Miss O’Donnell Comes to Washington

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On Thursday, August 18th, former Delaware Senate Candidate Christine O’Donnell (right, with author) appeared at a Washington Barnes & Noble to promote her new book, Troublemaker. Billed as a political memoir, campaign diary, and rallying cry–and slapped with the Tea Party-approved subtitle Let’s Do What it Takes to Make America Great Again–Troublemakerr is the latest ideological point of solidarity to come from a Conservative Republican superstar. Having been largely silent since November, O’Donnell kicked off her media tour a few days before and made national headlines almost immediately when she cut off a Piers Morgan interview after refusing to answer questions about her stance on gay marriage. Her appearance in Washington was the first stop on her book tour, and consequently her first non-public showing. She was greeted by about 25 people who wanted her signature, and a handful of reporters.

Whatever hopes there were for a reading or a speech were crushed quickly. The whole thing instead turned into a delicately brief and private meet-and-greet between the former candidate and the few supporters who trickled into the store. The event spot was marked by a desk facing a TV camera next to a bookshelf stacked with copies of her memoir. She arrived about five minutes later than scheduled. As is often the case, she is smaller and thinner than she looks on television. She wore a striped blue jacket with matching pantsuit. Standing behind her desk she thanked the bookstore for hosting her, and sat down. The crowd formed into a line on her left, and one by one people approached her, many of them juggling three or four copies of her book.. She greeted everyone with all the charm and charisma her reputation suggests she ought to have. If someone had a camera, she posed for a picture. No one talked about politics. The only time ideology was mentioned at all was when someone asked her to sign his copy “to a fellow patriot.” Not 30 minutes after it had started, it was over.

Afterward the reporters crowded around O’Donnell to interview her in shifts. The Huffington Post got in first, and wasted no time getting to the Piers Morgan incident and her position on gay marriage. During the interview she’d told Morgan that he was being rude, a charge he flatly denied. Now she had raised the stakes, saying what he’d done was discomfiting and “borderline creepy,” and that most of what she’d been hearing was support from other women who agreed. When asked about her position on gay marriage, without skipping a beat she said she felt it was state issue, and that the first amendment protected the right of the church to define matrimony the way it wants to. A position, she was quick to clarify, shared by Barack Obama.

This, incidentally, is about half true. Both she and the president cite religious objections, but only she has framed it as an issue of the church’s protection from government. But in terms of media perception , it’s extremely dissonant. Barack Obama is a neoliberal intellectual who’s written extensively about the time he spent carousing with fringe characters in college. Christine O’Donnell founded a public advocacy group in 1996 that lobbied the government to promote abstinence. People assume that Obama is in favor of gay marriage because his biography suggests he ought to be, and people assume O’Donnell has an outright aversion to it for the same reason. So the comparison she made was papered over by the press. The headline instead was that Piers Morgan had made her feel uncomfortable with an aggressive line of questioning about sex and masturbation. The next morning saw her back on national TV with an appearance on the Today show. By then her story had turned into a full-blown accusation of sexism. She claimed Morgan had harassed her with questions “he would not ask a man.” By the end of the day that line was all over the Internet.

But what about Christine O’Donnell’s politics? What about the actual substance of her memoir? “I’m writing this book because I now have a platform,” she writes inwrites in the introduction. Replete with long stories about her religious and political development (she wasn’t active in politics until a cute guy roped her into a Young Republicans meeting in college,), it develops the basic intellectual argument of the current Republican partyParty that economic austerity is the foundation behind Christian morality and American patriotism:

The more you respect someone, the more you trust his judgment … and the less likely you are to try to tell him what to do. It would be as absurd as telling Mother Teresa to ‘behave herself’ on her way out the door, or urging General Patton to ‘win one for the Gipper.’ … If we look at humans as God’s priceless masterpieces created for earthly greatness and imitation of God, and destined for eternal glory … well, then we’re going to be sure that nothing gets in their way aren’t we? Who’d want to micromanage that?

In other words, stop taxing us. And that kind of convoluted manically polemical writing style permeates throughout the whole book. As does an enormous amount of defensiveness about the “Not a Witch” ad, which the press picked up on, and an anecdote about receiving a shout out from Haley Barbour at a fundraiser (“[he said] I’d done a great job back when I worked for him, that the party should be proud to have me as their candidate, and that he had no doubt I’d do a great job in Washington if I was elected”) that The News Journal, a Delaware newspaper ,is reporting never happened.

All of this is just to say that Troublemaker isn’t unique or surprising as a memoir or a political rallying call, nor is it selling any better than books of the genre not written by Sarah Palin. It’s currently ranked at number 32,105 on Amazon.com’s best seller list. To put that number in context, Texas-based televangelist Joel Osteen’s 2008 book Your Best Life Begins Each Morning is resting at a comfortable 15,326 (Mitt Romney’s No Apology, recently released with a new introduction, is at 55,075.)

This would seem to point to an outright failure, but as a device for getting O’Donnell back on television, however, it’s fared somewhat more successfully. Her two national appearances so far have been met with full media attention. The local TV and radio stations that have covered the individual stops on her east coast tour have generated less noise. The best measure of the book’s overall success might end up being her PAC, ChristinePAC, the mission statement of which is to “seek to empower Americans through voter education,” as well as support the troops and repeal Obamacare. If people are contributing to that instead of buying her book, it could make her a player again next year.

Justin Spees

Justin Spees is an intern at the Washington Monthly.