After a very long night and a dead-heat tie in the Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney made speeches. Romney's was unexceptional. It was a version of his stump speech, filled with political emotion--he quoted, as always, from "America the Beautiful"--but bereft of personal feeling. Santorum's speech, however, was very personal. He talked about his grandfather, the Italian immigrant who became a Pennsylvania coal miner. He talked about kneeling at his grandfather's coffin as a child, looking at his gnarled hands, "enormous hands ... those hands dug freedom for me."
It was a lovely moment, and perhaps a defining one for Santorum as a candidate for President--the first time a significant number of Americans (at least those political junkies who stayed up late) had seen him as something more than the young-looking guy down at the end of the stage in debates. In that moment he seemed the spirit incarnate of the emerging Republican Party: working class, populist, devout, passionate to the point of intemperance on a range of issues, very much the antithesis of Romney.
Santorum was not well liked by his colleagues in Congress. He was seen as brash, whiny, intense, puerile. A fellow Senator once said, "Santorum is Latin for [posterior orifice]." He can still be obnoxious on the stump. He once blamed the Catholic sex-abuse scandal in Massachusetts on the "academic, political and cultural liberalism" in Boston. He has made brutal remarks about homosexuality as a threat to American morality. A few days before the caucuses, he said, "I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money." (Presumably, though, he would have to use "somebody else's money" for the sort of program, like the GI Bill, that enabled a generation of coal miners' children to go to college.) He can be dangerously simplistic on foreign policy, the only candidate who has baldly said he would bomb Iran's nuclear facilities.
But Rick Santorum is more than the sum of his prejudices. Unlike a great many other political loudmouths, he lives his faith. I got to know Santorum and his wife Karen about 15 years ago, when we had several intense conversations about the death, in childbirth, of their son Gabriel. Karen nearly died from septic shock, but she refused to have an induced birth--an abortion, in effect. In retrospect, she admitted to me that she wasn't thinking clearly; she had three other children at home. But the Senator abided by her wishes to go through with a regular delivery. After Karen miscarried, the Santorums brought the dead child home overnight so their other children could see that he was "a beautiful, tiny little baby," Santorum told me. Subsequently, Karen gave birth to a girl with a severe congenital birth defect. Standing behind their father on the Iowa podium, six Santorum children--all of them homeschooled--wore buttons with a picture of their beloved 3-year-old sister. They are a remarkable family.