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").