“Nought man could do, have I left undone.”
The line from Robert Browning’s poem “The Patriot” springs to mind as Pennsylvania’s Senator Rick Santorum talks quietly but passionately during a last swing through the heart of Pennsylvania. The crowd in Carlisle, the county seat of vote-rich Cumberland County, is filled with a decided mix of seniors, mullet-wearing young men, parents with squirming kids (including Santorum’s six), and enthusiastic twenty-somethings.
They are witnesses to one of the most remarkable Senate candidates in the country as well as in Pennsylvania’s long history, and they clearly know it. While Santorum has long-since emerged as the rare politician unafraid to speak his mind, his depth as a Senator continually on display, it is his refusal to buckle on the issue of national security in the face of defeat that has drawn such extraordinary notice within the state.
“In every other issue that concerned the Union, the voice which spoke in most potent tones was that of Pennsylvania,” wrote Henry Adams in his history of the United States. Adams would have loved Rick Santorum, whose insistence on giving voice to what he and many others believe is the central issue of our time is potent, sobering — and far from a guaranteed election-winner. Which hasn’t stopped the Senator from returning to the subject again and again in a series of speeches across the state he titled, with a nod to Winston Churchill, “The Gathering Storm.”
It is a cool, late autumn afternoon, the sun setting over the nearby United States Army War College. It is lost on no one here that the famous military institution, whose graduates include a veritable encyclopedia of famous generals from Pershing to Patton, Eisenhower, Bradley, Schwarzkopf and Tommy Franks has been saved from the chopping block by Santorum’s aggressive efforts on its behalf. It is also lost on no one that Santorum has run consistently behind in the polls, his absolute refusal to abandon a tough stance on the war being used to bludgeon him politically.
With an array of local and national Republican stars arrayed behind him as he begins to speak, Santorum’s attention is drawn to the parents with the squirming kids, his speech more a free-flowing stream of consciousness than formal talk.
“I look around and I see these children and all of the kids here…” he says, his head shaking almost imperceptibly, “…we are faced with a great enemy and we have a burden before us….Because the way the Democrats are talking, it’s pretty clear what their agenda will be.” He pauses. “Let me tell you what it means. It means whether we are going to be able to confront the evil that is in front of us… as opposed to giving Iran, North Korea and others…to give them the time to develop the weapons of mass destruction…and project devastation across the world. That’s what we have in store for us if we do not act now and stop them now….The Democrats want to retreat, they want to play politics.”
Except for a child’s cry the room is completely still. “Look,” he says, “I voted for this war. There’s nothing that bothers me more, that…that…” — here Santorum stumbles, a tremor of emotion in his voice a moment before he plows on — “…that makes me suffer more than seeing the men and women in uniform dying…and civilians dying…But I remind you that while it’s a great price…a great price, it’s small in comparison to the price that would be wreaked on the civilian population of this country and around the world if terrorists are given the time to arm…”
A shout goes up from the crowd, a man’s voice. “That’s right!” Murmurs of agreement and assent ripple through the room, heads nod, the mothers along with the mullets. Applause erupts.
“The fact that we have been safe for over five years is not an accident.” Santorum turns and gestures to former Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Missourian having taken time from Missouri’s own heated Senate race to pitch for the Pennsylvanian. “It is because great men like John Ashcroft put the Patriot Act together…it’s because courageous people were willing to stand up and take on the enemy where they are instead of waiting for them to attack here. We have been on offense, and what the Democrats want us to do is go on defense….That’s what this race is about. Ultimately it is about the security of your family….”
The drama is interrupted as Santorum’s five-year old son Patrick squiggles and distracts the audience as well as his father. “Including Pat,” Santorum says, the audience breaking out into laughter, the tension in the room released as the little boy grins. “This race,” Pat’s father resumes, “this race will make a difference to the future of our country….This election cycle, John Ashcroft said, will be one that history will look back on and say we either made the right call, did the right thing, stood up and confronted evil before it became too late. Or…or we made a mistake that could cost our country dearly… This decision is in the hands of a handful of people…the security of our country…the lives of your children and grandchildren, their safety and security, not just your children and grandchildren but your lives are on the line…So I’m asking you to work as if your lives depended on it…because they very well may.”
There is a return to humor. “The Democrats are energized. I don’t know why anyone would be energized for Bob Casey. Bob Casey isn’t energized for Bob Casey!” Howls of laughter, followed by applause at what has become a standard Santorum charge: his opponent’s sheer laziness, whether it comes to his candidacy, doing his intellectual homework or his job performance as State Treasurer. Even as Santorum speaks his campaign has opened a startling line of attack in this area: Casey, it seems, was so inattentive to the management of funds in the State Treasury he has wound up investing pension fund money in companies tied to states sponsoring terrorism. On television screens across the state an indignant veteran of the Iraq War takes note.
When Santorum is done the audience cheers, surrounding him, standing in line to shake his hand, to tell him they agree.
IT IS A POIGNANT VIGNETTE from the campaign of a man who is frequently typecast by the Pennsylvania media as brash, aggressive or, in one wildly inaccurate description, heartless. If Santorum has a problem as Senator and candidate it is precisely the opposite. In a Washington filled with the coldly calculating he is nothing but heart, winning accolades from no less than the rock star-turned-humanitarian Bono as “the defender of the most vulnerable.”
But while Santorum has a considerably substantive record of accomplishment on what might be termed issues of the heart such as welfare reform, flextime for parents, the global AIDS epidemic, Third World debt relief, and autism research, it is his relentless warnings about the dangers of Islamic fascism and his refusal to back away from George Bush that have hurt him. Warnings that he refuses to stop making and which have in fact become a center piece of his campaign.