Fighting Words

Has Bachmann Met Her Waterloo?

The old parochialism meets the not-so-new isolationism in Michele Bachmann.

Michele Bachmann

That was actually three dripping custard pies, rather than just the one, with which Rep. Michele Bachmann assailed her own face by bragging to Fox News about her small-town Iowa roots. Having hymned the incomparable Dairy Queen and Wonder Bread facilities boasted by the sturdy small town of her girlhood, she went on to claim that “John Wayne was from Waterloo, Iowa,” adding, “That’s the kind of spirit that I have, too.”

John Wayne was from Winterset, Iowa, which can be found about 150 miles to the southwest of Waterloo. It was his namesake John Wayne Gacy, serial rapist and killer of 33 teenage boys and young men, who spent time in Waterloo. (I long ago pointed out that having “John Wayne” in your lineup of given names is a bad predictor: John Wayne Bobbitt was reduced by an infuriated partner to hunting in the weeds for his abruptly severed penis.)

Traditionally, the phrase “to meet your Waterloo” means to encounter a final and unarguable defeat. Perhaps it’s too early to say that, but really. In one stroke, Bachmann shows that she can’t tell one folksy Iowa town from another. Then she compounds the error by confusing a folk hero with a villain and psycho. Finally, and having never done or said anything that would stand a second’s comparison to the spirit of The Duke (whatever you may think of him), she tries to borrow the mantle of a husky gunfighter in the very week that she is pathetically advocating that we leave Col. Qaddafi alone. The old parochialism meets the not-so-new isolationism. A very shaky start.

Where does it come from, this silly and feigned idea that it’s good to be able to claim a small-town background? It was once said that rural America moved to the cities as fast as it could, and then from urban to suburban as fast as it could after that. Every census for decades has confirmed this trend. Overall demographic impulses to one side, there is nothing about a bucolic upbringing that breeds the skills necessary to govern a complex society in an age of globalization and violent unease. We need candidates who know about laboratories, drones, trade cycles, and polychrome conurbations both here and overseas. Yet the media make us complicit in the myth—all politics is yokel?—that the fast-vanishing small-town life is the key to ancient virtues. Wasilla, Alaska, is only the most vivid recent demonstration of the severe limitations of this worldview. But still it goes on. Hence one’s glee at the resulting helpings of custard.

Of course, if you are Bill Clinton and you really did draw breath in some stricken hamlet by the name of Hope, Ark., it’s hard to resist the temptation. Even if you actually grew up in the rather more wide boy’s town of Hot Springs. I once thought of writing a speech for Al Gore, who was largely raised in a luxury hotel in Washington, then named the Fairfax and owned by his aunt. “When we were hungry—and we knew hunger—we would call room service. When we were tired, and our clothes were dirty, we dropped them on the floor …” I thought this would position him nicely as a man on whom Washington had already exerted all its seductions, a candidate who knew the capital as a president must. But, no, he insisted on stressing his short time spent in Tennessee looking at a plough over the wrong end of a horse. Whom did he think he was fooling? It was like the Bushes pretending to be Texan pioneers and wildcatters when they were Connecticut Yankees. Had John Edwards, who made John Mellencamp’s song “Small Town” into his annoying campaign anthem, spent more quality time in the bright lights and the big city, he might not have fallen so abjectly for the first pickup line—”You are so hot”—tried on him by a desperate siren who was growing familiar when Jay McInerney was young.

This is dispiriting. But not as small-time and small-minded as the recent line adopted, from Dennis Kucinich to John Boehner and by the National Conference of Mayors, to the effect that any expenditure overseas is a theft from the good people of Waterloo (or, if you insist, Winterset), Iowa. You have heard it: A bridge or a well in Kandahar is one less facility for our hurting heartland. We should be tending to business in our own backyards. But it’s interesting that, on the zero-sum continuum, domestic concerns are balanced only against the needs of counterinsurgency and nation-building. There are many other controversial and costly programs that could serve to illustrate the same point, from the wasteful arsenal of nuclear weapons to the uncontrollable and unaccountable outlays on the “war on drugs.” But to propose these for cuts instead would involve making political choices that involved some arguments and necessitated some courage. And they wouldn’t have the easy appeal that derives from the image of lazy and ungrateful foreigners feasting on our largess. It is as if we had no stake—to put it no more nobly—in the welfare of other peoples and societies. The whole American experience since Marshall aid testifies to the contrary.

Meanwhile, Qaddafi’s sick intransigence in Libya threatens the local population, the evolving neighboring countries of Tunisia and Egypt, and—by a potential crisis of emigration and refugees—the stability of Europe’s southern frontiers. This is why we have had such frank appeals, from Europe as well as from the Arab League, to contribute more to what is in any case ineluctable—a post-Qaddafi future. For Bachmann to choose this moment to say that the loony of Libya poses no threat is to disqualify herself from any consideration for high office. She evidently knows nothing about the four decades of dictatorship and depredation that have led up to this. But then, when you come to notice it, she doesn’t seem to know her Iowan derrière from an artesian well, either.