A quick stipulation: for the purposes of this review, I will pretty much pretend that Core of Conviction,
by Michele Bachmann, ends with her 2006 election to Congress on page
140. Up to that point, I enjoyed the memoir and found it, and her,
interesting enough to think and write about. The rest of the book is
pretty standard Obama-bashing fare. If you've been tuning into Hannity,
or clicking on Malkin, or picking up Morris/McGann books, you're already
familiar with everything in these 60 pages -- and if you haven't, then
it's going to sound like nonsense rambling.
Bachmann herself -- a
fascinating, if simplistic character -- almost entirely disappears in
those later chapters. That's a shame, because I would have been
interested in how she -- the person, not the ideological commentator --
took to life in Washington. Ah well. (We do get four full pages on the
infamous but pretty much forgotten appearance on Chris Matthews's show
when she called for the media to root out secret socialists in
So, let's turn to Core of Conviction, The First 140 Pages -- plus appendix, as I'll get to later.
is the tale of a midwestern girl from working-class Lutheran roots,
whose father leaves when she's 14. Poor and fatherless, she becomes
diligent and thrifty in her desire to fit in -- saving up to buy contact
lenses, sewing her own dresses. She also becomes born again. Scraping
her way to college, she meets her equally Christ-devoted soulmate, and
so starts a fine midwestern family. She writes openly and convincingly
about the importance of her faith; she conveys the joy she takes from
her (creepy, in my eyes) husband; and she engagingly depicts herself as a
poor girl pressing to make a difference in the alien and rarified world
The crux of the tale, however, is how Bachmann, like millions of other
white, rural/suburban, working-class, evangelical Christian Americans,
converts from Democratic voter to Republican, and then gets pulled further and further into far-right-wing
That important political and sociological
shift has been addressed at the macro level, in a growing number of very
good books on the subject. But I have not found many good micro-level
stories of that transition -- particularly from someone who went through
it as an ordinary, everyday person and later emerged as a political
In reviewing Tim Pawlenty's similar but inferior campaign book, Courage To Stand, I suggested reading it as fiction, and the same holds for Core of Conviction.
The Bachmann character, like most who have gone through that same
Democrat-to-Republican transition, is unable or unwilling to fully
explain the factors that went into her conservative radicalization. She
makes a game effort, however, and provides much of the surface material;
the reader is left to interpret and infer from there.
novelist's perspective, Bachmann makes for a terrific character through
whom to tell this very American tale -- she is a Minnesotan who goes
from active support of the 1976 ticket featuring her state's liberal
hero (and her fellow Norwegian-American), Walter Mondale, to voting
against that same ticket four years later, and vehemently opposing
Mondale's Presidential run in 1984.
Bachmann plays down the
Mondale connection in that 1976 campaign, and emphasizes the appeal of
born-again, "commonsensensical" Jimmy Carter. But it's very likely that
she and her then-boyfriend Marcus were Mondale people -- and very active
ones, since they scored tickets to the inauguration, the Minnesota
inauguration ball, and several others.
So what changed? Not her,
according to her account; recounting the many sins of the Carter
administration, she leans heavily on the Reagan trope of not leaving the
Democratic Party, but being left by it.
It's certainly fun, as a
reader, to remember just how miserably people felt about Carter -- so
miserably that they rushed away from some 40 years of family Democratic
affiliation, and into the arms of the freshly disgraced party of Nixon.
as is the case throughout the book, Bachmann's observations of what she
thought at the time sound like drop-ins from 2011. Did her 1970s self
really blame inflation on "the Democratic administration... running big
deficits"? Or wonder why the federal government wouldn't let her put her
FICA taxes into a private savings account instead? Did she really first
become leery of Washington upon seeing the lavish catering at the
inauguration parties -- rather than, say, Watergate two years earlier?
(Similarly, during a short teenage trip to Alaska she comes to learn
that "federal-government restrictions were blocking the extraction" of
oil and gas.)
Or consider this reaction she has to the Shah fleeing Iran in 1979:
also thought that if past generations had been forced to confront the
evil of Nazi Germany, then maybe this generation would be forced to
confront the evil of Islamic fundamentalism, which led to radical
jihadism in Iran. And that was before the new Iranian regime seized the
American embassy in Tehran, holding our diplomats hostage..."
How prescient. Granted, I was only 12 at the time, but my recollection is that while everybody in America hated -- hated --
Khomenei (especially after the hostage-taking), they didn't see him as
part of some global existential threat to US security. We already had a
generational confrontation with the evil, nuke-heavy Soviet communists;
Iran pissed us off, but people weren't afraid of global jihad. (And no,
Bachmann does not address her hero Ronald Reagan subsequently selling
arms to Iran and funding the Afghan mujahideen.)
to stop Khomeini's rise to power, Bachmann writes, led directly to the
Beirut barracks bombing, decades of anti-Israel terrorism, 9/11, and
both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars -- and "here on the home front," the
"dehumanizing" TSA security process, which she says should be inflicted
only on potential terrorists so that "ordinary Americans can move around
the country unmolested."
But however Bachmann chooses to cast the
Carter years, it's certainly true that they helped drive an awful lot
of people to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980, just as Bachmann did.
But Bachmann went much further. She got sucked into the newly emerging "movement conservative" vortex.
have described this Reaganite construction elsewhere. Beginning in the
early 1980s, Washington Republicans brought together disparate interest
groups representing roughly similar demographic groups: essentially
white, rural and suburban, married people, who may not have always
thought of themselves as Republicans but who identified more with
Nixon's "silent majority" than with the protesters, hippies, gays,
black-power groups, and other rabble-rousers.
brought the heads of these organizations together and convinced them to
bundle all of their different interests -- Christian values, gun-rights,
small-business, Cold War hawks, tax revolt, and so on -- into "movement
conservatism." This way, each narrow interest would become a portal
into the movement, creating a large pool of supporters who would push
for all the causes, and of course be more and more likely to vote
Returning to Bachmann's journey, we find that the
portal is religion. In the late 1970s she discovers and immediately
idolizes Phyllis Schlafly, Beverly LaHaye, and the Concerned Women of
America (CWA); she enters the "Bible-based Christian law school" at Oral
Roberts University in 1979.
Her conservative immersion soon goes
far beyond the CWA culture wars of the time: she sees the need for
space-based missile defense; she disdains "expense-accounted 'arms
reduction talks'"; rejects Keynesian economics; adores Ludwig von Mises
and Friedrich Hayek; learns of "runaway statism" from William Simon's A Time for Truth; sees through the "faddish fog of 'feminism'"; and determines that high taxes are harming the economy.
I suspect that those issues took a back seat at the time to what were
then known as "family values." She seems to suggest so, and discusses at
some length her worries during the 1980s that "pernicious social forces
were causing severe damage to the soul of the nation."
contrast with the economic and foreign-policy issues, Bahmann tends in
the book to be somewhat vague about those social-forces concerns. That's
perhaps a political caution about the somewhat dated, or in some eyes
grossly offensive, 1980s-era views of religious-right activists like
herself concerning women in the workplace, inner-city crime, drugs,
homosexuality, divorce, AIDS, welfare, evolution, vulgar lyrics, and
smutty movies. (Similarly, she later criticizes Bill Clinton policies
but declines comment on "the scandals and the impeachment trial," giving
no hint of whether she partook of the hysterical, conspiracy-addled
obsessions that predominated conservative circles during his
So we don't quite get the full picture of her new
belief system, but as you can see we have more than enough to know that
this is not merely someone whom the Democratic Party has left, but
someone who has headed down the movement conservative rabbit hole.
far down becomes apparent in a laugh-out-loud story development worthy
of Updike. Sometime in the 1990s, she discovers her true mission in
life: saving Minnesota's children from the international conspiracy to
indoctrinate them into globalist socialism.
I am not exaggerating.
In the appendix I mentioned earlier, she reprints the entire (seemingly
innocuous) National Education Goals section of the 1994 Goals 2000:
Educate America Act, which, she writes, "isn't really about education;
it's about establishing a new international world economic order."
resist the urge to regale you with details of this earnest crusade.
What matters is that it moves her further into political activism,
leading her in 2000 to run against, and defeat, a moderate Republican
state senator, and six years later to win a seat in Congress -- which
brings us to page 140. As I stipulated up top, feel free to read the
rest of the book if for some reason the RedState.com site is down.
certainly came away liking, and even respecting, the Bachmann character
as presented in the book -- much more than the protagonists in the
Pawlenty or Sarah Palin political memoirs, though perhaps not quite as
much as the one in Scott Brown's Against All Odds. That's at
least in part because I found her personal journey to cold-blooded
conservatism believable, and even somewhat sympathetic. (As an example
of that cold-bloodedness: in her FICA tax rant I mentioned earlier,
Bachmann is aghast to learn that "the government was taking my money and
spending it on current recipients." She wanted then, and wants now, to
keep that money for herself instead, and expresses not a drop of concern
for how that might affect the "current recipients" -- ie, elderly
As I interpret her -- again, as a
character -- Bachmann's world view stems from the shock and humiliation
of her teen years. She was 14 when her father ditched the family and
moved away to marry another woman. It's easy enough to imagine that her
rebirth in Jesus, two years later, stems from the fatherless teenage
void. But the divorce also immediately transforms Bachmann, with her
mother and two younger brothers, from perfect family with two cars and a
four-bedroom house on an acre of land (even a snowmobile!), to selling
off heirlooms at a garage sale and searching through dresser drawers to
find a dime for a school activity.
Yet her mother refused to go on
welfare. "She did not consider herself a political conservative; she
just didn't see us as poor enough to take government help," Bachmann
It's not clear in the book whether Bachmann knew that at
the time, or only discovered later that -- as a self-conscious teenage
girl would see it -- her mother turned down money while she was wearing
worn-through clothes, living on canned food brought by her grandmother,
and generally feeling inferior to her peers. All of which, of course, is
just the surface pain of a girl's humiliation and anger over mom
letting dad abandon them.
I would imagine there are two ways to
psychologically deal with it. You could blame your mother for such
heartless, prideful cruelty (and through that, blame her for your
father's leaving and everything bad that happens in your life). Or, you
can determine to prove how right she was to decide that you didn't need
anybody's help. Psychologically, that path requires commitment to the
principle that people in bad circumstances don't need assistance; and
equally, to the principle that what you obtain, since it required
nobody's help, should be yours alone to keep, and not go into some