Christine O’Donnell ‘Troublemaker’ Book Review: Juiciest Bits

Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell's new memoir, 'Troublemaker,' reflects on her fateful, failed Senate campaigns.

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP Photo

Christine O’Donnell shot to national infamy last year when a TV spot leaked that featured her informing voters that she was “not a witch.” Decades before, during one of her frequent appearances on Bill Maher’s show Politically Incorrect, she had confessed that she once “dabbled in” the occult while dating a boy who was into witchcraft. The witch ad was an instant viral sensation, parodied on Saturday Night Live and endlessly on YouTube.

O’Donnell lost her insurgent Delaware Senate race to Chris Coons by a large margin. And as her new memoir, Troublemaker: Let’s Do What It Takes to Make America Great Again, proves, she thinks the witch video had a lot to do with it, even as she reveals layer upon layer of evidence that shows she was never likely to win in the first place.

Troublemaker is a shorter book than its large print has manipulated it to appear. But even with its modest running time, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to sit through the sometimes excruciatingly dull childhood anecdotes and endless political shoptalk. We’ve picked out the tastiest quotes, revelations, and themes so you don’t won’t have to.

She never wanted to tell you she’s not a witch.

O’Donnell loses no time in recounting the backstory of the “not a witch” ad, telling it in little snippets spliced between the opening chapters. Maybe a concerned editor suggested this gimmick as an intervention for the crawling pace and superficial narrative of the chapters about O’Donnell’s early life.

As O’Donnell tells it, she never wanted to record the witch ad. When her campaign manager pitched it to her, he said, “You’re going to hate this, Christine, but hear me out.” She did hate it, and kept hating it even as he all but tricked her into recording a few takes. They had written another ad she preferred, that featured her supporters’ stories of economic hardship. But even as she intoned, “I’m not a witch,” ostensibly to see how it sounded on camera, she says she was violating her better judgment. She “cringed” when the line showed up on the teleprompter, but she actually “wanted to scream.” She felt in her bones that something would go wrong, and later that night, she met with a group of pastors and asked them to pray. “I think I just made a terrible mistake,” she told them.

As she tweeted later, she thought Kristen Wiig’s SNL parody was funny, and she also saw a positive intent in the hilarious auto-tuned version that became a YouTube classic. The “catchy, bouncy tune,” she writes, “set a more positive, upbeat tone.” It’s never exactly clear what she finally thought of the whole debacle; her criticism of Fred Davis, the campaign manager, is only barely contained. She calls the ad “idiotic,” “ridiculous,” and “not the message I wanted to convey,” while turning it into a lesson about listening to experts instead of going with her instincts. But at the close of one chapter, she reprints the script of the ad with a seeming note of affection for its “real message.”

But she did date a witch.

Troublemaker recounts all the boring details about how O’Donnell came to be a regular guest of Bill Maher’s in the 1990s, which led to her comment about dabbling in witchcraft. She was set up on a blind date in high school with a boy who “believed in the occult,” and, not being particularly religious herself, explored his beliefs. “The old adage about girls being attracted to dark, mysterious types held true for me here,” she writes. “We were just a couple of average teenagers: confused, finding our way in the world, searching for meaning.” She describes them as an “odd pair,” with him “dressed in all black, hardly conventional” while she sat next to him “in my turtleneck and faux pearls.” Her sister’s date, seeing them in the front yard, asked, “What’s up with that?”

She’s no witch, but you might call her a kind of “seer.”

From the very first page of Troublemaker, O’Donnell emphasizes her instinctual knowledge of the right course to take in matters of life and politics. No matter the situation, the knowledge of handlers and the experts pales in comparison to her inner illumination. No doubt that’s why she found such favor among Tea Party voters and evangelicals, whose theology she mirrors with her distrust of institutions and authority. When she trusted experts—like when she trusted a veteran Republican campaign manager to handle her TV spots—everything went to hell. When she listened to her instincts, she was at least momentarily rewarded. For example, she once managed to raise the $10,000 filing fee to run for Senate overnight even though she was broke at the time and had only won 4 percent of the vote in her last race. She lost that expensive race badly, too, but after some soul-searching while scrubbing floors to make ends meet, her faith in her instincts remained intact.

She comes from an acting family.

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O’Donnell’s parents, who blended Irish and Italian heritage, raised their six kids in New Jersey. Her father, who she describes as a “ham,” was a DJ and hosted a variety show on a local television station. Even after he realized “he could not pursue an acting career and support six kids” and took on numerous odd jobs, he played the clown that introduced the cartoons on local TV. Meanwhile, O’Donnell and her siblings wrote and put on plays, selling popcorn to their friends who came to watch. O’Donnell continued studying theater and performing in college, and credits her acting experience for compliments she later received about appearing relaxed and engaging on television.

She used to be a pro-choice liberal.

O’Donnell’s mother was a lifelong Democrat who seriously disappointed the 7-year-old Christine by voting for Jimmy Carter. (O’Donnell had decided she wanted to marry Gerald Ford.) But her politics followed her mom’s. In college, she says, she “thought of myself as a liberal person—leaning to the left on the issues of the day.” But she tangled with a friend over abortion, and soon found herself reading technical medical books in the library. “It was appalling to me, the way they described the procedure,” she writes. Realizing abortion was wrong “shattered my worldview, to the point where I came away thinking, If I’ve been wrong about abortion, what else am I wrong about?” In no time at all, she had become her campus’s lone anti-abortion activist, receiving boxes of plastic fetuses in the mail from pro-life groups. In her telling, it was that issue alone—and a conversation with a cute College Republican volunteer—that opened her up to joining her efforts with the Republican Party, and before long she was swept up in the excitement of the Bush/Quayle campaign.

She almost got a job on The View.

In the 1990s O’Donnell blossomed as a TV pundit. “I grew into an experienced talking head on the issues de jour [sic],” she writes. “And it wasn’t just that I was experienced; people told me that when I appeared on television, I came across as relaxed, personable and passionate about my beliefs.” O’Donnell was working for Concerned Women for America, a conservative evangelical group, and regularly appeared on Sunday talk shows.

She eventually followed three of her sisters to Los Angeles, where she hoped to expand her career in television. She was in “development talks” with Paramount and interviewed for a job on The View. “As I crossed the ABC newsroom, Diane Sawyer whizzed by carrying a thick stack of papers,” she writes. “I wondered what breaking story she was racing to file. Then I saw Barbara. She was leaning against the doorjamb, shoes kicked off, talking to a staffer. She greeted me with a welcoming smile and her casual way immediately put me at ease.” The interview with Walters went so well that ABC drafted a contract, but ultimately gave the job to Lisa Ling.

She ran Mel Gibson’s PR machine.

Between unsuccessful Senate runs, O’Donnell was a freelance publicity consultant in Delaware, and was selected to lead the “grassroots” campaign to get Christians to see Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. To Christine, it was just like another campaign: getting Christians out to see the movie to cast “a vote for Christ in Hollywood. “ O’Donnell writes that the team “hit upon the idea that since Christian conservatives already had a vested interest in the material, we should ask them to buy in now, and commit to supporting the movie ahead of its release.” They told evangelicals, “Hey you want better films in Hollywood? You want stories of spiritual significance, stories that reflect your values? Well, here’s your chance to put your money where your mouth is.” In the Passion of the Christ anecdote, Hollywood honchos stand in for the GOP establishment, and O’Donnell’s choice to “stick to [my] convictions, and [my] vision” proved them wrong—much like the Tea Party was using grassroots fervor to challenge the assumptions of entrenched, powerful Republican leaders.

The RINOS in Delaware are really mean.

It’s an understatement to say O’Donnell has a dim view of Delaware’s Republican establishment, and her experience on the campaign trail explains why. Sure, she was a totally unproven candidate who had extreme ideas and had never won a race. But she felt the GOP should support her anyway, especially when she won the party’s nomination to run for Senate. They didn’t. When she challenged Joe Biden in 2008, Republican Rep. Mike Castle personally visited potential O’Donnell donors and ordered them not to hold fundraisers. At another GOP dinner, a Delaware GOP official pointedly introduced every person in the room except O’Donnell. “It was such a transparent rebuke—and pretty darn insulting, in my home state, in front of my old boss, a guy who was also being talked about as a future presidential candidate.” That guy was Haley Barbour, who made things right by thanking O’Donnell once he took the stage.

She thinks Karl Rove convinced George W. Bush to be so liberal.

She admires the former president for having “the courage to stand for his convictions ... most of the time. But liberal influences within his own administration, led at times by Karl Rove, severely tarnished Bush’s legacy among true Constitutionalists, and undermined our Republican-led Congress … It was Karl Rove’s camp that pushed amnesty for illegal aliens, and cut deals with liberal Democrats for overspending and ever-expanding regulation.” She describes Bush’s policy initiatives as “Rove’s policies,” proving the 43rd president is second only to Ronald Reagan in his ability to do things conservatives hate and never be blamed for them.

Oh yeahshe likes to say “darn.”

O’Donnell’s older sister Jennie thought kids behaved better when they were allowed to channel their misbehavior, so during one babysitting session, she allowed her younger brother and sisters to start the evening by saying a single curse word. “I was no goody two-shoes, believe me, but nothing would come out of my mouth,” O’Donnell writes. “I guess I just needed more coaxing.” But her little sister Eileen was much more eager, shouting, to everyone’s shock, “Shit!” O’Donnell may not be a prude, but she seems to love the word “darn”: Her votes against Joe Biden were “darn respectable,” her treatment at the hands of the Delaware GOP was “darn insulting,” and on and on.