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01.21.12

The Real Appeal of Rick Santorum

Thoughts of image and ideology got trumped by the touching sight of a candidate who chose to spend the last night of the South Carolina primary with a small crowd of eager, polite cadets.

The Citadel, the famous military college here in Charleston, is a place where I would have lasted about four minutes when I was 18. The only mystery about that hypothetical reposes in the question of which would have happened first: whether I would have flipped the whole place the bird and run as fast I could to the nearest bar, blasting the Clash on the jukebox, or whether they would have driven me to some desolate low-country back road and thrown me out of the Jeep and left me for dead. We do not inhabit similar moral universes, let us say. And yet—and yet—I was oddly affected by Friday night’s Patriot Dinner, where the honoree was Rick Santorum. There was a sincerity about the event, the kind of sincerity that, when you’ve covered 4,000 of these things, takes you by literal physiological surprise; your body reacts in a different way, your brain receptors don’t feel half-crushed to catatonia in the way they typically do at a political event, and the live half of your brain notices it, and you start wondering why.

The Patriot Dinner, which is held every year, a young cadet explained to me, even when heretics like myself aren’t around, honors someone considered a great American from the Citadel’s perspective. That perspective is pretty ideologically hard core. Before the festivities began in full, there was a video. It featured the usual treacly music that such videos offer, but it showed Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and a parade of their comrades, and words flashed on the screen saying: “They are destroying this country.” Destroying! That, let me tell you, is a straight-whisky verb. Newt Gingrich and others use it, but these high-production-value videos never employ words like that. As a young cadet onstage limned the accomplishments of the campus Republican club (the largest in the state, a later speaker noted with pride), I asked another cadet, I don’t guess there’s a campus Democratic club. Sir, he said politely, I doubt that you would find more than four or five Democrats on this campus. That’s out of 2,500 students. He seemed to know exactly who they are.

It turns out that Santorum has a deep connection to the Citadel. A young but important aide named Steven Munoz, who did yeoman’s work in Iowa, is a recent graduate. One of the candidate’s key endorsers in the state, Gresham Barrett, a former congressman, is an alumnus. It is mostly because of Munoz, my young cadet friend told me, that the cadets have been manning Santorum phone banks like dervishes, logging thousands of calls. One young man who’d made 3,000 calls was given an award. “It’s the Mafia!” exclaimed the Northern Catholic in his speech. “The Citadel Mafia!”

About Barrett. He was running for governor in 2010 and was the odds-on favorite. Then, Sarah Palin endorsed this also-ran named Nikki Haley. You know what happened next. A tribute film to Barrett aired. Again, it departed radically from the usual script of these things. This film was all about Barrett’s loss. He had lost contact with Jesus. He had made the mistake of trying to serve man. But mind you, he was still keeping score: he specifically mentioned, and is clearly bitter about, the Palin endorsement of Haley. His consultant told him: you cannot win. Indeed he did not. He had no idea what to do with himself afterward. In fact the film didn’t even progress toward happy or at least hopeful resolution. For all I know, he’s out collecting soda cans every day. What sort of politician’s bio film leaves matters there?

Video screenshot

During the film, I noticed that the man standing next to me was tearing up a bit; sniffling. I looked at him a second time. It was Barrett himself! But in the 30 or so feet between us and the podium, he’d gathered himself completely, enough to introduce yet another film, this one about Santorum, and somewhat more conventional. But only somewhat. It was at least devoted to his glory. But it featured testimonials from his many children, rather than from the usual array of “regular” Americans.

This has all happened from 7:30 until around 8:00. Barrett reappeared at the podium, said Santorum will be the next president of the United States, blah blah blah, and on comes the man. It’s 8:05.

I suppose I should say that obviously I find his politics twisted and dangerous. And there are certain ethical questions that no one has bothered to raise because he’s not really important enough. I literally wouldn’t vote for him if I were in a Twilight Zone episode and he were the only person on the ballot. And yet I think: if he were a liberal, he’d be pretty close to being my kind of guy. He’s consistent (you haven’t heard anyone accuse him of flip-flopping), he appears to care about the lives of working-class people, and while he mouths a few platitudes, you can tell he doesn’t like it.

He had been on a cable show that day, and the host had likened the three plausible GOP candidates (minus you-know-who; sorry) to the Three Bears. Santorum took great delight in this idea—pretty apt, one must admit—that one candidate was too cool, another way too hot, and the third (him) juuuust right. His sweater vests now have “Rick Santorum” embroidered into them, but he came armed with a decent line about it, too. “If you were in the dance hall and you were a young lady, you’d probably walk by the guy in the sweater vest,” he said. “He probably has a pocket protector too!” But, after the dances with the other bears, “He’s the guy you can trust.”

The speech was just getting to dwell on politics for too long when he switched to substance. And instead of saying, “There are just eight vital issues I want to discuss,” as most of them do, he talked about only one thing: Iran. In 10 minutes, he was done. They gave him an award, the Nathan Hale something or other, physically embodied by a mounted musket, for which he’ll need, well, more wall space than I have (which, according to reports, he has).

I literally wouldn’t vote for Santorum if I were in a Twilight Zone episode and he were the only person on the ballot. And yet I think: if he were a liberal, he’d be pretty close to being my kind of guy.

This was a room of 200 or so people; 250 counting cadets. There was no way to pad it. You bought a ticket or you didn’t. In other words, it was not a massive, final-night campaign event. Rather it was a debt paid to a place that’s been good to him. I’m sure that part of him would rather have been speaking to a larger crowd in a part of the state that’s going to be better for him. But I think it’s kind of honorable that his last public event, not only of the South Carolina campaign but maybe the campaign period, was this low-ish key and only partly political event.

I couldn’t care less whether Santorum lasts past South Carolina. What I do care about is seeing a spark of feeling in politics that goes beyond ideology and beyond even “commitment,” but into a place where our political selves and our real and full human selves collide. It is a far rarer sight than you’d think. Or maybe it isn’t far rarer than you’d think. Whichever the case, I saw it Friday night, and I wish it weren’t so rare.