LOS ANGELES -- What is the most frequent question I've been asked recently?
What is it with Michele Bachmann's 23 foster children?
Well, calling her congressional and campaign offices, I didn't get very far. They don't talk about it and say they really don't know anything about it. Not surprising on a couple of counts: It is pretty personal business, and Rep. Bachmann is a very demanding boss who has had six changes at chief of staff in just the last four years.
The questions are a compliment to the congresswoman from Minnesota as they are being asked only because she did so well in the first Republican presidential debate last week. There were none of the gaffes that made her famous, like the Founding Fathers devoting their lives to ending slavery when actually many of them, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were slave-owners.
In the debate against her male opponents, however, she stood out because she seemed to be the one most comfortable in her own skin. This is a big thing when you're running against folks like Mitt Romney who shed their skins like rattlesnakes. Bachmann was candid, she laughed and all in all came across as the one you'd like to spend a weekend with if she didn't talk so much and tend toward saying stupid things. Also, of course, she is one good-looking 55-year-old woman, especially considering all those foster children and five (home-schooled) of her own.
Read Sandra Bullock in "The Blind Side." (Bachmann, incidentally, has more Google hits than Bullock, about 17 million to 16 million -- tells you something.) So, I had a picture of 28 kids running around the Bachmanns' $1 million house on a lake in the suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul. The family does not seem to have any financial problems; among other things, it has been helped along by $250,000 over the years in federal agriculture subsidies because of a farm she inherited in Wisconsin. She votes against the subsidies, but takes the money anyway. Her husband runs a Christian counseling center.
The best information I could get about the foster children was from the Minnesota Department of Human Services. The state has an active and aggressive temporary out-of-home care for children program, serving more than 7,000 kids, troubled in one way or another, in foster homes. The idea is to get them in and out as quickly as possible and back to their own families, many of which are also troubled. The goal of the program is described by the agency:
"Foster parents come from all walks of life. They may be single or married, with or without children, renters or homeowners. What they share is a concern for children and a commitment to helping them through tough times. They provide critical care and nurturing to children in crisis."
Marcus and Michele Bachmann were licensed as foster parents to serve as many as three children at a time from August of 1992 to February of 2000. The children, all girls, I am told, stayed in the Bachmann house for anywhere from a week to as long as three years. Foster parents are paid between $20.69 to $96.13 per day, depending on the age and special problems of a child, according to a ranking official with the department.
All of this is only part of a portrait of a truly intriguing person who burst on the national scene with all the speed and surprise of Sarah Palin. Michele Bachmann, in fact, seems a more complicated person than Palin. She is prone to the same kind of gaffes as the former Alaska governor, least of all because she has a better grasp, slippery but better, of national issues than Palin.
She also has a few skeletons in her closet, which will soon be dancing across your television screens. She is not only homophobic, but says gays are the children of Satan. A couple of the people who have financed her political career have run into problems with the law -- Ponzi schemes and fake veterans' organizations have helped her along the way.
Still, Bachmann has proved to be a durable politician, even if some of her views seem wacky, and we are going to hear a lot more from her. Some of it will be accurate.