Michele Bachmann statements perceived as gaffes may in some cases be representative… (Steve Pope / Getty Images )
Michele Bachmann botched Elvis' birth date (oops, she singled out the day the King died) this week, after previously confusing the birthplace of a movie icon (John Wayne) with that of a serial killer (John Wayne Gacy). And the news played big, on the Web and cable TV.
Significantly less play went to a few other morsels that turned up: The Minnesota congresswoman has lauded an evangelical thinker who speculated the U.S. might control citizens with psychotropic drugs. And she once gave a "Must Read" rating to a historical biography that said slaves and masters in the Old South lived in a state of "mutual esteem," "unity and companionship."
You stand forgiven if you know all about Bachmann's pop culture faux pas but much less about her exotic, and telling, intellectual convictions. The former emerged, live, on the presidential campaign trail, where every stray gesture gets tweeted, blogged and broadcast, at full volume. The latter landed in an expansive and fascinating profile by Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker, where breadth and density of reporting produced some real pith, if not an immediate bounce among most of the chattering class.
Any news executive studying that volume-to-value discrepancy would be smart to flip their deployment equation on its head: Divert all those journalists chasing the candidates' dross across Iowa to the real grain — found in campaign finance reports, government contracts, résumés, past speeches and the like. The further candidates step from the media stage, the more they speak their minds. The further we dig into their pasts, the more we learn who they are today.
One of the most revelatory statements as to candidate Barack Obama's feeling about voters arguably did not emerge during the hundreds of hours he spent with the professional media in 2008. It leaked out when he thought he was off the record, an amateur blogger recording him as he told a San Francisco fundraising party that Americans in depressed rural areas "get bitter, [and] cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them."
Too many other missteps that fill the airwaves — George W. Bush calling the Greeks "Grecians," Joe Biden telling a wheelchair-bound man at a rally to "stand up" — tell us little more than that it will be a good night for the late-night comedians. They, in turn, inspire our glib dismissal of the politicians.
What Lizza's absorbing look at Bachmann reminds us is that not all reporting is mere sport and not all gaffes are created equal. Some are not gaffes at all. They can be clues that, pieced together, create a distinctive fabric. In the case of the former Internal Revenue Service attorney, home-school organizer and mother of five, they are evidence of a God-centered worldview, as the New Yorker piece says, "shaped by institutions, tracts and leaders not commonly known to secular Americans, or even to most Christians."
Many people heard the news item about Bachmann describing some of the Founding Fathers as "working tirelessly" to end slavery. But even grade schoolers recall that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners. Tee-hee.
Except that Bachmann had not misspoken, and this was no joke. Lizza's piece describes how Bachmann not only believed what she said but worked on a book with one of her law school professors (at Oral Roberts University, the private Christian institution) on the subject. "Christianity and the Constitution" contends that the Founders couldn't free the slaves because, in their benevolence, they did not want to release African natives into an economy where they could not find work. Freedom would have been "inhumane and irresponsible."
Lizza also describes stumbling over an old list on Bachmann's state Senate website of favorite books, including a Robert E. Lee biography by J. Steven Wilkins that offers a revisionist view of slavery. It was "not an adversarial relationship founded upon racial animosity," Wilkins writes. Blacks were lucky, the book asserts, to be escaping barbaric Africa for Christian America.
Bachmann declined to discuss the "Must Read" with Lizza. She also abruptly cut off an interview when the reporter pressed her about Francis Schaeffer, a theologian she has described as crucial in forming her worldview. Schaeffer taught followers to be suspicious of any intellectual system not strictly adhering to the Bible and Christ's word. In the 1980s, a few years before he died, he called for violent overthrow of the government if it did not reverse the abortion rights decision Roe v. Wade.