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03.24.11

Stop Taking Bachmann Seriously!

As Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann flirts with the possibility of a presidential run, Eric Alterman spanks the media for paying so much attention to such a flawed candidate.

Michele Bachmann is “reportedly” ready to form a presidential exploratory committee in early June. Shame on me (and this website) for paying the slightest bit of attention to this foolish and ridiculous spectacle, but here we are.

It’s a challenge to decide what, exactly, is silliest about this story. First is the generic issue, independent of Bachmann. “Ready to form a presidential exploratory committee?” What the hell does that amount to? Imagine, sitting down at a restaurant, calling the waiter over, and explaining that you may be ready, at some future point, to form an “exploratory committee” to discuss what you might like to order for dinner.   My guess is you might get a bottle of Perrier poured on your head.

OK, now let’s assume for the sake of argument, some actual content to this announcement. Let’s say Bachmann actually does, one day, form a presidential exploratory committee and even runs for the Republican nomination for president. After all, she has recently made multiple visits to key states like Iowa and New Hampshire and has been telling people that she will be filling out the necessary forms to be included in the party debates, which begin May 2 at the Reagan Library in California.

Bachmann has about as much chance of actually getting the nomination as Lindsay Lohan. Does anyone in the world, even Bachmann herself, sincerely believe that this would be anything other than an exercise in vanity and self-delusion?

But what is really craziest about the story of Bachmann’s candidacy—and most disturbing about the fact that it will be treated as an actual “hard news” story by so much of the media in the coming months—is the lady herself.  

George Will calls Bachmann “ an authentic representative of the Republican base.” Well, perhaps, but I don’t think it fair to smear millions of people with the sins of an individual so obviously mentally and emotionally challenged.  Bachmann, whom the Tea Party appointed to give its response to President Obama’s State of the Union address (which CNN thought worthy of broadcasting live, in full) knows less American history than the students of Ms. Ajami’s seventh grade MS 54 Humanities class. (As the parent of one of them, I’ve seen their exams.) Like most seventh graders, but unlike Michele Bachmann, those kids know that that the famous “shot heard around the world in Lexington and Concord," was fired in Massachusetts, not New Hampshire.

Also unlike Bachmann, your average public-school seventh grader is aware that “the very founders that wrote” the U.S. Constitution did not “ work tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.”

That took a civil war, which took place long after all of them were long dead. Slavery seems to be a real blind spot for Bachmann. She imagines that all the people who came to America were "risk takers …. Other than Native Americans who were here, all of us have the same story. ... And they knew when they came here they weren't coming for a welfare state. ... They were coming here for the thrill of writing their own ticket. ... Who did we attract? People that wanted a better life and were willing to do what it took to get it."

Bachmann, whom the Tea Party appointed to give its response to President Obama’s State of the Union address knows less American history than the students of Ms. Ajami’s seventh grade MS 54 Humanities class.

Weird that Bachmann appears to think that people who were captured at gunpoint and then chained together with no privacy, dignity, and minimal food, caged for months in inhuman conditions and then sold as property—often separate from their parents and children—came to the United States for the “thrill” of it all.

Like a few 12 year olds I know, Bachmann is not eager to take responsibility for her mistakes. Speaking to the right-wing radio host, Laura Ingraham, she blamed her mistakes about where the Revolutionary War began—mistakes she made in two separate speeches--were reported solely because of the “double standard in the media … as we know all 3,400 members of the mainstream media are part of the Obama press contingent.”  How badly off is Michele Bachmann when it comes to blaming the media for her mistakes? Let me put it this way. Sarah Palin seems to be telling her to lay off. “It doesn’t do any good to whine,”  Palin told her pal Greta Van Susteren. (It’s like having Mr. Sheen show up at your door for an addiction intervention.)  

Lest you think Bachmann is just having a bad month or so, the last time my Daily Beast editors embarrassed me into examining her record, I discovered that she had blamed the " Hoot-Smalley Tariff," allegedly passed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for causing the Depression, ignoring the fact that a) it was passed under Republican Herbert Hoover; and b) the Depression was already in full swing when FDR was elected years later.  

Then there was that “interesting coincidence” she professed to discover during the swine flu scare at the beginning of Obama’s term--“that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter.”

Bachmann rather generously insisted that she's “not blaming this on President Obama” or the Democrats. It was just sort of you know, “interesting.” Thing is, the last outbreak had taken place not under Carter, but under Republican Gerald Ford. (To be fair to Bachmann, you need to be in about ninth grade to have gotten that far in American history.)  

One could cite such examples almost indefinitely. OK one more:  Global warming is “all voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax," says climatologist Bachmann. But here’s my point.  What does it say about our national media that this woman is considered a serious person? What is she doing being taken seriously on Meet the Press? Why in the world does ABC’s George Stephanopoulos think it important to find out whether she’s a fan— I kid you not—of Lady Gaga?

And how can any reporter expect anyone, anytime to take him or her seriously if they treat the “Bachmann for President” boomlet as anything but a symbol of a political system that has run itself off the rails of sanity?

Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and media columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.