By Betsy Rothstein - 01/13/09 06:16 PM EST
Freshman members of Congress are supposed to be quiet, unobtrusive, deferential. Michele Bachmann must have missed the memo.
At her first State of the Union address in 2007, the petite Minnesota GOP congresswoman with the sparkling blue eyes, wavy dark hair and perma-grin got especially touchy-feely with President Bush.
Bush signed two autographs for her and then turned to other members as he was walking down the well of the House after delivering his speech.
For about 30 seconds, Bachmann rested her hand on Bush’s shoulder until eventually, he leaned in for a kiss.
But that was the old Bachmann. The congresswoman made clear in an interview last week in her Cannon office that she’s looking forward, not back. And as the message of “change” buzzes around the country with the swearing-in of a new president next week, Bachmann also appears to be transforming.
Asked if she would attempt to kiss President-elect Obama when he addresses Congress, Bachmann responded tersely, “Will I be sitting in the well? Probably not.”
She added, “I look forward to working with him and I would expect to be as friendly as I would be to [any president].”
While Bachmann, 52, wasn’t the typical freshman in the last Congress, she isn’t your usual second-term congresswoman, either. Bachmann isn’t exactly a household name, but she is well-known among liberal and conservative activists. Love or hate her, Bachmann attracts attention.
However, these days she chooses her words carefully, turns down some interviews and strives to stay on message. Like a movie star who had an unfortunate bad role, she is reviewing her scripts more carefully.
Bachmann’s Oct. 18, 2008, “Hardball with Chris Matthews” appearance quickly became a YouTube hit after she questioned Obama’s patriotism and called on the media to investigate lawmakers to determine whether they are anti-American.
The timing could not have been worse for Bachmann and the comments, delivered weeks before her reelection race, nearly cost the congresswoman her job.
“I don’t know,” she responds tentatively when asked if she would appear on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews” again. Last month, though, she indicated she would not go on the show again, claiming Matthews “laid a trap” for her.
Four days after “Hardball,” Bachmann apologized at a campaign stop in St. Cloud, Minn., calling her remarks on Obama a “misstatement.”
A day later, vandals defaced Bachmann’s home, as well as those of five other Minnesota lawmakers, following high-profile votes on the $700 billion financial bailout bill.
However, Bachmann, whose garage was sprayed with the word “scum,” was the only one of the half-dozen legislators who voted no on the legislation. Bachmann even publicly mocked GOP leaders for suggesting that Republican lawmakers rejected the measure because of a partisan speech delivered by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Her “no” vote did not shield her from becoming a huge target for Democrats. While conservatives rushed to back Bachmann, centrist Republicans distanced themselves from her.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that Bachmann’s comments played a “key role” in his decision to support Obama for president.
Liberal blogs went after Bachmann like they used to go after ex-Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.).
By Oct. 24, Bachmann was in a statistical dead heat with her Democratic opponent, Elwyn Tinklenberg.
After the “Hardball” show, Tinklenberg told The Hill that he received well over a million dollars in campaign contributions from around the nation and was still receiving funds even after the race was over.
“I think people were just so disgusted by her comments,” he said.
Tinklenberg’s money wasn’t enough. Even though many political analysts predicted Bachmann would be a short-timer, Bachmann triumphed over Tinklenberg, who may try again in 2010.
Still, according to Bachmann, the “Hardball” train wreck happened at least a thousand years ago.
“It’s so ancient history for me,” Bachmann said. “It is ancient history. It is not a part of who I am now. This is not a part of my life.”
She is playing it safe in 2009 by staying away from “Hardball” and veering instead toward CNN’s Larry King and Fox News.
Bachmann appeared on the debut of “Hannity” Monday night. On Tuesday morning, she was interviewed on “Fox & Friends” and on the Fox Business Channel.
On “Hannity,” Bachmann appeared safe in her conservative element on a panel opposite the Rev. Al Sharpton and left-wing rocker Meat Loaf.
At one point she dismissed Obama sending his children to D.C. private schools, saying that Minnesota schoolchildren would like to send their children to private schools, too, but can’t afford it.
She sparred with Sharpton and Meat Loaf, calling last year’s bailout the “morbid obesity of spending levels.”
“Congresswoman, please, let’s be fair,” interrupted Sharpton.
At which point she reached out to Sharpton, squeezed and patted his arm, saying, “Michele, please, call me Michele.”
Those close to Bachmann say they have never seen her down.
A former aide said she is just as guarded in private as she is behind the scenes.
“Out in public she kind of plays the ’50s kind of unassuming-housewife do-gooder kind of role,” the ex-aide said. “She’s still like that to a large degree behind the scenes. I was never really sure if it was all just an act or if it was really just who she was.”
The aide said she was “a very nice person, a very caring person. She was gracious, gave me a hug. She is very motherly, on a personal level, very sincere.” The staffer ultimately left because he didn’t agree with Bachmann’s beliefs.
Bachmann is a devoutly religious married woman who describes her husband, Marcus, a Christian counselor, as “one of the kindest, nicest” people she has ever met in her life. The couple met while working as playground supervisors and started dating in 1976 when they were on Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign. Like his wife of 30 years, Marcus has since become a Republican.
They have five biological children and have taken in 23 foster children over the years.
She won’t discuss the foster children in depth out of respect for their privacy, saying, “They presented joys and challenges.”
The congresswoman doubts that she and her husband will take in more foster kids. “We found older kids almost need you more,” she said. “They need your mind, they need to know what works and what doesn’t. For us, what we’re looking forward to is grandchildren.”
Bachmann believes strongly in the sanctity of marriage as a union between a man and a woman — in the Minnesota state Senate she introduced anti-same-sex marriage legislation, though it never passed.
Oddly, same-sex marriage isn’t a topic she would discuss last week, noting she worked on it in the state Senate but that was then, not now.
Some colleagues still don’t know what to make of her. “I have had no interaction [with her]. I have definitely made sure of that,” said a Democratic lawmaker speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I’m undecided. Sometimes people make a mistake on what they say and sometimes in the passion people say what they really feel and I can’t tell which one this really is.”
Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), whose previous district now encompasses some of Bachmann’s, said he still has former constituents who tell him they wish he were their representative, not her.
“I didn’t like what she said,” said Peterson, who along with his Democratic Minnesota colleagues signed onto a letter condemning her words. “She shouldn’t have said it. She has some pretty extreme views. Someone in a race like that shouldn’t be on national TV anyway. She should be home talking to her constituents.”
But he admitted, “I’ve had almost no interaction with her at all. I don’t really know her. I’ve said some crazy things in my time too. My sense is she’s sorry she said it.”
Republican colleagues are a lot more sympathetic. “Anytime any of us have a misstep, we feel for that,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who sent Bachmann an e-mail of support amid the “Hardball” flap.
Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) defends Bachmann’s comments. “I think that there is a concern that some people in Congress like to blame America first,” he said. “We need to have a few more people bullish on our home team.”
He concedes, “I might not have said it that way, but I don’t think she was saying anything disparaging. What did Michelle Obama mean when she said she was proud of her country for the first time?”
Kingston points to Bachmann’s family life and raises her to the status of a saint. “If she were [former liberal] Rep. Pat Schroeder [D-Colo.], she would be enshrined as a saint,” he said. “But let a Republican make one slip on a partisan debate show and that’s what we’re going to make her signature.
“Chris Matthews likes to rattle the cage of any of his guests. He’s a partisan guy; everyone knows it’s a Democrat show.”
Matthews, host of “Hardball,” defends his show, saying, “I invite people to go on the internet and watch the interview for themselves. It’s clear that Rep. Bachmann needed no help making her case.”
Bachmann has changed her tone, but she has no plans to lay low: “I am not a back-bencher. When I am in, I am in to play. That is my make-up; that is who I am.”
And yet this new Bachmann is so careful. She holds her head perfectly still and during a 30-minute interview appears to be completely in control. Her answers are brief. She offers smiles, but they last just a few seconds.
When asked, “Who is Michele Bachmann?” she replies, “I’m kind of a spontaneous person — I like the unexpected,” recalling that she paid her way through college by driving a school bus, navigating the unpredictable icy hills of Minnesota.
Her father was an engineer and moved the family at least every three years.
She lived in Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota. “When the moving truck came, I would get excited,” she said. “That was an adventure. I like new situations. I like new people. I have a strong sense of curiosity.”
Though it’s winter, Bachmann looks rather summery in a lightweight brocaded beige blazer, black Capri pants and bone-hued sandals. A black shirt beneath her blazer is adorned with decorative jewels.
God and prayer are constants, but she doesn’t speak of God calling her to Congress the way she has in the past. She talks about her Lutheran parents who took her to church most Sundays. “It was a given unless you were sick,” she said.
Bachmann doesn’t offer it, but she acknowledged that when trying to decide whether to run for Congress, she and her husband prayed and fasted for three days. She says fasting gives her clarity of mind.
“I should fast more than I do,” she said.
Bachmann likes to walk, read and knit. She is also a fan of fixing things up, whether it be a toilet or anything else around the house.
She likes to cook, though — not surprisingly — she doesn’t always follow the recipes.
“I end up adjusting,” she said, explaining that she likes to make split pea soup even though her family “hates” it and she ends up giving it away to friends.
Most of all, she loves to fish. “I really enjoy being in a fishing boat and casting. That is nirvana,” she said. “You’re thinking, but you can let your mind go to something else. It’s so beautiful to be on the lake, but it’s so peaceful.”
The walls in Bachmann’s office are a sunny lemon-yellow. The color suits Bachmann, as she herself appears to be an optimistic sort.
In TV interviews, the congresswoman smiles continuously, even when sparring with those who oppose her. She isn’t going to let anything get her down.
She has good reason to be up nowadays. She was a rare Republican elected in the 2006 Democratic wave, and one who survived the 2008 Democratic landslide.
Bachmann said she held a tele-townhall in which she received 66,000 calls last week.
“Not one negative comment,” she remarked.
Chris Matthews wasn’t on the call.