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New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza On His Michele Bachmann profile

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

HH: As promised, the return of Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker, their political correspondent from Campaign 2012. He’s back with another incredibly high profile article, this one on none other than Michele Bachmann, Congresswoman from the great state of Minnesota. The article is called a couple of different things. On the web, it’s called The Transformation of Michele Bachmann, but in the magazine, it’s called Leap Of Faith. Ryan Lizza, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

RL: Hey, thank you for having me on, Hugh. I apologize for my voice. It’s a little scratchy.

HH: You know, I have lived that nightmare myself, so I’ll try and talk more.

RL: In your business, that’s a big deal.

HH: It is. It’s actually kind of a bad thing, but I’ve got to start with the question which I can’t answer or even comment on, because I don’t know why Team Bachmann let you on the bus or the airplane to speak.

RL: (laughing) That’s always your question. Well listen…

HH: How do you get past the palace guard?

RL: I give them a great deal of credit for letting the press on their plane. And you’re not the first person to ask me that. So when Bachmann announced for president, she rented a plane and invited the press to join her on a four-day tour of the early primary states. So we all got on in Dulles, Virginia, and we flew to Iowa. And there were a number of reporters on that leg – Jonathan Carl from ABC, Jan Crawford from CBS, there was a CNN producer. And most of those guys jumped off in Iowa, and I’ll tell you why. That week in Iowa, there were a lot of candidates crawling around the state, including Sarah Palin, not that she’s a candidate, but she was doing her big movie premiere that week. And so instead of sticking with Michele Bachmann, most of the press stayed in Iowa and covered the other folks that were there after covering Bachmann’s announcement speech. I, however, decided to stay with the Bachmann campaign, got back on the plane, and the press corps, the Bachmann press corps, from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina, back to Virginia, consisted of the New Yorker, Pajamas Media, and a very nice French guy from AFP.

HH: Oh, very nice.

RL: So that was the Bachmann traveling press corps for those few days. And there was no, you know, there was no picking and choosing. The Bachmann campaign sent out an e-mail to everyone, hey, who wants to travel on the campaign? And they honored the requests of most of the people I assume that asked to come along.

HH: Now I have spent a lot of time, actually, with Michele Bachmann on stages in Minnesota, and she and Marcus have been in my radio studio out in California.

RL: Can I just first say that personally, and I said this the other day on Morning Joe, she’s personally one of the warmest, most charismatic, charming people I’ve ever met. One thing that maybe didn’t come out in the piece, and that people don’t know, a great sense of humor, very sarcastic, ironic sense of humor.

HH: Yes, very much fun.

RL: Yeah.

HH: That’s why she’s good on radio and television, is…

RL: And so is Marcus…

HH: Yeah.

RL: …who had me and these other reporters cracking up in the back of the plane when he came back to hang out with us.

HH: But he didn’t really know what silver fox meant?

RL: You know, I don’t think so. I don’t think he knew. I mean, he’s kind of a funny guy, as you probably know.

HH: Well, I’d call him a silver fox, too. I mean, he’s charismatic in his own way, and he and Michele make quite a team. But when he was bantering back and forth with you, I thought boy, his guard is way down for a Manhattan…

RL: No, it was down, and I’ll tell this just for your listeners, because this didn’t make it into the piece. At one point, Alice Stewart, the press secretary, came back. And she sort of looked at Marcus and looked at the three reporters and thought uh-oh, this is going to be, why is the candidate’s husband talking to these guys? And Marcus said, and Alice said to us, you know, Alice can be pretty tough. She’s a tough press secretary.

HH: You’re telling me. I’ve got a story to tell you, but go ahead.

RL: All right, and she said guys, we’re landing in ten minutes, and Marcus just cracked up. And she said oh, that’s Alice telling me to get out of here guys, that you know, I’m in trouble with you guys. But then he didn’t leave. He stayed with us and continued on.

HH: Now you see, Alice hates this program, loathes us, as does Ed Rollins.

RL: Really? Wow, I want you to tell me why.

HH: And as a result, we have not had Michele on since she…Michele Bachmann used to be my co-host, basically.

RL: So wait, so the New Yorker gets better access to…

HH: I know, it’s really, that’s what really has my nose out of joint. Now I’m just joking, I’m glad she did it. But I am curious, though, now to the substance of the piece.

RL: Yeah, go ahead. Let’s talk about that.

HH: My friend, John Schroeder…

RL: This is where we’re going to get into some sort of disagreements.

HH: …who writes Article Six blog, he’s a very serious analyst of religion and the media, thinks you’ve really done her wrong, and as do a number of other bloggers here by confusing, for example, Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism by listening to Frankie Schaeffer, who’s really gone off the deep end in the opinion of most Evangelicals. Have you heard this, yet, Ryan, that there’s pushback?

RL: Well, I know that, look, I know that people who really respect Francis Schaeffer are not happy with his son, Frank Schaeffer, because Frank disagrees with his father, with his late father, on a number of points. And you know, look, I pointed that out in the piece, and there’s a lot of things that Frank told me that I didn’t include, because I thought they were a little too, he was a little too excitable on some points. But on the other hand, Hugh, he knows his father very well. He was the one that pushed his father on the abortion issue more than anyone else, and one that really sort of radicalized his father on the abortion issue. He made the movie that Michele Bachmann says changed her life. He directed it. So I don’t think you can dismiss what Frank Schaeffer says out of hand just because he no longer is in agreement with everything his father believed.

HH: I don’t think you can dismiss it at all, but I think you could balance it with other people who are at L’abri during those years, and that’s what my friend, Schroeder says, is that…

RL: Well, I quoted, look, I quoted, you know, what’s her name, Nancy Pearcey, who studied at L’abri with Schaeffer, and her book is very influential, according to Michele Bachmann, on Michele.

HH: Okay, again, I will send you to Article Six Blog to take a look at that. That was objection number one. Objection number two, has any other, well, I’ll frame it this way. Are you aware of any profile of President Obama that has gone into his intellectual history with anything like the depth that you went into Michele Bachmann’s?

RL: I’m very glad you asked that, because you’re probably familiar with the name Saul Alinsky, right?

HH: Yup.

RL: Now go on the web, or go do a Nexus search, and find out who the first reporter in America is to write about Saul Alinsky and Barack Obama. And you will find a 2006 or ’07 piece by Ryan Lizza in the New Republic that talks about Obama’s community organizing days, and explains what and who Alinsky is, what he believed, what the philosophy of community organizing is, and how that affected Obama. And if you Google around, you’ll see that that piece has been cited over the years, you know, sometimes, I think, not quite correctly, but by many conservatives to sort of link Obama to Alinsky. I also did one of the first interviews with Reverend Wright.

HH: That’s where I was going.

RL: And so, but I’ve seen a little bit of cognitive dissonance on the right with some of the criticism of my piece, because on the one hand, people are saying hey, why weren’t you more on Reverend Wright and Obama, and his connection to Obama? And that’s fair enough. But on the other hand, they’re saying well, these people that you’re linking to Michele Bachmann, this is just guilt by association. You can’t have it both ways. Either people influence these candidates, or they don’t.

HH: Oh, I think it’s very legitimate to do it. The degree and the depth with which you’ve gone after Michele’s religious understanding here, as opposed to Barack Obama’s religious understanding, is where I was going at, because I’m unaware of your work on Reverend Wright. I actually have missed that piece, Ryan.

RL: Yeah, and I’m not going to say I went down…I didn’t know, I’m not going to…I’m trying to think of the piece. The piece in the New Yorker, the piece in the New Republic did mention Wright, and briefly interviewed Wright. It didn’t get extensively into him as I did Alinsky, and I don’t think Obama was very religious, to be totally honest. I think he used Wright for political reasons, he visited that church because he wanted a home in that community. And I’ve never been convinced of his religiosity. I’m very convinced of Michele Bachmann’s religiosity.

HH: But here’s the key analysis. Is it as fair to say that Michele Bachmann ought to explain dominionist theories as it would be that President Obama ought to explain and ought to be tagged with Reverend Wright’s religious theories?

RL: Oh, I’m not going to tell you that the Reverend Wright association is unfair. That guy sat in his church for years. Reverend Wright was controversial. There is no doubt about it that Barack Obama sat there and listened to some ugly things that Wright said. And you know, I believe there’s almost nothing about presidential candidates we shouldn’t know and we shouldn’t explore. So I would not for a second tell you that talking about Wright and trying to understand his influence on Obama is unfair, or that journalists shouldn’t pursue it.

HH: Great.

RL: So I’m not in that camp at all.

HH: What about, you know, you’ve dug really into her intellectual history in terms of her work at Oral Roberts, her undergraduate years as well. Why don’t we know anything about the President’s grades and studies at Occidental and Columbia, Ryan Lizza?

RL: Oh, that is a good question. We know something about it. We read some of the biographies, and we know he was not a serious student at Occidental. He basically sat around and smoked a lot of pot, and then he moved on to Columbia, and the people at Columbia describe him as sort of living a more monastic life. He kind of got his act together, got more serious, got sort of ultra-serious.

HH: Do we know any courses he took, or any grades that he got the way that we now know Rick Perry’s for example?

RL: I don’t, you know, I don’t know that, but a lot of that depends on the school’s policy, right? I assume the guys in Texas that got the transcript because the school had some kind of open records law?

HH: No, it was leaked. Someone inside the school leaked it.

RL: Oh, it was leaked?

HH: Yeah.

RL: Oh really? Well that’s, you know, that’s a privacy violation. I wouldn’t, that’s a little out there.

HH: How about at Harvard Law? Do we know any of his grades at Harvard Law?

RL: Look how many people have written about the Harvard Law Review, and Obama was on it, and some of the whacky cultural criticism essays that were published in that thing.

HH: Hey Ryan, stick around, I’ve got one more segment coming up with Ryan Lizza as we talk about his very important piece on Michele Bachmann in the New Yorker. It’s the most contact I’ve had with Michele Bachmann since Alice [Stewart] joined the campaign, so I have to really read it very closely.

– – – –

HH: I want to go back and talk a little bit about Michele and the law, Bachmann.

RL: Yeah.

HH: I want to defend her to you, or at least to the people who may have read it. I think a lot of people will walk away from your piece, Ryan, I don’t think you even intended this, thinking you don’t think she’s very smart. I think she’s very smart, and I think her grasp of the tax law is very good. But your account of her years on the federal tax court staff would, might strike some as diminishing the caliber of her intellect. She got her LLM from William and Mary, and she did get that job and worked there for a few years. Was that what you were trying to convey?

RL: Look, I don’t want to sit…look, she got her LLM, it’s a Master’s degree, that’s…you have to study, you have to take your course work seriously to pass the Master’s program there. Look, I talked to six people that worked with her at the IRS, three of them are still there. I couldn’t find a single one of them who would say anything positive about her, and that’s just the God’s honest truth. And I was very careful how I wrote that up. There were a lot of very controversial quotes from people who worked with her that were just sort of too hot to put in the public domain, because they wouldn’t speak on the record. And I tried very hard to get the Bachmann campaign to respond to what these people were saying, and they wouldn’t respond. And so I do think it’s fair to report, though, that her colleagues do not think, it’s not even that they didn’t think it. It’s that she was a young lawyer right out of law school, and had her graduate program, and just never got the kind of experience that people in that office who have spent decades there get. So I think it’s fair to say hey, if she’s going to point to this credential and these years as an IRS attorney, as a very important credential for her being prepared to be president of the United States, well, let’s put a little pressure on that argument and go and talk to the people she worked with, and see what they say.

HH: Okay, here’s the counter argument. If you went back, you know, I was the general counsel of the Office of Personnel Management back in the Reagan years.

RL: Yeah.

HH: It’s been 25 years.

RL: Oh, I’ve talked to your colleagues, Hugh. I know what they say.

HH: I know, but if you went back and you found the 30 people that I supervised, and you tried to find six of them, if you could even find them, I couldn’t remember many people’s names…

RL: Yeah.

HH: And I doubt very much if they could remember my work. And so I’m wondering, Ryan, did you correct for this…

RL: Yeah.

HH: …that she’s very controversial, she’s very high profile. Government lawyers tend to be left of center, especially those that stay there for 20 years.

RL: Absolutely.

HH: And that therefore, they are going to remember her as they want to remember her, and if they are in Minnesota, which is a deeply divided state politically, they’re going to advance an agenda with a sharp knife in her back if they can.

RL: That’s a fair point, and I will say this. Three of the lawyers who are still there, two of them, I think, do not look kindly on Michele Bachmann’s politics, a third, very much does. But the stories of the three were consistent as far as her level of experience, and sort of devotion to the job. I mean, frankly, she just wasn’t that into the job. She was building a family, she had two kids in the four years, two children in the four years she was there. And I didn’t really get into this in the piece, but what I think happened is, frankly, she was the victim of a little bit of sexism from sort of, kind of, as one guy described to me, old-fashioned supervisor who didn’t like the fact she wasn’t as career oriented as he wanted her to be. And the opinion was just, this wasn’t going to be her future. She was never going to be a tax lawyer for the rest of her life. That was the overwhelming impression.

HH: All right, next issue that I want to raise, William Cooper, who you quote at length, you know, state politics is littered with William Cooper’s, guys who are bitter, they get beat by the young, by the bright, by the smart, by the conservative.

RL: No, you’re talking about Gary Laidig.

HH: Oh, Gary Laidig, excuse me. And so…

RL: Cooper was the state head of the party.

HH: Yeah, so I mean…

RL: Laidig was the guy she beat.

HH: Yeah, bitter people in state politics. I mean, I can stock the refrigerator shelves with them.

RL: No, look, fair enough. This is a guy who she beat, so he’s not happy about that, right?

HH: Yup.

RL: And look, that’s clear to the reader. The readers will read those quotes and say okay, well, I understand what this guy’s agenda is. On the other hand, and this is important to me, she has been talking about her going to the nominating convention one day, and she has talked about this as a spur of the moment decision, where she just decided to run against this guy. And Hugh, I found out that that is simply not true. She’d been talking about running against Laidig for months, she to his face said if you don’t do X, if you don’t vote this way on a bill I care about, I will run against you. And that’s exactly what she did. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. That’s how people get into politics, right? They get angry with what their legislators are doing, and they try to take them out.

HH: Interesting point. Okay, that’s fair.

RL: So I was very, very surprised to learn that it was not quite, it did not quite track the story that she has told many times, and has appeared in most profiles of her.

HH: All right, last…I’ve got two questions I have to get to. I know David Noebel. I have lectured at Summit Ministries. David was an anti-communist forever, you know, he’s led this legendary anti-communist program, and he is a worldview guy. Did you talk to him?

RL: No, I didn’t talk to him.

HH: I wish you’d talk to Summit Ministries. They’re very interesting and intellectually serious people up there out side of Colorado Springs in Manatu Springs.

RL: All right, fair enough. I mean, you know, sometimes you see longtime John Bircher, and you read some of the titles of the pamphlets he wrote…

HH: Yeah, I don’t, I wouldn’t call…

RL: …about the Beatles being part of a communist plot…

HH: I don’t think he’s a longtime John Bircher. That’s why, and maybe he is. I just, I’ve only known him for a couple of years, and looked over the material that they use at Summit Ministries, and they get some of the best and smartest home-schooled kids in America go to that program. Okay, last question. Rick Perry enters the presidential race. A) Are you going to do a profile of Perry if they’ll let you near the plane, Ryan Lizza?

RL: I don’t know. You know what? I don’t know if I’m going to do Perry. I feel like returning my focus maybe a little bit to the White House and Obama, and figure out what’s going on, on that side of things, in the near term. But that’s just a guess.

HH: Do the Bachmann…

RL: But Perry, to me, Perry’s fascinating. I do want to know a whole lot more about him.

HH: Yeah, is the next race that matters Bachmann-Perry? Or is it Romney-Perry?

RL: I…I mean, God, I’m so bad as predicting these horserace questions. But looking at the polls, it does seem that Perry is kind of, he’s taking a lot from Romney, and he’s taking a lot from Bachmann, and that seems like the sweet spot to be in, right?

HH: Did you talk strategery on the plane with any of her people? Where does she go after Iowa?

RL: I did, you know, because some of her, Alice and who else, one of her other strategists worked for Huckabee.

HH: Sure, they did.

RL: So they’ve seen this movie before, right? They know what it’s like in politics. When you almost win, you never get that out of your head. So she’s got these people around her…

HH: Yes, you nurse grudges (laughing)

RL: (laughing) Yeah, one, you nurse grudges, but two, you think we won Iowa last time with this guy, Huckabee, and then we kind of messed it up in South Carolina by maybe spending an extra day in Michigan. And you kind of replay the whole thing, and you think we were this close to winning, and so she’s got people around her like that, that think they came so close last time that they know how to do it the right way this time. So we talked a little bit about that.

HH: But do you think that she just skips New Hampshire and tries to go to South Carolina and win there?

RL: You know, I didn’t get into that level of detail. I think it’ll all depend on the polls and expectations. If she wins Iowa, the history of these things, it does seem like you can’t skip a state, though, right?

HH: No, you can’t, and I’ll tell you, I found it fascinating. I hope you continue to write about her, and I think that people who care about this race have got to go read Leap Of Faith by Ryan Lizza. It’s over at the New Yorker right now, it’s linked at

RL: Well Hugh, thank you for the smart, fair interview. I always appreciate it.

HH: Well, I love talking to you, and I hope your voice feels better. Go read the Article Six Blog thing. I think you’ll find it interesting. You and Schroeder ought to have a back and forth on Francis Schaeffer. Thank you, Ryan.

RL: I will, I will.

HH: Talk to you when I get back.

End of interview.

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