article

07.07.11

What Makes Michele Tick

From her parents’ divorce to her lesbian stepsister, Michele Bachmann’s personal life inspires her political agenda. Michelle Cottle on what motivates the Minnesota Republican.

Politicians are constantly arguing that they deserve a zone of privacy. Typically, this complaint surfaces when some hardworking public servant gets caught with a hand in the nookie jar: shtupping an intern, tweeting his junk, bouncing a check at Madame Lei’s Happy Endings Massage Parlor…

But apart from such hormone eruptions, voters are periodically asked to entertain the possibility that a pol’s personal life might have some bearing on his or her fitness for office. In many cases, I sympathize. Does it really matter that Newt Gingrich blew through wives like Kleenex, or that he and Callista have a six-figure Tiffany’s habit? Probably not. Did Sarah Palin’s parenting skills and duties belong in discussions of her vice-presidential qualifications? No. We like to assume that such private matters reveal crucial insights into a candidate’s character. But most personal-political linkages are weak at best.

Every now and again, however, a candidate comes along for whom politics are so personal that you can’t really understand one unless you explore the other. Such is the case with Michele Bachmann, for whom the two realms are so enmeshed that it’s sometimes tough to know where one ends and the other begins.

Start with the social conservatism. The Minnesota Republican has always been a fierce warrior on behalf of traditional families, and both she and her husband, Marcus, have publicly mused that this passion stems in part from Bachmann’s growing up as a child of divorce, a circumstance the congresswoman has said shattered her idyllic childhood. It’s not just that Bachmann’s parents, David and Jean Amble, split in 1970, when Michele was at the fragile age of 14. Less than three weeks after the divorce was final, David got himself hitched to another gal out in Vegas and pretty much vanished from his kids’ lives. After that, Michele’s world got tougher and more working class (not to mention more crowded when, in 1973, her mom remarried a man with five kids of his own). Having endured such turbulence, Bachmann not only set out to construct a stable, secure home life for herself, but also to champion traditional values in her politics. 

In perhaps no area has Bachmann been more dogged than her opposition to gay marriage. As a state senator, she made a name for herself (not necessarily a good one) crusading to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex unions. Obviously, the conservative Lutheranism she and Marcus share plays a central role in this. A Christian-based therapist, Marcus believes that gays can be led to give up their sinful ways and become straight. (His clinic reportedly offers so-called reparative therapy; Marcus has disputed this characterization.)

But the issue hits still closer to home for Michele: one of her stepsisters, Helen LaFave, to whom she was said to be close during adolescence, is a lesbian. LaFave didn’t publicly discuss her sexuality until 2006—in protest of Bachmann’s amendment campaign, no less—but her family was well aware of her orientation. LaFave has lived with her partner for more than 15 years, since long before Bachmann entered public life. Whatever theological objections to homosexuality Bachmann may harbor, the experience of having a lesbian in the family seems to have made the issue all the more vivid.

Bachmann’s earliest political involvement was in the area of education, specifically, battling against curricula and state standards that she found inappropriate. Here again, the issue was personal. While Bachmann home-schooled her own kids, the foster kids she and Marcus took in were required by law to receive a public education. Bachmann didn’t like what she saw in their schools and began rallying parents and lobbying the state legislature for changes. Indeed, Bachmann’s first (and only unsuccessful) campaign was a race for her local school board in 1999.

Tony Sutton, now chairman of the state GOP, first got to know Bachmann during this period. Her passion and doggedness, he recalls, “helped turn the issue from an issue on the fringes of the political thought to one that was part of the mainstream discussion.” The debate became part of the 2002 governor’s race, and the standards were repealed during Tim Pawlenty’s first year in office.

Love her or hate her, Bachmann is a politician driven by her passions.

These days, Bachmann talks less about social issues than about economic ones. But here, too, her life experience comes into play. Bachmann is a loud, proud standard-bearer for the GOP’s tax-hating Tea Partiers. It might then strike some people as ironic that, before her stay-at-home-mom days, Bachmann worked for years as an attorney for the IRS. Clearly, she does not have fond memories of her time there.

Love her or hate her, Bachmann is a politician driven by her passions. When she finds herself unhappy with the way things are, she launches a full-frontal assault to change them. Take those 23 foster children she likes to talk about on the trail. Plenty of politicians spin a good line about children being the future or about caring for the needy. Few go so far as to welcome nearly two dozen at-risk teen girls into their homes. 

This personal-political linkage is likely to serve Bachmann well on the trail. “It gives her a way to humanize policy positions that might ordinarily be dry or hard to latch onto,” says political analyst Eric Ostermeier, who, as author of the Smart Politics blog at the University of Minnesota, keeps a close eye on Bachmann. Her work with the IRS, for example, gives her extra street cred on the evils of taxation. “It’s almost as if she infiltrated the government to see what’s really going on,” says Ostermeier, “and she’s able now to use that information in the policies she’s adopting.”

The most successful politicians, observes Sutton, “take personal experience and translate that into philosophical or ideological [argument]. That’s how they relate to voters, he says, adding that making such connections has always been Bachmann’s strength.

Ostermeier agrees: “The personal, friendly, nondefensive way in which she talks about issues makes her connections stronger to the electorate.”

So with all due respect for that whole “zone of privacy” concept, I feel compelled to learn everything there is to know about candidate Bachmann: the boring bits. The tragic bits. The weird bits. Was she spanked as a child, and how does that inform her view of corporal punishment? Has anyone in the family ever gone without health insurance or done hard time or found himself neck deep in debt? Has a loved one ever found herself unexpectedly with child—or had trouble conceiving?

These may seem like intrusive questions. But when dealing with a politician whose public self seems so wrapped up in her personal experience, such research seems like the only responsible course of action.