In a Slate column on Tuesday, Jessica Grose asked the question of why the media covers Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann differently. According to Grose, the media treats Perry as dumb and Bachmann as crazy. As Grose says of the Texas governor, he “comfortably fits into the Republican archetype of the stupid male candidate.” The fact that he is from Texas and likes to play up his anti-intellectualism—both traits reminiscent of another former Lone Star state governor who was derided for being none-too-bright—only makes the picture easier to draw. Bachmann, meanwhile, is portrayed as a little off. Matt Taibbi, characteristically eschewing euphemism and good manners, called her “batshit nuts.”
There are several problems, however, with Grose’s thesis, which is best summed up by this claim: “Of course, it’s just as easy to make the argument that Perry is crazy and Bachmann is stupid.” In other words, Grose is arguing that the media treats the candidates differently because one is a man and one is a woman, not because one is dumb and the other is crazy. But her examples do not really support this point. Here is one:
Pundits may equally denigrate Perry when he says Social Security is a Ponzi scheme and Bachmann when she says the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation, but there is a subtext to some of the criticism: Bachmann is too fragile to lead.
A Republican saying something like this about Social Security seems pretty standard to me, even if it is wrong. Moreover, the claim says nothing about Perry as a person, other than the fact that he is sympathetic to right-wing economic thinking. Bachmann’s comment on HPV not only managed to associate the Congresswoman with a radical fringe group (vaccine opponents), but also did so in the context of a bizarre story about a woman approaching her after a debate.
Another aspect of Grose’s argument is that Bachmann is also stupid, but avoids being called out for it. She writes:
As Rebecca Traister, the author of Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women, points out, a lot of Bachmann’s early gaffes—that the Revolutionary War started in New Hampshire (that would be Massachusetts), that John Wayne was born in Waterloo, Iowa, (that would be serial killer John Wayne Gacy)—were more “stupid” than “crazy.”
This seems right, but it misunderstands the media. Bachmann is portrayed as crazy rather than stupid because “nuts” is sexier and more interesting than “dumb.” I would imagine that a lot of people find Bachmann to be pretty dim, but choose to instead focus on her sanity because it is more compelling and colorful. If Perry started saying things about vaccines causing retardation, the press might start calling him crazy.
But wait, says Grose: According to “many secular Americans, Perry’s ties to religious groups that claim that Texas is ‘the prophet state’ sound, well, crazy.” Indeed, he even asks people to pray for rain. The problem here, at least for Grose’s argument, is that the press is more likely to give candidates a pass when making religiously-themed statements that border on the crazy. This has to do with a tendency to tiptoe around religion, not sexism.
Finally, Grose never answers the big question: Who is really more nuts? When one human being thinks another is crazy, the reason often has to do with little things that are hard to define. I couldn’t exactly describe why Bachmann seems nuts to me, and Perry does not (my unofficial gender-balanced sample suggests that everyone I know feels the same way). But people are good at recognizing signs. This isn’t sexism. Bachmann is just crazier.
Isaac Chotiner is the executive editor of The Book.