Second Act

08.10.13

Rick Santorum, Culture Warrior Resurrected

At the Iowa State Fair, Rick Santorum was greeted like a rock star as he called on Christian conservatives to remake culture and entertainment in their own image. Ben Jacobs reports.

Rick Santorum was more popular than the butter cow.

At the Iowa State Fair on Friday, he received more attention than traditional draws like pork tenderloin on a stick or a bovine made entirely out of butter.

A few years ago, before his run for president, Santorum was a political afterthought, a phase of his career he remembers well. He mentioned “an article about me by a guy named Dan Balz [a reporter for the Washington Post], who wrote a book called Collision 2012. He admitted to the guy who interviewed him, that when he interviewed me really in 2009 or 2010, about me running for president, he didn’t even bother to take notes, so I know what it’s like to not have anyone pay attention to you.”

But people were paying attention on Friday. Everywhere the former Pennsylvania senator went at the fair, he was greeted by elected officials, ordinary citizens and even the Oklahoma man who wrote his campaign song and just happened to be at the fair selling pots and pans. They all seemed over the moon to be in the presence of a man who was preaching culture war among the corn dog stands and carnival rides.

Santorum, who is now running a movie distribution company that has two movies coming out this year – one that is “a picture focused on the church” and the other that will be a “broad release of 600 to 1000 screens” – emphasized the centrality of popular culture over politics. Wielding his iPhone, he mourned that while parents may spend “10 minutes, 15 minutes a day” with their children, “these devices get about eight hours.” In his mind, conservatives are losing the culture war because they don’t want to engage in it. He was hoping to encourage conservatives “to go out and start fighting those battles.”

The role of culture was so important to Santorum that when a reporter asked him if he was more of a political figure or a cultural figure now, the former Pennsylvania senator replied simply, “Yes.” He emphasized that this drove his decision to enter the movie business. There are “a lot of entertainers who play politics, but there aren’t very many politicians who get into entertainment” said Santorum. “And there need to be more in my opinion, because we don’t understand the impact of culture on the political system and the future of our country and it’s a very big part of America.”

He wasn’t just in Iowa to promote his movies and didn’t play coy about why he was in town, stating plainly, “I’m not doing anything inconsistent [with a presidential run]... I love coming back to Iowa because I just like being back here, but I understand what connotations are taken from this.” But Santorum did seem happy to be back in the Hawkeye State.

The role of culture was so important to Santorum that when a reporter asked him if he was more of a political figure or a cultural figure now, the former Pennsylvania senator replied simply, “Yes.”

The night after drawing a crowd of about 400 in the rural town of Rock Rapids, Iowa  (which has a population of about 2,600), the former Pennsylvania senator kept on running into old friends. While contentedly munching on pork tenderloin on a stick at the Iowa Pork Producer’s tent, he ran into Ray and Fonda Garringer of Williamsburg, Iowa, and instantly remembered their coffee shop, the Java Lounge, though he needed a little prodding to recall his usual order of a decaf “Cold War” latte.

But many voters who Santorum didn’t recognize still embraced him. Bill Jennings, a real estate agent and farmer from outside Ames, Iowa, had a brief but enthusiastic conversation with him in the crush of Iowans around the butter cow in the Fair’s Agriculture Building. Jennings, an earnest father of three, thought Santorum was “the best” and could have won a general election in 2012. While “something about Romney was a little too goody-two-shoes, independent voters could relate to Rick.”

For all of the hoopla surrounding Santorum, which included television crews and national reporters, not everyone at the fair was worked up about it. A former federal employee named Kevin, who declined to give his last name lest it interfere with contracting work, was sitting on an outdoor bench and sipping a beer while watching the cavalcade around Santorum. He didn’t believe in political parties and found it a little absurd that candidates were already showing up in Iowa. Kevin was content drinking outside at 3 p.m. on a Friday, until his wife, who he referred to as “the Field Marshal” came by. He couldn’t give a hoot about a presidential candidate, but when the Field Marshal talked, Kevin listened.

Santorum paid Kevin about as much attention as Kevin paid him, brushing by him with a pack of journalists on the way to his next interview.  The journalists didn’t notice Kevin either; they were too busy taking notes.