WASHINGTON — Casting about for something to wear to a 2006 fundraiser with President George W. Bush, Michele Bachmann, then a Republican candidate for Congress, recalled her mother’s advice on looking nice.
“In her mind, that meant dressing like a lady would have in the 1940s or 1950s,” Bachmann recalls in her new campaign autobiography, “Core of Conviction.” On went a pale pink suit, matching pink purse, pearl necklace, pink pumps and light pink gloves with scalloped edges.
Inside the limo with Bush, the conversation stayed casual. But at one point the president looked down at her pink-gloved hands and asked with a “crinkly” smile, “Why are you wearing those gloves?” She tried to explain, but Bush said gently, “Lose the gloves.” So she did.
The story provides one of many details that trace the arc of Bachmann’s conservative world view, grounded as it is in an idyllic Iowa childhood and a traditional morality that grew out of sync with the changing social mores and the political tumult of the 1960s and '70s.
While others in her boomer generation were turning on and dropping out, the teenage Bachmann was sewing her own dresses for school, scoring straight As, and reciting a Lutheran prayer every night at bedtime. “I didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t do drugs — and didn’t fool around,” Bachmann writes. It was, she said, a lifestyle that cost her dates on prom nights.
Amid this outward piety, Bachmann got a bitter taste of the increasingly permissive culture she was growing into, reaching its low ebb when her father, after moving the family to Minnesota, left her mother for another woman and exited the young Bachmann’s life for six years.
“It was hard for me to comprehend that certain forces in society were seeking to undermine the family,” she writes. “To undermine the traditional structures of our society.” Her parents’ divorce also sparked a desire for an “intact and happy family,” something she and her husband Marcus have achieved with 29 children (23 foster children and six biological children, including one miscarriage).
In Bachmann’s 215-page telling, her life has been a journey to put things right again. That journey, aided every step of the way by her sense that Jesus is close at hand, now culminates with her improbable run for the White House.
Like every other step in Bachmann’s life, big and small, it was a decision over which she prayed. “Then I sensed an answer,” she writes. “I knew what I was being directed to do. I was called to serve.”
Bachmann’s book, which went on sale this week, opens with her “accidental” decision to run for the Minnesota Senate on April Fool’s Day, 2000. Former GOP state Sen. Gary Laidig, the victim of Bachmann’s surprise candidacy, would later cast doubt on her version of events as a reinvented “immaculate conception.”
Either way, Bachmann had been politically active for years, animated first by her revulsion to legalized abortion and gay rights, then by what she saw as the “politically correct” but declining school standards of Minnesota’s now-discarded Profile of Learning.
She provides readers a heavy dose of her working-class roots “on the wrong side of the tracks” in Waterloo, Iowa, and then “below the poverty level” in Brooklyn Park and Anoka after her father left when she was 14.
The family “qualified for welfare,” Bachmann recalls, “but Mom wouldn’t think of it.” It’s a theme of thrifty independence that runs throughout her life story. The book does not touch on her political opponents’ criticisms of her in-laws’ farm subsidies and the government grants that have aided the Christian counseling service she founded with her husband in the Twin Cities.
The book retells the tale of her “born-again” experience on Halloween at age 16, a story she tells often in Sunday church services on the campaign trail. Drawn to an empty church at night, she recounts, she and three friends fell to their knees and prayed.
She also tells how she met Marcus Bachmann at Winona State University, where they worked as lunchroom monitors at a nearby school. Although the kids would tease them by humming Wagner’s familiar bridal chorus, there was no initial romantic spark. They remained “just friends” for a year and half.
She credits Marcus Bachmann, of steady disposition and Swiss heritage, with inspiring her to be “careful and precise,” an area where she admits to falling short. “I’ve learned the hard way at the national level that any erroneous statement will very quickly be magnified,” she writes.
Carter and Gore Vidal
Before their 1978 wedding, Marcus, harkening back to a more gallant era, sought the permission of both her parents.
The Bachmanns were Jimmy Carter Democrats in those days. But Carter, and the government, soon disappointed. Shocked by the payroll withholdings at a summer newspaper job in college, Bachmann wrote a letter to the Social Security Administration saying she didn’t want to pay the taxes. The reply, according to Bachmann, came in a phone call from Washington telling her she had no choice.
“The caller on the other end of the line said this was coming from the White House!” the book recounts.
Her view of Carter’s failings, along with author Gore Vidal, turned Bachmann into a Republican. Vidal’s role came in the novel “Burr,” with its frank depiction of the nation’s founders, blemishes and all.
“I realized a snide dismissiveness toward American history and American institutions had become the essence and thinking of the chattering-class gatekeepers of the culture,” Bachmann wrote. Complicit with the Democrats, she felt, were the “me too” Republicans who went along with the new
Left “antifamily relativists” of the pre-Reagan 1970s.
Seeking a career as an “advocate for these immutable truths,” Bachmann attended a Bible-based law school at Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma. As she has recounted before, she tearfully postponed her law school education to accommodate her husband’s counseling career in Minnesota.
But the journey would finally take her to Washington, where she describes herself as the “tip of the spear” in the GOP’s 2010 election victories and the Tea Party fight against “Obamacare.”
“And yes,” she concludes, “it included 'death panels.’”
(Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.)