As she settles into her new life in a Congress led by Democrats, Michele Bachmann is learning hard lessons about politics in the glare of YouTube -- and shifting to a more guarded style.
Michele Bachmann strides along the Capitol Mall, lit by the morning sun shimmering off the marble of this impossibly gleaming city. In sneakers and a trim jogging suit, her hair clipped back, she's more a fresh-faced speed walker than the chic congresswoman from Minnesota who vowed to "hit the ground running, even in high heels."
Bachmann loves to walk. Working up a sweat helps her cope with her bustling new life in Congress, where she's relegated to a minority role she hadn't bargained for, and where the studied protocol can test a pencil-tapper and hair-twirler such as herself.
Bachmann, 51, has been here barely six months, a quarter of a term that began with harsh headlines. She was widely mocked after the State of the Union address for gripping President Bush's shoulder as firmly as a mother at Target, then later for confidently claiming to know about an Iranian plan to partition Iraq.
She offers no apologies, but the incidents have made her more wary, more conscious that video cameras and YouTube have an audience, and that the blogosphere has a taste for blood.
You have to stay on your toes.
So she walks the Mall, reclaiming a routine that lapsed after bunion surgery on both feet after the campaign. Recovery meant weeks of putting aside her favored kitten-heeled slides for clunky orthopedic sandals. But she wore them, growing to realize the benefits of their lower profile.
Congress wasn't supposed to be this way. During the campaign, the Republicans controlled the gavels and Bush had the faith of the party. Bachmann's victory as the first Republican woman sent from Minnesota to the House was a payoff for fundraising visits by Laura Bush, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and the president himself. Yet Bachmann emerged as one of only 13 Republican newcomers, the smallest freshman class in 60 years. And control of the House swung to the Democrats.
"It changed everything," she said.
Chairmanships shifted. Priorities were shuffled. The lightning-rod conservative who swept into Washington on the votes of fundamentalist Christians found herself in a House chamber controlled by Nancy Pelosi, a take-no-prisoners liberal.
The power shift also upended her family's plans to deal with her absence. The workweek during the last Congress was generally Tuesday through Thursday. Now members are in session Monday through Friday. "About the only way to see us is to take time off work, buy a plane ticket and get to Washington," she said.
Sometimes, her husband, Marcus, and teenage daughters Elisa, Caroline and Sophia do just that. (Sons Lucas and Harrison are in college.) Bachmann flies home Friday nights, spends Saturdays working and tries, mightily, to reserve Sundays for family. "If our kids weren't this good," she said, "we couldn't do this."
Another emerging change is the erosion of support among citizens and Congress for the president. Despite her respect -- some might say starry-eyed admiration -- for Bush, Bachmann says his diminishing influence has no impact on her.
"I ran to stand on my views," she said. "I have great respect for the president for the stand he has taken against radical Islamo-fascists. I've been very strongly behind the president in his desire to keep Americans safe." But she disagreed with him on his "guest worker" proposal for illegal immigrants and wants to repeal his No Child Left Behind Act.
"He's become a big spender, and in some cases an out-of-control spender, during his term in office, and I'm a strong fiscal conservative," she said.
• • •
One sunny afternoon in May, members of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce settle into her cheerful office with its lemon-sherbet walls. Swiveling in her chair, legal pad in her lap, Bachmann asks questions, her next query often landing on the last syllable of someone's answer.
Overnight, she had advanced from being a state senator representing 85,000 suburban residents, mainly in Stillwater and northern Washington County, to representing more than 600,000 Minnesotans in the Sixth District.
The chamber visitors are a friendly crowd, but the reality of a broadened constituency grows clear in a discussion about the proposed Northstar commuter rail line. During the campaign, Bachmann was cool to the idea, so distant from Stillwater. She advocated more roads and more bridges. But this group wants her support.
Bachmann says the line should meet the test of a cost-benefit analysis. If the actual cost of a trip is, say, $75, what commuter would pay that? she asks, eyes wide. Who ends up subsidizing the difference?
There is a beat of silence. Then the business leaders begin making their points. One mentions that downtown Minneapolis simply cannot handle additional bus traffic to serve commuters. Another points out that road construction is subsidized, and besides, "there only are so many more lanes you can lay down." Such alternatives to commuter rail lines may cost far more than, say, $75 a trip.
Bachmann listens, sizing up the situation, but giving nothing away. Then: "I'm not against light rail and never have been," she says and deftly moves on.
• • •
Bachmann's political career began almost by chance.
Sen. Warren Limmer remembers meeting her in 2000 at the State Capitol as she passionately argued against the high school graduation standards called the Profile of Learning. To her, it smacked of federal meddling.
"At the end of our discussion, I told her, if you're ever interested in getting into politics, let me know," said Limmer, a Republican from Maple Grove. "The next thing I know, she's running against Gary Laidig," a GOP legislator for 28 years.
Accounts differ as to whether Bachmann arrived at the convention ready to run (as the defeated say) or whether her speech against government interference was spontaneous (as she says). In any case, the speech swayed the crowd and she gained the state Senate nomination on the first ballot.
Her success took many by surprise, including her family. Marcus came home that night to an answering-machine message of congratulations to Michele. It being April Fools Day, he thought he'd been had. But there was another message, and another.
"By the third message, I realized this was real," he said, turning to Michele as he told the tale. "I went upstairs and you were in bed -- I think you were about to pull the sheet over your head. ..."I should have been hiding in my closet," she said, laughing.
"And I said, 'Michele, is there something you want to share with me?' "
Once in the Legislature, Bachmann established herself as one of the Senate's most conservative members. Her energy seemed limitless. And no issue galvanized her foes like her efforts against same-sex marriage.
In 2005, she claimed to have been held against her will in a restaurant bathroom by two critics of an amendment banning same-sex marriage; they said they'd merely buttonholed her to talk. Then foes claimed that Bachmann hid behind some bushes to spy on a gay-rights rally; she said she was merely checking the turnout.
The fight came to a head in 2006 when Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson accused her of practicing "the politics of distraction" despite pressing budget matters. Her stepsister, Helen LaFave, came out publicly as a lesbian, testifying against the amendment. (LaFave has since declined to comment.)
The amendment never came to a vote, and the topic receded during her congressional campaign, which focused on taxes and spending issues.
As of last week, Bachmann has introduced one bill, H.R. 636, allowing people to deduct their medical expenses on their taxes. She's co-sponsored 50 bills. (Among her fellow freshman colleagues, Rep. Keith Ellison has introduced six bills and co-sponsored 305; Rep. Tim Walz has introduced three bills and a resolution, and co-sponsored 176 bills.)
• • •
Michele Marie Amble was born in 1956 into a family of Norwegian Lutheran Democrats. When she was young, they moved from Iowa to Minnesota, where she was an A student and a cheerleader and had hair to her waist. She was named Miss Congeniality in the Miss Anoka competition.
In 1970, her parents divorced, and her father moved to California.
Her mother, Jean, got a job at the First National Bank in Anoka, earning $4,800 a year -- not enough to keep up the payments on their home in Brooklyn Park. She sold the house and moved the family to a small apartment in Anoka.
So when sixth-grader Michele wanted contact lenses, she knew she had to tackle the expense herself.
She began babysitting at 50 cents an hour, stuffing dollar bills and quarters into a small bank in her room for two years until, in the summer before ninth grade, she'd earned enough.
Then, one afternoon as she bicycled along West River Road, a contact lens flew out of her eye.
She and her mother got down on their hands and knees, peering at every glint in the gravel, hoping that they wouldn't have to start pawing through the brush that hemmed the highway. Finally, they rose, empty-handed, to a loss that felt enormous. Somehow, Jean found the money to buy a replacement, recalling that she could hardly let her daughter's determination go unrewarded.
• • •
Bachmann remembers exactly what she was wearing when she decided that she no longer was a Democrat: "A tan trenchcoat, blue pin-striped shirt, like a tailored shirt, and dress slacks," she said. "It was a vivid memory for me because it was a turning point philosophically."
She was a college senior, sitting on the hard seat of an Amtrak train, headed back to Winona State College. She and her boyfriend, Marcus Bachmann, had worked together on Jimmy Carter's campaign, even attended the inaugural.
Now she was killing time reading "Burr," Gore Vidal's sardonic historical novel about early U.S. history.
"He was kind of mocking the Founding Fathers and I just thought, 'What a snot,' " she said. "I just remember reading the book, putting it in my lap, looking out the window and thinking, 'You know what? I don't think I am a Democrat. I must be a Republican.' "
She had gradually been growing disenchanted with how the country was faring under Carter, while Ronald Reagan was beguiling the nation. "I didn't consider myself overtly political. I certainly didn't think of it as something that I would do as an occupation," she said.
She and Marcus met in Winona when both got student jobs as playground supervisors. Finding much in common -- both had accepted Christ as their savior when they were 16 -- they became friends. Then, in their senior year, he invited her to a dorm party.
It was late October, when that first cold feels colder, especially in the dark. As they walked together, comically distant in their bulky down jackets, "he took my hand, and he put my hand in his pocket, and I don't remember anything else," she said. "I was only thinking, 'What does this mean? What does this mean?' "
They were married the following September at his parents' dairy farm in Wisconsin. She'd been accepted to William Mitchell School of Law in St. Paul but knew that would be grueling. "So we decided to take a year off and 'be married.' " Over the next decade, they tag-teamed their education, moving to Oklahoma for her law degree, then to Virginia for his in clinical therapy. Their family began to grow.
While expecting their fourth child, they met friends who took in pregnant teenagers. Inspired, they decided to become foster parents, opening their home over six years to 23 girls who stayed for a few weeks or a few years. "Four at a time were the most we had," Bachmann said. "There were times I thought, 'I'm so tired I'll never get conditioner in my hair again.' "
• • •
Heidi Frederickson, Bachmann's press secretary, was dying a little inside. At Sophia Bachmann's 13th birthday party, a half-dozen teenage boys were showing the congresswoman how to use her feet to play a game beamed onto the floor of a movie-theater lobby.
A newspaper photographer clicked away. And with every click, Frederickson winced.
To a press secretary, this was like watching an iceberg bobbing near her ship of state. She could imagine the photo of a pair of heels amid the boys' sneakers posted on some blog with a caption sniggering about the congresswoman cavorting with underage youth.
(Sophia, it must be noted, was not dying, but treated her mom's buoyancy as the most natural thing in the world. )
Blogs, YouTube and Photoshop have added a new level of scrutiny to politics, and a new level of alertness to Frederickson's job. The irony is that her strict vigilance only plays into the hands of people such as Ken Avidor, a regular contributor to a blog called Dump Michele Bachmann. (www.dumpbachmann. blogspot.com.)
"Bachmann's people are very secretive," said Avidor, a 52-year-old Minneapolis comic artist, who said he is driven by Bachmann's lack of support for public transportation.
"They protect her, they keep her away. It's the secrecy. We like politics in America to be a discourse instead of a hit-and-run thing like she does."
And Avidor's work --posting videos on YouTube and splicing her into disparaging photo montages -- raises the level of such discourse?
He laughed. "You're right; it doesn't. But right now the politics have reached a point where you have people who are so partisan and so poisonous to the system that we have to do this."
So it becomes Frederickson's job to manage every moment as best she can.
Bachmann also chooses her words with more care. During the campaign, she was often chatty, gushing on her website about eating ice cream with the president or to a reporter about shopping for a dress for election night.
Now, she gives the impression that she's determined to say nothing more than necessary to reporters. When talking about her shift from the Legislature to the halls of Congress, she doesn't hold forth on the politics of the power shift but brings up something more benign.
"One thing I've learned is that it rains almost every late afternoon," she said. "So I've learned to carry an umbrella with me."
But as to the political shift? "Obviously, had we been in the majority, there probably would have been more tax cuts and also more legislation that would control spending," she said. "On a personal level, however, there are 435 members in the House and I have very purposely tried to get to know as many as possible, because having a good working relationship is everything."
• • •
This month, Bachmann traveled to Iraq, and despite more GOP defections from Bush's base of support, she returned as firm as ever in her conviction that the war is justified. Al-Qaida, she said, "doesn't show any signs of letting up." The congressional delegation met with Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces.
What was the palace like?
"It's absolutely huge," she said. "I turned to my colleagues and said there's a commonality with the Mall of America, in that it's on that proportion. There's marble everywhere. The other thing I remarked about was there is water everywhere. He had man-made lakes all around his personal palace -- one for fishing, one for boating."
She said she was heartened after visiting soldiers hospitalized in Germany. "The first thing a soldier says when they come out of anesthesia is, 'Let my sergeant know I'm ready to go back. When can I go back?' They're determined not to leave, determined to go back and finish the mission."
• • •
Back in Washington, Bachmann is on the phone with a supporter in Minnesota who's feeling slighted. Her lunch -- a small box of Sun-Maid raisins -- is on the desk. She knows the drill, expressing a folksy empathy -- "I understand there have been some tough times at the transportation corral" -- while not committing herself.
Suddenly, a disembodied squawk sounds from The Buzzer, the black box on the end table that announces that a vote is being called. Bachmann has 15 minutes to get from the fourth floor of the Cannon Building to the Capitol.
She doesn't miss a beat, managing to end the conversation without sounding as if she's giving him the bum's rush. If anything, the statement that she has to go now -- with its unspoken implication that the nation's business awaits -- lets them both bask in the power of her position.
She reaches beneath her desk, exchanging her heels for those clunky sandals, and seconds later is out the door, down the stairs and speed-walking the two long blocks to the Capitol, getting waved through security and striding onto the House floor.
Her vote cast, she returns to the office, climbing the 94 marble steps with the energy of someone who can hardly believe she has been given the chance to accomplish so much. She steams ahead, right up to the sixth and final flight of gleaming marble. Kim Ode • 612-673-7185