her a few bucks when she is short.
I first got to know Bachmann in 2011, as she began to explore a presidential bid. I traveled with her in Iowa, snapping photos of her holding a chicken, sitting with her in church and watching her listen to potential caucus-goers in cities across the Hawkeye State.
That year I did a program through Harvard’s Institute of Politics, and took students with me to New Hampshire to observe the presidential primary up close and personal. Bachmann and her team went out of their way to help the students feel welcome. She even allowed this group of young adults — all of them liberal and cracking jokes about her being a crazy person — aboard her campaign bus, giving them time to ask her anything.
They didn’t disembark as Bachmann believers, but they were moved by her kind gesture, and have since told me they will never forget riding around with a White House hopeful. Bachmann didn’t have to do that — the story I was writing had long been filed, and plenty of her colleagues, including then-Texas Rep. Ron Paul, had no trouble blowing off the Harvard students even though they had traveled long distances to catch a glimpse of the presidential process.
I hadn’t expected to like this woman. Some of the things she says are beyond wacky, and her take-it-or-leave-it attitude has inspired some of the nastiest vitriol I’ve ever seen in the form of tea party rally signs and Twitter trolls.
But I do like her. I like her because she’s real. We need more of that in Washington.
Maybe her days in politics are over, or she will become a Fox News personality. I like to think Bachmann, 58, won’t disappear.
Surely she will remain in the headlines, and she could even mount another presidential bid. The liberal Super PAC American Bridge did, after all, include her in a slick new “scouting report” about the 2016 field.
The media has spent her years in national politics giving her outsize coverage. I’ll let you in on a little secret — it’s good for business.
Posts about Bachmann when I was working in Talking Points Memo’s Washington bureau would go through the roof as outraged liberals clicked through to learn what the tea partyer said this time. We’ve given her plenty of ink at Roll Call, too.
When Bachmann announced her retirement from Congress, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow declared her enjoyable to cover “as the living, breathing embodiment of the crazy in American politics.”
You can’t argue with the fact she will leave Congress with an open ethics investigation into her 2012 campaign’s fundraising activity, that she burned through a lot of her congressional staff at a fast clip, or that she has a penchant for gaffes. Bachmann is not an unintelligent woman, by the way. (How often do people call Biden, who also happens to get his facts wrong, dumb?)
Somehow over the last eight years Bachmann has managed to remain a good sport, talking to the media and even making fun of herself when the time was right. (Don’t miss her BuzzFeed list of what she’ll miss about serving in Congress.)
So, about that advice.
It was during my first stint at Roll Call, and I followed her to Iowa for the weekend. I was working on a piece about women seeking the presidency for More Magazine (where I serve as a contributing editor) and attempting to understand if Bachmann approached her femininity differently than, say Hillary Clinton had, just a few years before.
Back in D.C., Bachmann and I sat down for an interview and she talked about her family’s financial hardship when she was a young girl, calling it a “great life lesson” to work her way through college and be prudent with money.
She said she was lucky to build a better life for her own children.
“I’ve lived it all,” Bachmann told me. “People say, you know, how did you do it? And I’ll say, ‘You can have it all, but not all at once.’”
It was a simple line, but it beautifully sums up what I’ve seen successful women struggle with, and the concerns other female members of Congress have privately shared with me.
I have lived a lifetime and have changed jobs twice since Bachmann spoke those words about the importance of balance. As I set out to get married in 17 days, I’ve been thinking about that advice a lot. I’d like to prove her wrong.
Either way, I’m glad Bachmann came to Washington and put her stamp on things. She may be gone in the 114th Congress, but she most certainly won’t be forgotten.