Many great representatives of American culture have come from Minnesota. The state gave us Bob Dylan, Prince, Rod Carew, Fran Tarkenton, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Minnesota Fats. Long a bastion of progressivism, great statesmen like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale have been elected to Congress by Minnesotans.
Lately, however, things have taken a turn for the weird.
In the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," citizens seemed immune to celebrity until they went a little crazy and elected Jesse "The Body" Ventura as governor. When that experiment was done, they elected Saturday Night Live alumnus Al Franken to the Senate. In the case of Franken, however, he proved to be a viable candidate because he was good enough, smart enough, and, doggone it, people liked him. I am at a loss, however, to explain how an electorate goes from Hubert Humphrey to Michele Bachmann, unless some outside, sinister force is at work.
In Don DeLillo's novel White Noise, he describes an incident called the "Airborne Toxic Event," a chemical spill that makes townspeople go insane. This fictional account is close to describing some of Minnesota's real-life disasters, like the I-35 bridge collapse into the Mississippi River in 2007, the 57 separate oil pipeline spills since 2000, or even the severe storms and massive flooding that required the president to declare parts of the state a disaster area in 2010.
Whatever the cause, something has made some Minnesotans turn to Bachmann to represent them in Congress, and she acts more like a contestant for homecoming queen than a legislator. It used to be said that politics was just show business for ugly people. In truth, Congress is one big high school do-over, with the same adolescent jealousies and pettiness. Only now, their hissy fits are putting us all in jeopardy. The quote "Carbon dioxide is portrayed as harmful, but there isn't even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas" could have been straight from DeLillo, had Bachmann not said it first.
After the president's State of the Union address, Bachmann, the self-appointed Miss Tea Party, gave a rebuttal to the official Republican rebuttal to the president's speech. CNN was the only network to elevate this to news, and thank goodness. Bachmann stared into a camera for an online response seen by a few thousand people, while the rest of us got to watch her gaze off, slightly to the left, and appear as if she were waiting for Peter Pan to return and whisk her off to Neverland. With charts and graphs, Bachmann told of the 16,500 IRS officers being prepared to enforce Obamacare and claimed that what was really needed is medical malpractice reform, something Obama had announced only an hour before. More astounding was the footage of Bachmann addressing Iowans for Tax Relief only the night before. Speaking with hushed reverence about the Founding Fathers, Bachmann claimed, "[They] worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States." No they didn't. Half were slave owners, and anyone who ever took a history course knows that. She lauded John Quincy Adams, who was not a founder, but proves, at least, that she saw Amistad.
Among Bachmann's other lies: She has accused the census of being a government plot to round up dissidents, like her, and put them into internment camps, and she began the canard that Obama was "spending over $200 million a day" on a state visit to India. She advocated eliminating the minimum wage and suggested $400 billion in cuts for veterans' benefits as an austerity measure. Bachmann was a back-bencher until Sarah Palin proved that venomous rhetoric and a pretty smile will get you noticed, even if the pundits refer to you as a "bubblehead."
Despite having called for an investigation into Democratic congressmen to see which ones were "anti-American," John Boehner appointed Bachmann to the National Intelligence Committee, and she has already visited Iowa to explore the possibility of a presidential run in 2012. A pretty face and nice smile may win you "most popular" in junior high, but when you get to Congress, it's time to put away the pageant sash and work to serve others. Instead, she has said that Obama is turning us "into a nation of slaves" and called health insurance reform "the crown jewel of socialism."
Watching all the media attention Bachmann was receiving, Palin got all wee-weed up and leaped into the fray. In an interview on Fox News, Palin claimed that the launching of Sputnik in 1957 was the ultimate cause for the Soviet Union's downfall in 1991 and that the Russians "won the space race." More ghastly, she noticed that Obama's phrase from his State of the Union, "win the future," could be abbreviated WTF, which fits well into her Twitter mindset but not for a serious candidate for high office. Yet she continued to repeat it, including on her Facebook page, oblivious to the 90 percent of Americans who approved of the president's speech.
Between Michele and Sarah, we could be headed for a loser-leaves-town cage match to determine who will be the undisputed Tea Party princess. Meanwhile, when did stupidity become a virtue in public life? Before a law school graduate becomes an attorney, he or she must pass the bar exam. Shouldn't we at least have an elementary civics exam for all potential legislators? That might weed out half the know-nothing yet ambitious politicians of today, including Dumb and Dumber.
Randy Haspel writes the Born-Again Hippies blog, where a version of this column first appeared.