John Dickerson: The faces of Michele Bachmann

May 31, 2013 

Michele Bachmann's national career has been marked by wild swings between directness and misdirection. At times, the Minnesota representative is the embodiment of Tea Party clarity. At other times, she breaks new ground minting fact-free claims that make it hard to trust politicians. Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post's fact-checker, joked that her departure from Congress should be declared a national day of mourning.

In announcing that she will not be seeking re-election, both of Bachmann's personalities were on display.

As a political correspondent you find yourself on a lot of email lists without asking. This can be disorienting. Suddenly you are bombarded with accusations from one person about another person and you aren't familiar with either of them. It's like looking at the magazine covers at the grocery store checkout: Celebrities you've never heard of are reconciling from breakups you didn't know ever happened.

In this genre, Michele Bachmann's email blasts achieved a special art. They had a peculiar mix of chatty subject lines and desperate conspiracy peddling. "Can I mail you something?" read the subject line from one this weekend. "Listen to this!" reads another recent one, which then pleaded, "John Dickerson -- Please -- if you can -- stop what you are doing right now and listen to my message immediately." Another fretted, "I need your advice . . . I sent you the below email last week, and I'm concerned that I haven't heard back from you." She's been very successful. According to the latest Federal Election Commission filings, she has more than $1.8 million in her campaign bank account.

These solicitations aren't written by Bachmann, of course, but they matched her personality. They were written with the same directness that made her so appealing to Tea Party supporters. One of the laudable attributes of the Tea Party movement is the B.S. filter of its members. Bachmann knew how to channel and tap into this quality. She was masterful at capturing the anger and resentment that wells up in people when they are told what kind of light bulb they must buy. In the 2012 campaign, she wasn't afraid to take on her Republican primary rivals, most successfully calling out Newt Gingrich during one debate for repeatedly treating her like she didn't really belong there.

Juxtaposed with that image of Michele Bachmann is the fuzzy, fact-free side of her on display in her departure video. Shot in front of a bookshelf to the faint strains of elevator music, it runs eight minutes but lacks discernible nourishment. In her emails, Bachmann's purpose is clear. Whether it's the perils of Obamacare or the Democratic machine's decision to target her, the message is unmistakable. Watching Wednesday's video roll on, it's hard to know what you're watching. It feels at once like a eulogy, a campaign video for a future run for office, and an in-flight video. (I thought any minute she'd say, "Please be sure to comply with all lighted signs and placards.")

The video is for those same people she's been bombing with regular, urgent fundraising appeals, but she never really explains her head-snapping decision to step down. She starts with a confusing numerology about her length of service in various political offices. Bachmann says she figured eight years was enough time in office. Strange, because just Friday she sent out an email asking for money for her re-election. Usually politicians break their pledge to be term-limited by deciding to stay in office; this may be the first case of late onset term limitation. She then insists that she's not leaving office because she would lose re-election or because both the Federal Election Commission and the Office of Congressional Ethics are looking into the campaign finance activities of her presidential campaign. When you build a career on being direct, it doesn't fit when you take the meandering route. At least she didn't claim she was leaving to spend more time with the family.

Bachmann will serve out the remainder of her term, but the ethics committee will probably not pursue her -- it has no jurisdiction over former members. That doesn't mean she won't have plenty of material to keep her busy in the next year and a half. The Tea Party is enjoying a rebirth. The IRS targeting of conservative groups ratifies its claims and worldview. The president's health care program is finally being implemented, which should offer regular opportunities for Bachmann to sound off. She's been working to repeal the law harder than perhaps any other lawmaker. That means her career in Congress may be over, but the emails aren't likely to stop.

John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for Slate, is author of "On Her Trail";

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