Michele, Our Belle

AP Photo/Eric Gay

What she knows about the culture of the country she claims to represent wouldn't fill an action toy's gym sock. That's why Michele Bachmann—who announced she was retiring from Congress a couple of days ago—probably has no idea that she was played by one of the greatest actresses in Hollywood history two years before her own birth.

I mean, of course, Mercedes McCambridge—the witch-hunting villainess of Nicholas Ray's 1954 Johnny Guitar. In later life, she also voiced Satan in The Exorcist, but let's not stoop to such low-hanging fruit. McCambridge was a formidable performer, and she understood the hysterical roots of Bachmann's political persona better than our own Michele ever will.

Frustrated at most ordinary human contact, McCambridge's character comes into her own when she foments a lynch mob. Her shriek of "I'll give ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS!" when her posse balks at the hanging is one of the most indelible line readings in American movies. The closeup of her excited face as her nemesis's manse burns to the ground is, well, orgasmic.

I'm well aware of the taint of sexism involved in comparing the two. But Johnny Guitar was, by most standards, a feminist Western—featuring Joan Crawford, of all people, as the misunderstood independent gal Vienna (some name, right?) opposite McCambridge as the voice of intolerant reaction. The final shootout is between them, with the men in their lives reduced to onlookers.

Anyway. For women who believe in political equality, there must have been some pain in seeing one of their own who made it to Congress, ran for president, dominated the headlines for years ... and was as psycho as Dick Cheney's hamster. But that's how it goes with, ahem, progress. It won't all be wonderful. It would take belief in a kindlier God than the one on display in his bestselling autobiographies to think feminism somehow precludes Michele Bachmann.

Not that there can be much question we've dodged a serious bullet. As a member of Congress, Bachmann was a familiar sort of clown in everything but her gender. As a post-9/11 member of the House Intelligence Committee, with access to classified information, she was nothing less than a menace to American lives and freedoms. Anyone whose concept of patriotism is adversarial can't be counted on to tell apple pie from oranges at crunch time.

Nonetheless, to be a nut is always to risk being a lovable one—yes, including to the people who thrive on your idiocies. (Don't you think The Daily Show went into mourning when she announced her retirement?) The thing to remember about Michele, our belle in a china shop, is that she made contempt too easy. Before progressives revel too much in her departure from the national scene, let's just remember all the mighty shrewd people who made her their pilot fish and are still with us. She will be replaced, maybe even by somebody who makes us miss her. And who might be less easy to peg as a head case.

Whose craziness was a threat and whose wasn't was never in doubt in Johnny Guitar, which may be its limitation as a parallel. In pop-culture terms, Bachmann might be better understood as the star of the Sitcom That Never Was: the right-wing version of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Minneapolis is in Minnesota, remember. How did she make it on her own? This world was awfully big, and thanks to Marcus, she was all alone. Hate was all around, no need to fake it—and she did make it, after all.

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