Queen of the Tea Party
The presidential campaign of Michele Bachmann
Jul 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 40 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
When Michele was in elementary school, her father got a job designing ordnance at Honeywell. The work took the Ambles to Anoka, Minnesota, north of the Twin Cities. Then came a time of upheaval. Her parents divorced. Her father moved to California. Michele and her brothers remained in Minnesota with their mother, Jean. The family fell into poverty overnight. “My mom made about $4,800 a year,” Michele said. Jean was a bank teller.
Michele was 13 years old. She and her mother had a conversation. “My mom said, ‘One thing that can never be taken away from you is your education,’ ” Bachmann told me in a 2009 interview. If she worked hard in school, her mother went on, she’d have a foundation for life. Michele became a devoted student at Anoka High, graduating early. She was popular and was elected to the homecoming court in the fall and winter semesters. She was never queen, though. “I won Miss Congeniality once,” she said.
Both of her parents remarried by the time Michele finished high school. She has two stepsiblings through her stepmother and five through her stepfather. Just as important as her changing family, however, was her turn to religion. She’d attended church as a child without really hearing what was said. Then, when she was 16, she made a commitment. “I believe God is real,” she said. “I believe he’s real, I believe he’s true, I believe that there is a heaven, and that’s where I want to go.” She considers herself an evangelical Christian. As an adult, she’s attended both a Lutheran church and a nondenominational Christian church.
Her faith led her to some interesting places. The summer after she finished high school, Michele went to Israel and worked on a kibbutz. The trip was sponsored by Young Life, a Christian ministry. “I always had this love and appreciation for Israel because I was a Christian,” she said. “It’s the foundation of our faith. All of the Bible is about Israel.” She wanted to see the land for herself. What she found wasn’t a high-end vacation destination. She remembers the hurly burly of Ben Gurion airport, 1974: heat, soldiers with guns, customs officers at card tables on the tarmac. Chickens were everywhere. “It was pretty grubby,” she said.
The youth housing on the kibbutz was called the ghetto. Lizards climbed the walls. She would wake up at 4 a.m. and get on a flatbed truck that was pulled by an old diesel tractor. Occasionally Michele operated the rig: “It was my first time driving a clutch.” They would drive out to cotton fields to pull weeds. Armed soldiers escorted them wherever they went.
The soldiers searched for mines as the kids cultivated the soil. “You’re hoping at 4 o’clock in the morning that they see everything,” she told me. The group would work until noon, drive back to the kibbutz, make lunch in the kitchen, and promptly conked out.
The experience has never left her mind. “If you consider what it was like in 1948,” she said, “and literally watch flowers bloom in a desert over time—I don’t know if any nation has paralleled the rise of Israel since 1948.” A member of Christians United for Israel, she’s one of Israel’s strongest supporters in Congress. One Jewish Minnesota Republican has told me of speeches at local Republican Jewish Coalition events where Bachmann has brought cheering audiences to their feet.
When she returned to the States, Michele enrolled at a community college near Anoka. Money was tight. She’d often work three jobs—school bus driver, restaurant hostess, all sorts of things. The following summer she went to Alaska, where she worked for an uncle who lived in the Aleutian Islands. Alaska’s oil boom was just beginning, and geologists scoured the rocks for signs of petroleum. Michele tarred roofs, cleaned fish, washed dishes, and cooked meals. In Alaska she fell into conversation with a geologist who wanted to know her plans. Michele told him she didn’t want to go back to community college, and she also didn’t have any money. The geologist recommended Winona State University in the southeastern part of Minnesota, near the Mississippi River.
Michele sent away for the catalog, applied, and was accepted. The first time she ever saw Winona State was when she arrived on campus to enroll. Luckily, it was a perfect fit. There she discovered, among other things, the work of theologian Francis Schaeffer, whose How Should We Then Live? is a popular Christian interpretation of Western intellectual and cultural history.