WASHINGTON -- If a twig falls in the forest, does it make a sound? In the case of Republican Congresswoman and tea party champion Michele Bachmann, the answer is as loud as possible. Her decision not to seek a fifth term in her House seat from Minnesota was newsworthy only in the sense that she had sold herself for so long as indomitable in her pursuit of political notoriety.
Bachmann in her seven years in public office was a self-ignited rocket, or more accurately a firecracker. She launched herself into national prominence on a combination of anti-government, anti-liberal, anti-Obama harangues gobbled up not only by conservative news media but also the salivating mainstream press.
Sarah Palin made her only the latest flame-out in the right-wing firmament. She is the last casualty of the 2012 Republican primary class that earlier claimed Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich.
Bachmann parlayed a first-place finish in the meaningless Iowa straw poll of that year into temporary elevation among that motley crew. But in the succeeding months of that campaign she inevitably fell to earth, swinging on the way down at political ghosts like Obama's anti-Americanism.
Hounded by investigations of her 2012 presidential campaign operations and finances, and facing a well-heeled opponent in 2014 who came within an eyelash of beating her in the last Congressional election, Bachmann told her faithful to "be assured" they had nothing to do with her decision to take a swan dive. At least she saved her audience from the old bromide that she wanted to spend more time with her family.
In a parting shot at her perceived adversary, "the mainstream liberal media," she said she fully expected they would put "a detrimental spin on my decision." At least she got that right.
It's been said Bachmann was a creature of the grass-roots conservative phenomenon that she seized on in forming a Tea Party Caucus in the House. But the more reasonable account was that she saw a good thing, along with the epidemic of right-wing radio and television talk shows hogging the airwaves, and jumped aboard.
As a legislator, she has had little to show for her time in Congress other than joining in the endless cheerleading to "repeal and replace Obamacare," which has been offered and passed endless times in the House and wallowed there each time.
Unlike Palin, who quit the governorship of Alaska and became a temporary darling of the talk shows with a clever patter and show-biz charisma, Bachmann has relied on repeated factual distortions to mask her lack of depth in the serious business of politics and governance.
With other tea party luminaries like Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky grabbing the political territory Bachmann sought to occupy, she saw her bubble burst. While she still might find shelter at some smaller political conferences, she probably faces having her microphone figuratively shut off before all but the most rabid right-wing audiences.
Serious conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Hermitage Foundation are usually on the lookout for provocative policy architects rather than flashy carnival barkers of the sort Bachmann increasingly resembled. But who knows?
American politics has a way of turning out showboat salesmen who, like Willie Loman in fiction, manage for considerable periods of time to get by on a smile and a shoeshine. The most successful ones, though, like the late George Wallace of Alabama, have also had considerable political cunning to go along with their emotional appeal to a good slice of the voting public.
As for Michele Bachmann, she has never demonstrated even an inkling of the intellectual maturity or gravitas that Americans should look for in a national leader. At a time the Republican Party is up for grabs for positive, inspirational leadership, nothing becomes her more than her decision to get out of the arena, at least for now.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.)