Bachmann Hits the Books

Can dropping names like Ludwig von Mises, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Gore Vidal help establish her as an intellectual anti-Palin?

Michele Bachmann announces her candidacy for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination

Here was Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann on CNN June 28, responding to a question about whether she is being taken seriously: “I’m introducing myself now to the American people,” she replied, “so that they can know that I have a strong academic scholarly background.” Here is her husband, Marcus, in a new National Review story, describing their early courtship in strikingly high-minded terms: “Michele was interested in intellectual, philosophical, and political conversations.” And here she was in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks back, describing her affection for the Austrian School economist Ludwig von Mises: “When I go on vacation and I lay on the beach, I bring von Mises.”

While it’s been hard to hear over the liberal blogosphere’s hooting and hollering at her recent gaffes, Michele Bachmann is pushing hard to establish her intellectual bona fides. If she succeeds, it will help dispel any lingering public misperception that she is a Midwestern version of Sarah Palin. But just as important, her efforts—and in particular her frequent, enthusiastic references to old-school free-market economists like von Mises—may give her an advantage the stridently anti-intellectual Palin had in 2008 but long ago squandered: the affection of Weekly Standard and National Review-reading Republican opinion leaders, the types who have been known to help propel a promising candidate into the White House. Herewith, to help flesh out Bachmann’s libertarian-brainiac self-portrait, a list of the authors she namedrops most frequently.

It begins with a writer Bachmann credits with turning her into a conservative, a writer she loathes: the liberal (Bachmann would say “libertine”) Gore Vidal. As Bachmann has repeatedly explained, she rejected the Democratic Party after reading Burr, Vidal’s irreverently fictionalized treatment of the Founding Fathers. “I just thought, ‘What a snot,’ ” she told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2007. She has since expanded on this account: “It was so disgusting to me, talking about how he was waddling or something,” she explained recently to the Weekly Standard’s Matthew Continetti, referring to the book’s description of George Washington’s sizable rear end. “And at that moment, I became a Republican. I was done.” Weekly Standard editor William Kristol—who deserves much of the credit for unleashing Palin on the world—was delighted by this story. (“Thanks, Gore. We owe you one,” he wrote in a blog post late last year in the same breath declaring himself “a Bachmann fan.”)

Bachmann’s post-political-conversion reading list is very heavy on conservative economists, the kinds of names sure to set free-marketeers’ hearts aflutter. (Recall that she is a recovering tax lawyer.) She expounded on her love of economics texts in an interview last month with Wall Street Journal editorial board member Stephen Moore—the same interview in which she quipped about reading von Mises on the beach. Austrian School economists are trendy among Tea Partiers, but Bachmann did not make the obvious choice, the suddenly ubiquitous Friedrich Hayek. She went more hard-core, naming Hayek’s mentor, then rattled off a bunch of other names also guaranteed to delight devotees of laissez-faire economics, including Milton Friedman and a couple of contemporary Austrian School disciples—the Hoover Institution economist Thomas Sowell and George Mason University’s Walter Williams. “I’m also an Art Laffer fiend,” she added, referring to the Reaganomics guru.

Elsewhere, Bachmann has expressed an appreciation for political theory and philosophy, specifically William Blackstone (“I love the language and the idiom of the founding era”), Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. But she doesn’t only read dismal scientists and dead people: She also lets loose a constant stream of current book titles, which typically fall in one of two categories. First, religion-oriented clash-of-civilizations-type stuff, whether about how Christianity is good (Alvin J. Schmidt’s How Christianity Changed the World) or how radical Islam is bad ( America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It, by Mark Steyn). And, second, Tea Party bibles such as Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto and Matthew Spalding’s We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future.

And then, just when her selections start to seem a little lazy—like titles she might have received in the mail from a conservative book-of-the-month club—she throws in a head-scratcher, something unexpected enough to make her tastes seem less prepackaged. A book by a New Yorker writer, say. Or a public-radio perennial. “I adore Garrison Keillor,” she told an interviewer last year, “He and I are polar opposites politically, but I think he’s a genius.” She also seems to be interested in cautionary tales about the 2008 election, even ones that revolve around Democrats. This spring, she read onetime John Edwards aide Andrew Young’s takedown of Edwards, The Politician, as well as Game Change (which, she said, “gives a person pause”).

Whether or not Game Change actually did give her pause, Bachmann is running for president, and she is running hard. And her efforts to portray herself as intellectually serious are already paying off in the conservative press, even if the mainstream-media portrait hasn’t caught up. She is the subject of glowing cover stories in the current issues of both the Weekly Standard and the National Review, stories that portray her as the brainier, more substantive alternative to the other Tea Party queen. Continetti in the Weekly Standard: “Whereas Palin makes emotional and cultural appeals to her supporters, Bachmann formulates an argument. She talks like a litigating attorney, and her speeches, op-eds, and interviews are littered with references to books and articles.” Robert Costa’s profile in the National Review, meanwhile, uses the Gore Vidal vignette to paint an approving picture of a woman who is “complicated and canny,” a woman who ensured that “the National Review, Time, Newsweek, and local newspapers were required reading” for her family.

Despite all this, and despite the fact that Wall Street Journal editorial board members are going around declaring Bachmann “a potential frontrunner” and saying that they are “very impressed” with how “knowledgeable” she is, the left-wing caricature of her remains hopelessly out of step. Virtually no one outside the conservative media picked up on the von Mises references, with the exception of Salon, which sneered:

Mises on the beach! The news is both hilarious and scary. Once you have imagined Rep. Bachmann in her bikini, margarita in one hand, well-thumbed copy of “Human Action” in the other, a wry smile cracking her stern cheekbones as she savors von Mises’ earnest and passionate elucidation of the theory that free-market economics are the basis of civilization, there is no going back.

Bachmann was undoubtedly joking about the beach part (as Salon later realized), but if liberals don’t update their understanding of what she is about, the joke may ultimately be on them. The last time a supposedly laughable dunce of a candidate ran around whispering sweet nothings about Ludwig von Mises into the ears of conservative eggheads, he got himself elected president.

Like Bachmann, Ronald Reagan was a longtime fan of the Austrian School, and of Hayek and von Mises in particular. And, like Bachmann, he was constantly dismissed as unserious by liberals. But he realized that it is possible to charm the editors of the National Review even as others are busy deriding you—better to play it cool and hope your opposition keeps on underestimating your pull.