Here we go again: My experiences covering Michele Bachmann’s statements

Bachmann's statements have produced "clarifications" before.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Bachmann’s statements have produced “clarifications” before.

I’ve seen this movie before. I’ve had a bit part in this movie before. Michele Bachmann should either:

• take responsibility for what she said about Barack Obama’s anti-Americanness, retract it, say she didn’t mean it, and she blew it, and apologize, or

• she should defend it and explain why, from her point of view, Obama’s Americanness (or anti-such) is open to question. I’ll suggest a script below.

I wouldn’t hurry to count her out politically, but if the past is any indication, by the time Bachmann takes either course, if ever, she will have dug her hole much deeper. I speak with some authority because I was in the middle of it the last time Rep. Bachmann put her foot into a pile of poo. In case you want to see how close Bachmann comes to repeating the pattern from that incident, allow me to take you through it.

It was February of 2007, when I was still with the Strib and blogging at The Big Question.

Statements on Iraq
A Bachmann critic urged me to listen to the audio of an interview that Bachmann had given to the St. Cloud Times (it was posted online). Towards the end, in describing why it was so important for America to win in Iraq, Bachmann made the fairly astonishing claim that Iran and Al Qaida had a deal to divide Iraq in two, with the Al Qaida-controlled portion to be used as a base for terrorism against Israel and others. The key section went like this:

“Iran is the trouble maker, trying to tip over apple carts all over Baghdad right now because they want America to pull out. And do you know why? It’s because they’ve already decided that they’re going to partition Iraq.

“And half of Iraq, the western, northern portion of Iraq, is going to be called the Iraq State of Islam, something like that. And I’m sorry, I don’t have the official name, but it’s meant to be the training ground for the terrorists. There’s already an agreement made.

“They are going to get half of Iraq and that is going to be a terrorist safe haven zone where they can go ahead and bring about more terrorist attacks in the Middle East region and then to come against the United States because we are their avowed enemy.”

I immediately called Bachmann’s office to ask how she knew this. It seemed pretty unlikely, given that Iran and Al Qaida are enemies. (Iran is a Shia state and Al Qaida views Shiites as apostates needing to be killed.) Also, it seemed unlikely that a development like this would first come to light through a freshman congresswoman in her second month in Congress. But she was a member of Congress, and there are briefings where they learn important secret stuff (or are there?) and, what the heck, the journalistic course was to ask how she had found out about the deal to divide Iraq. So I called and requested an interview before the close of business and waited until noon the next day to hear back.

Right then, before the comment got any bigger an audience than was reached by the podcast on the St. Cloud Times site, she should have called me and gone one of two ways:

Way One: Yes, I do believe this to be true. I was told it by Joe Blow, a retired Something or Other who is just back from Iraq and learned this from very reliable sources x, y and z. I probably shouldn’t have talked about it, but I believe it to be true and if it is true it’s a danger we can’t allow to come any closer to reality.


Way Two: Oh my dear Lord. I must have been drinking too much coffee the morning of that interview. What I was describing was a worst-case scenario that a friend of mine suggested could come to pass, but I certainly have no evidence that there is a deal in place with a map and all the rest. I know I said it, but I take it back and I’ll be more careful in the future before I open my big mouth about such sensitive and important matters. I’m a congresswoman now and I had better learn to watch what I say.

I never heard back. I had interviewed Bachmann many times, having covered her 2006 campaign for Congress. But, despite repeated requests, she has never spoken to me since that day in February.

So, just as I had told the Bachmann spokester I would do, at noon on the second day, I put up a post simply reporting what Bachmann had said without much editorializing and went to lunch, hoping to hear from her later in the day with more explanation.

When I got back to my desk, still no call from Bachmann’s office but I learned that my post had been linked to by Drudge, been discussed on Limbaugh, and had generated, in one hour, more traffic than my blog had ever seen in a day.

It kept going. By late afternoon, my friend and colleague Terry Sauer, who monitored the online traffic, sent me a note that said, “Your numbers are approaching Viking-gets-arrested territory.”

That afternoon, Bachmann put out a written statement saying: “I am sorry if my words have been misconstrued.”

A Mulligan
Bachmann’s written statement was framed as a clarification of what she had said earlier but it was actually an attempt to erase the earlier statement and take a Mulligan without taking any responsibility for saying something pretty amazing that she couldn’t back up.

In the new statement, there was no reference to a decision that’s already been made, by Iran and Al Qaida, to partition Iraq. Instead, she alluded to the idea of partitioning Iraq that she wrote had been “intermittently considered” by U.S. policymakers. She’s talking there about Joe Biden’s “soft partition” idea (which John McCain, by the way, in the last debate called “cockamamie.”)

“There’s already an agreement made” (from her St. Cloud interview) transmogrified in the written statement into, “It is difficult to ascertain Iran’s intentions towards Iraq.”

I took the “my words have been misconstrued” kinda personally, since I assumed I was the misconstruer in chief.

But her words had not been misconstrued. They had been typed up verbatim from an audio tape that was then still available. (Like her more recent interview with Chris Matthews, only that one’s on video.) Anyone could listen for themselves or check my transcription. (The podcast apparently is no longer available on the St. Cloud Times website.)

About a week later, Bachmann tried again. She submitted a full-fledged op-ed to the Strib in which her claim of misconstruification was gone. Instead — and this was an important step toward a better place — she acknowledged that what she had said was not what she meant. (A bit of Way Two, above.) She also tried a bit of Way One, citing evidence that there was an Al-Qaida linked group that had a plan to create a separate state out of the Sunni portions of Iraq.

Missing from the new third version was a clear statement that Iran had a deal to divide Iraq. Instead, Bachmann suggested that Iran had an interest in seeing Iraq divided. She never did produce any evidence to back that up, and I have never to this day seen evidence that this is a goal of Iran’s policy toward Iraq. It seems more likely that Iran hopes, through its alliance with the Shia majority of Iraq and through the Shia-dominated government of Iraq, to make the entire country part of its sphere of influence, which is, of course, one of the arguments that the war in Iraq was not in the strategic interests of the United States. But don’t get me started.

Another statement
Larry Schumacher of the St. Cloud paper, the reporter who did the original interview, did get another interview with the congresswoman and he asked her one of my top questions: Did she still believe that Iran was working with Al Qaida to partition Iraq? It produced this highly illuminating clarification:

Asked to quantify whether the two groups are working together and how closely, Bachmann declined to be specific.

“It is a very complicated situation and very hard to predict with any certainty,” she said.

I’m not proud of every decision I ever made as a journalist, not even every decision concerning my coverage of Bachmann (although I was able to make up for some of my regrets once I became an independent journalist)  but I am proud that I kept trying to ask Bachmann what caused her to make that cockamamie statement. I never got the chance to ask.

About a month after I stopped trying to reach Bachmann with my question, I learned that she had gone on a friendly radio station and delivered her fourth and (so far as I know) final version of what she said, what she meant and especially how she was treated by the media.

In this version, the admission that she had not said what she meant had disappeared (an important step back in the wrong direction); I was blamed, by name, for distorting what she said and for publishing without talking to her first.

“That’s one thing I would just say to your listeners,” Bachmann said on the radio. “When they hear wild accusations like that, try and go back to the source. And ask the person.”

So when I heard and read about Bachmann’s recent adventure with misspeakification, I had a hunch that we would go through a few versions of “I’ve been misconstrued” and “Let me rephrase what I never really said the first time” and “my enemies are using this against me,” mixed with dashes of “I apologize” but followed by “what I said was true, just not exactly the way I said it.”

Seems to be going sorta that way. We’ll see. An election in two weeks may concentrate the mind and shorten the process.

One difference between the Iran-Al Qaida axis incident and the “I’m very concerned that [Obama] may have anti-American views” incident is that the first one was an assertion of a fact (that didn’t happen to be a fact) while the second one is essentially a statement of opinion. Everyone is entitled to their own view of what constitute “anti-American views,” and they can’t be proven right or wrong. And I’m sure that plenty of Americans believe Bachmann is right about Obama.

So if Bachmann wanted to speed up the lap around the park, she could have said (in the aftermath of her “Hardball” interview):

Way One: Yes, I stand by my statement. I am concerned about the possibility that Obama has views that I and many others would view as anti-American. Raising taxes to spread the wealth around is not an American idea. Leaving the field of battle in Iraq and bringing out troops home in defeat is not an American idea. And associating with someone like an unrepentant former domestic terrorist who has said his only regret is that he didn’t bomb more U.S. targets is the kind of association that makes me wonder whether we can trust Sen. Obama’s commitment to defend America. Yes. I’m sorry if it hurts anyone’s feelings, that’s my opinion.


Way Two: I want to apologize to Senator Obama and retract my statement, at least my very unfortunate use of the word anti-American. I’m sure that he wants what’s best for America. But I fear that his ideas are not what’s best. I wish I had simply said it that way, but in the heat of a campaign and the pressure of live television, I said something that I did not mean.

Maybe it’s not too late. And my speechwriting services are free of charge.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by myles spicer on 10/22/2008 - 10:36 am.

    Well, Mr. Black, listening to Bachmann is always an exciting adventure (my most prominent recollection of her is still the Strib picture of her peeking through the bushes at some sort of Gay Pride gathering (or the like).

    Apparently she has rejected both of your options, and her NEW response is “she was entrapped by the liberal media”!

    If the voters of her district do not understand what a loose cannon she is by this time…they deserve all the terrible representation and embarrassment she brings to her office. One can only hope….

  2. Submitted by Tim Erickson on 10/22/2008 - 10:49 am.

    It seems to me, that Michelle Bachman did take route 2, as reported in StarTribune this morning:


  3. Submitted by Richard Schmidt on 10/22/2008 - 11:09 am.

    Bachman really needs to be retired, in order to facilitate getting treatment. Since she seems obviously delusional, she should be on medication.
    I am hopeful that the good citizens of Minnesota will do to her what we in North Carolina plan to do to Robin Hayes, who achieved his level of incompetence as an heir to the Cannon family riches, and that is, send him back to his spiderhole as of Nov. 5th.

  4. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 10/22/2008 - 11:22 am.

    Bachmann always wants it both ways. She says she was misquoted while using the term “absolutely.” Absolutely means “not to be doubted or questioned.” That means she meant it. Now says she doesn’t? Then it was the “gotcha liberal media.” She shoots her mouth off regulary, with “facts” she has gleaned from conservative commentators and takes them as “absolute facts.” And then she doesn’t get back to the media. So all of this stuff is coming from her staff in bits and pieces. And then, generally, the press let’s her off the hook. But to borrow a phrase from El Tinklenberg’s campaign: “Not this time.”

  5. Submitted by Ted Snyder on 10/22/2008 - 11:59 am.

    Rep. Bachmann is a loose cannon without the ability to self-edit her public comments. Along with being spectacularly wrong about just about everything, she is unable to take reponsibility for herself.

    And don’t forget her attempt to hang the housing foreclosure crisis on loans to central city residents made to satisfy the Community Reinvestment Act. That legislation was passed with the explicit understanding that mortgage lending was restricted to the credit worthy. Scapegoating central city residents –people who are helping to make our urban neighborhoods viable–is beyond irresponsible.

    If the Republican Party had any thing to offer, it would yank their endorsement and financial support from her campaign.

  6. Submitted by John Olson on 10/22/2008 - 12:08 pm.

    The new reality for Tinklenberg is that every time Bachmann opens her mouth (or her spokesperson), the flow of contributions to the Tinklenberg campaign increases.

  7. Submitted by Robert Albee on 10/22/2008 - 12:35 pm.

    Back off Black! Let Bachmann stew in her own juices! She doesn’t need a gifted re-writer like you to show her how to do her own spins. Let her twist and shout by herself on that dance floor! Already she backs up better than Fred Astaire!

  8. Submitted by Jim Spensley on 10/22/2008 - 01:52 pm.

    In the actual interview, the scene was set by Matthews for Rep. Bachmann to reiterate his extreme opinions. In this case, his opinion was that Sen. Obama is not American enough to hold public office. So she was right, in a sense, that she was “trapped.”

    But there are not two ways to spin out of it. It is what it was.

    If, as she apparently thought, claiming that Obama was anti-American would help her re-election campaign, she was quite wrong: instead, she helped El Tinklenberg immensely.

    This was a just outcome whether she was giving her snap opinion or intentionally using her position to give credence to partly true, partly false, partly sinister and dangerous statements made by others.

    I said “sinister and dangerous” because many folks in Metthews’ audience are even less intelligent than Ms. Bachmann and subject to incitement to violence.

  9. Submitted by John E Iacono on 10/22/2008 - 02:27 pm.

    Does anyone wonder whether such statements might be INTENDED to stir up just the controversy we see?

    If they are, backing off from them would destroy the intended effect.

    And reaffirming them is not necessary to achieve the effect.

    The law of unintended consequences, however, seems to be putting a lot of angry money in her opponent’s pockets at a crucial time.

    Perhaps next time a politician does such a thing s/he will consider whether just pre-election is a good time for it.

  10. Submitted by tom muller on 10/22/2008 - 10:21 pm.

    Hi Minnesota,
    I thought we in California had all the crazies, but Ms. Bachmann is in overdrive. I mean she makes some of our lefties and righties look tame. The “un-merican” fiasco has not run the course yet so I think we will know what the true effects are on November 5th. By the way I heard a rumor that she is Joe McCarthy and Anita Bryant’s love child. Just what the world needs now.

  11. Submitted by Beverly Godfrey on 10/23/2008 - 01:40 am.

    Good story, thanks.

  12. Submitted by Marsha Kelly on 10/23/2008 - 08:52 am.

    It was fun to read this account of a journalist’s adventures with Michelle Bachmann. As a 6th CD resident, I have been embarrassed by her since the day she was elected. She abuses the right to be crazy. Now, thanks to Chris Matthews, the whole nation has seen what a whack-job she is. If this isn’t enough to send my neighbors to the polls with a serious case of abject humiliation, I don’t know what it would take. BTW, I definitely think “misconstruification” should be in the next edition of Webster’s, accompanied by a picture of the wild-eyed Michelle. Maybe they can use the shot of her hiding in the bushes at the gay rights rally.

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