Rep. Michele Bachmann’s call for a media investigation into “anti-American” members of Congress may have been the macaca — or McCarthy — moment of 2008, but it has also given the Minnesota Republican something she’s been angling for since arriving in Congress two years ago: the national spotlight.
To be on Bachmann’s press e-mail listserv these last few months is to see her determined, deliberate march to the top of the cable news booker list. It’s Bachmann on Larry King, Bachmann on Bloomberg, Bachmann on Cavuto, Bachmann on O’Reilly, Bachmann on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”
Bachmann, Bachmann everywhere.
The congresswoman has been on national cable news shows at least 23 times since the beginning of September, a scheduled guest of Larry King’s on seven occasions.
“She is very good at what she does,” explains Michelle Marston, Bachmann’s chief of staff, who is on leave to serve as the congresswoman’s reelection campaign spokeswoman. “Once we got her on these national media outlets and she could show how well she presents the conservative argument and how she can put a fresh face and perspective [on it], they started calling her back.”
A Minnesota GOP operative close to Bachmann casts the congresswoman’s love for the camera in a less positive light.
“I think that she’s a media hound first and foremost,” said the operative. “That has been her biggest goal from Day One: to be in the media spotlight, to be a representative who is the spokesman for the Republican Party — and she’s made that a very concerted effort, to be in the spotlight as much as possible.
“Why would Larry King want or Chris Matthews want to have her on? Precisely because of what happened on Friday.”
A former House GOP leadership aide refers to Bachmann as this cycle’s version of former Florida Rep. Katherine Harris. But Harris had an independent cause célèbre, having served as Florida’s secretary of state during the 2000 presidential election and recount.
As a freshman with a lone Financial Services Committee assignment — Bachmann is 29th in seniority among 32 Republicans — she has had to create her own publicity, and she’s done her darnedest.
Backed by a three-person communications staff — a press secretary for national media, a press secretary for local media and a staffer to handle the blogs and other new media — Bachmann has volunteered herself for the attention she’s enjoying a little less this week.
“Freshman members usually get more attention because they are new to the Washington scene and unknown quantities,” said the former Republican leadership aide. “Michele Bachmann is getting more attention because she has a few ingredients in addition to being a freshman: She’s somewhat attractive for TV, is somewhat willing to say controversial things, and she’s willing to be on TV.”
It was this willingness that found Bachmann on “Hardball” with Chris Matthews on Friday. As Matthews explained it to Politico, one of his bookers called John McCain’s presidential campaign early in the day for help in filling a hard-to-book Friday afternoon slot.
The campaign, Matthews said, suggested the ever-willing Bachmann.
The YouTube moments that other members fear will ruin their careers — see Allen, Former Sen. George — seem only to have aided Bachmann’s quest for media ubiquity.
“I would say she likes controversy, but there are Type-A personality types — if anything is calm and steady, that’s not where they thrive,” says Sean Nienow, the congresswoman’s former district director. “I think she is more on that end.”
Bachmann first hiked the national eyebrow with her awkwardly long shoulder grasp of President Bush in te moments after his 2007 State of the Union address. A video clip landed in heavy rotation online, as did clips of Bachmann sermonizing about being “hot for Jesus,” referring to Terri Schiavo as “healthy” and disputing that “global warming is the issue of the day.”
But none of those resulted in the attention — or the blowback — that Bachmann’s exchange with Matthews has produced.
Early in the “Hardball” interview, Bachmann said she was “very concerned” that Barack Obama “may have anti-American views.”
When Matthews pressed her about the connections between liberalism and anti-Americanism, Bachmann continued to blow on the coals: “Well, the liberals that are Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, they are over-the-top anti-American, and that’s the questions that Americans have.” She grouped into this Michelle Obama’s comments that “she’s only recently proud of her country.”
Matthews kept pressing.
“I guess when I heard the word ‘anti-American’ [applied] to Barack, I wanted to see how ready she was to apply it,” Matthews told Politico on Monday. “And she was ready to apply it pretty broadly.”
Matthews asked Bachmann how many of her colleagues were “anti-American.”
“What I would say is that the news media should do a penetrating exposé and take a look,” Bachmann responded. “I wish they would. I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out, are they pro-America or anti-America? I think people would be — would love to see an exposé like that.”
The backlash was immediate and intense. Colin Powell called Bachmann’s comments “nonsense.” Nancy Pelosi said Bachmann had “discredited” herself. Republicans didn’t exactly rush to Bachmann’s defense. Spokesmen from the offices of the House minority leader, the House minority whip and the Republican Study Committee all declined to comment Monday. McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers wouldn’t address Bachmann’s comments directly, but he said that the Arizona senator doesn’t question Obama’s patriotism.
And even as Marston argued that Matthews had backed Bachmann into a corner, the congresswoman’s Democratic challenger, El Tinklenberg, was taking in more than $800,000 in fresh contributions from donors around the country.
Marston, who previously worked for Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), joined Bachmann’s staff in February, bringing along with her another former Garrett staffer, press secretary Mary Vought, several months later.
Marston said Bachmann’s media approach reflects the reality of life in the minority.
“When you’re a minority member, communication becomes that much more important; you don’t have that much control over schedule or agenda,” Marston said. “Communication becomes the way to get the word out.”
It worked for Bachmann during the spring and the summer, when she made herself one of her party’s leading proponents of “drill, baby, drill” — an odd achievement, considering that neither where she’s from nor the committee on which she serves has an energy-specific focus.
As Nienow put it, “She seemed to be a spokesman for drilling, and I’m not sure how that happened.”
Nienow, who served with Bachmann in the Minnesota State Senate before working on her staff, said that while she had a presence in local conservative media before coming to Congress, it was nothing like what she’s established for herself these days.
“Every cycle creates its own cast,” says Democratic strategist James Carville, who tussled with Bachmann a few times in recent months on “Larry King Live.” “I think it’s kind of a match ade in heaven. I think TV likes her, and she likes it.”