Portrait of a Polarizing Politician

Two summers ago, I spent the Fourth of July marching in a parade with U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann. I hasten to add that I wasn’t stumping for Minnesota’s sixth-district congresswoman. Rather, as a journalist, I had long been fascinated by the passionate, often polarized views she evoked among Minnesotans, and I wanted to see firsthand what Bachmann’s constituents thought of her. So I had arranged to trail her yellow convertible along the parade route in Delano.

Bachmann, wearing a bright pink sundress, waved and smiled as the car crawled along the parade route. Some folks clapped as she passed, and occasionally a supporter or two approached to shake her hand. I strained to hear what people were saying as she went by. But for the most part the onlookers kept their opinions to themselves, regarding her as they might any other pol in a parade—that is, the boring part between the oompah bands and the dairy-princess floats.

Hoping to glean something more revealing from the citizens of Delano, I plunged into the crowd.

The first couple I interviewed were die-hard Democrats with a life-sized cutout of Barack Obama on their lawn. “We don’t like her position on education,” they told me. “We think she’s bad for Minnesota.” They chafed in particular at the “annoying phone calls” they got from Bachmann—prerecorded messages the congresswoman regularly sends out to folks in her district.

A few minutes later, I found a couple of conservatives who praised Bachmann’s position on taxes and “family values.” They shared her concerns about the U.S. Census and the rumored development of a world currency. And though they had never met her, they felt a “personal” connection with Bachmann. Why? “Well,” they said, “we get these wonderful phone calls….”

And so it goes with Bachmann. Ask a Minnesotan—even one outside her district—what he or she thinks about the telegenic congresswoman and you’ll unleash some passionate opinions. We love her! We loathe her! There’s no middle of the road when it comes to folks’ views of her actions, votes, and quotes.

This month, freelance writer Andy Steiner takes a look at the phenomenon that is Michele Bachmann. The portrait Steiner paints is a composite view, stitched together from interviews with more than 30 people, including liberals and conservatives, Bachmann herself, and even the congresswoman’s husband, Marcus. The result is a fascinating character sketch, but it’s also a mirror of sorts—reflecting back images of Bachmann’s supporters and critics, and spotlighting the wide gulf between them. No one can say for sure whether Bachmann or her opponent, state senator Tarryl Clark, will win the sixth-district race in November, but one thing’s for certain: The ever-widening gap between right and left—and its unfortunate implications for politics and policymaking—will remain, no matter what the outcome.

Joel Hoekstra, Editor