In the Arena

Santorum’s Honorable Campaign

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One evening in Iowa last October, as autumn trudged toward winter, I watched Rick Santorum work a huge crowd of 7 civilians in the back room of a tavern, in a very small town. It was his final stop of the day, well past 9 p.m., but he answered every last question those people had and even asked a few himself. When it was over, he and I chatted for a few minutes about the campaign and about our families. I’d gotten to know Santorum back in the 1990s, when I wrote a piece in the New Yorker about the death of his son Gabriel, two hours after his birth, and about the health risks that pregnancy had posed for Santorum’s wife, Karen. Now I found myself telling Santorum about my mother, who was entering the last weeks of her life, and some of the difficult decisions I’d made. He talked about the teachings of his church on those issues. It was a good conversation, the sort I don’t have with many politicians.

People often ask me why I like Santorum, even though we disagree–sometimes vehemently–on almost every possible issue. It is because he’s the sort of guy with whom you can have a conversation about your mother dying, or a civil discussion about the most heated policy issue. (That night in Iowa we also talked about Iran, where our differences are pretty stark.) I have found him to always be open and candid, and willing to answer any question. And that is how he waged his campaign, in the most labor intensive way imaginable, 6 or 8 town meetings per day in Iowa–real town meetings, not a canned speech and a question or two. He earned the prominence he achieved in the race.

Santorum said a fair number of horrifically stupid things along the way (he might even agree with that assessment in a few cases); I think he is profoundly misguided on issues ranging from the individual health insurance mandate to bombing Iran to homosexuality. But I don’t think he’s taken any of those positions because they were convenient or popular with the base. He believes the things he says, which is rare enough in American politics. And I’m happy that he’s the sort of person who is willing to argue those things out with someone like me, because we have far too few of honest arguments these days in our political process–real discussions, where one person states his case without tricks or soundbites, the other listens and responds. Mitt Romney, for example, has run a very different sort of campaign–not just with reporters, but also with his audiences.

Most of all, as I’ve written, I respect and admire Santorum’s personal life, the courageous and inconvenient decisions he and Karen have made about their children, and especially Bella. I know that it was easier for the Santorums than for most to home school their children and care for a baby with a tragic illness. They had money and help; most people don’t. But that doesn’t mean those decisions were easy, or that the anguish involved in a weekend like the one they just spent in the hospital with Bella is any less.

So I’m happy he ran for President. He made me think about things I don’t usually think about. He forced me to defend things I think about a lot. I wish him and his terrific family the very best.