Streetcar Line

Pence and Santorum: Thought Leaders

Elevating the substance of public discourse.

By 9.23.10

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In the past two weeks, two potential candidates for the Republican presidential nomination each made one of the most substantive, thoughtful, on-target major addresses that presidential-level politics has seen in many a year. Each really deserves its own separate column, but time does not allow; so this single column will need to suffice.

The speakers were both conservative stalwarts, both of them leaders but both seen as somewhat long-shots for the nomination. U.S. Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, if he runs, is a long-shot because conventional wisdom stupidly believes all past is prologue, and the past says that nobody since James Garfield has gone straight from the House to the presidency. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is seen as a near-hopeless case because, after all, who can lose re-election in his own state and move, without intervening election, to the White House? Nobody, supposedly.

Well, neither could a black man, or somebody born in Hawaii who grew up in Indonesia. Neither could presidential ticket nominees come from small states like Alaska or Delaware or Wyoming, or be born in the Panama Canal Zone, or be a woman who hunts elk… or a peanut farmer or a washed-up movie actor, fergoshsakes.

So forget the useless, premature campaign handicapping. Let's see what these men actually say -- because the speeches are worth reading and re-reading and discussing and sharing, regardless of whether each man even runs for president much less if he can win.

The Santorum speech came first, on Sept. 9, commemorating the 50th anniversary weekend of John F. Kennedy's famous speech declaring that he, as a Catholic, would answer to the American Constitution before answering to the Pope. JFK's speech has long since been fitted for a civic halo from the liberal elites, who do and will evermore point to it as the decisive statement on proper American church-state relations.

Against that elite, Sen. Santorum had the guts and mind to call JFK's hand. In short, Santorum said JFK was peddling balderdash:

Let me quote from the beginning of Kennedy's speech:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.

The idea of strict or absolute separation of church and state is not and never was the American model.

After JFK's bit of political jujitsu, the moronic cognoscenti taught as established doctrine that faith should be completely segregated from the public square. To which Santorum answers: "Our founders' vision, unlike the French, was to give every belief and every believer and non-believer a place at the table in the public square. Madison referred to this 'equal and complete liberty' as the 'true remedy.'" Repeat: The idea was not to divorce all faiths from the public square, but to welcome all faiths into it.

More pithily, Santorum rightly said that "Kennedy took words written to protect religion from the government and used them to protect the government from religion."

Then came this long passage:

Another consequence is the debasement of our First Amendment right of religious freedom. Of all the great and necessary freedoms listed in the First Amendment, freedom to exercise religion (not just to believe, but to live out that belief) is the most important; before freedom of speech, before freedom of the press, before freedom of assembly, before freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances, before all others. This freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, is the trunk from which all other branches of freedom on our great tree of liberty get their life. Cut down the trunk and the tree of liberty will die and in its place will be only the barren earth of tyranny.

This first freedom has now been placed on the lowest rung of interests to be considered when weighing rights against one another. The fruits of this misguided idea are increasing evident -- for example:

• The ACLU is currently pushing HHS to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions under the emergency care mandate of Obamacare.

• A University of Illinois professor hired to teach classes on Catholic doctrine was fired because he taught (well…) Catholic doctrine….

Santorum gave several other examples. All were appropriate. But at this point, readers might, even while nodding in agreement, say to themselves that this is somewhat well-trod ground. What was impressive was that this was not the end point of Santorum's speech, but its launch. What follows is of a quality, an erudition, which few politicians would dare. Do read the whole thing for yourself to see, for I can't do it justice. But, back on a more pithy level, this passage stands out: "Virtue requires faith because faith is the primary teacher of morality. That is not to say that one cannot be virtuous without faith, but for society as a whole faith is the indispensable agent of virtue. Faith requires freedom."

Santorum's speech rose not only above the moronic cognoscenti, but above sloganeering as well. And, of course, as do most conservative challenges to liberal orthodoxy -- even challenges from a former senator of some note on the anniversary weekend of a famous speech, delivered in the same city as the first speech and directly contradicting it -- the establishment media paid the speech little heed. This is, of course, how the establishment media always gets blindsided by ideas and developments in the majoritarian American heartland -- because the media turns its back to those ideas and developments, no matter how forthrightly they are expressed. And Rick Santorum, who fought for conservative judges when other senators shirked their duties, who took the lead on welfare reform and on a host of other issues, is nothing if not forthright. And on this matter, not just forthright but also absolutely right, as in correct.

EQUALLY RIGHT AND MOVINGLY eloquent was Mike Pence, the hero of many a conservative battle, in his speech at Hillsdale College on Sept. 21. Also equally substantive. The American Spectator already posted the speech in full this week, and I commented on it in two different places to two different effects. But what remains to be noted is the great seriousness of purpose that marked Pence's address, as seriousness of purpose also had marked Santorum's. This was no populist stem-winder full of cheaply effective code words signifying nothing more than a desire to earn applause. This was a speech meant to elevate discussion, a speech that assumed intelligence among its listeners, and challenged them to use that intelligence, rather than one that played to some presumptive lowest common denominator.

Consider this passage, among my favorites, which is nothing like a sound bite of the sort usually heard on the presidential stump:

A sensibility such as this, and not power, is the source of presidential dignity, and must be restored. It depends entirely upon character, self-discipline, and an understanding of the fundamental principles that underlie not only the republic but life itself. It communicates that the president feels the gravity of his office and is willing to sacrifice himself; that his eye is not upon his own prospects but on the storm of history through which it is his responsibility to navigate with the specific powers accorded to him and the limitations placed upon them not merely by man in his design but by God in His.

Pence's verbiage, his cadences, and his themes themselves are in a way old-fashioned, as of a bygone era. Yet if the era is bygone, it also was a good one, one where noble thoughts held throngs spellbound for hours, as at the Lincoln-Douglas debates. If they are in a way old-fashioned, it is a good way, and honed to a fine art it can still be effective today -- and ought to be welcomed by a public that at least claims to be tired of politics as oh-so-usual.

PRAISE ASIDE, I pray that it is not too presumptuous for me to offer some advice. I've polled people, anecdotally only, for some time about Pence's speeches. I find an interesting dichotomy. Men seem to like the speeches, and be inspired by Pence, far more than women are. It's not that women don't agree with him, or that they don't like him; it's just that the ones to whom I have talked seemed less enthused than the men. The feedback, in a nutshell, is this: Mike Pence needs to smile more, to lighten up his tone just a little, to seem a little more joyful or optimistic -- or something like that.

Yet what's problematic is that a Reaganesque ease of bearing can't be faked. It must naturally emanate from both the language and the visage of the speaker. If I were Mike Pence, I would set aside ten minutes each day just to relax and contemplate whatever brings true joy to his life. Not just satisfaction, but joy. As one smart lady said to me, the only thing lacking from what she thought otherwise were several terrific Pence speeches was a sense that the future will have sunny days. There's a sense of grim resoluteness to Pence, like that of Churchill during the darkest days of World War II -- and it's a resoluteness that does, make no mistake, promise that the good can triumph -- but there's no sense that humor of a light and natural kind can have room to play. If Mike Pence can somehow find that sense within him, without losing the ability to inspire the male of the species in the way of a Churchill or Vince Lombardi, then he will become not just a "force to be reckoned with" -- which he already is -- but a potential political juggernaut for whatever good and worthy cause he chooses.

As for Rick Santorum, the advice is as easy and as impossible as to exude the sense of a winner. He has bucked the odds before -- but he bucked them while in the role of an underdog who had still not yet been beaten. Once an underdog is beaten, indeed stomped, then the act of consciously and openly taking on an establishment is seen by others through a different prism. Fighting the ghost of JFK is brave, to be sure -- but coming from someone who's been badly defeated, the fight can look entirely like a loser's game. Overcoming that image will be Santorum's greatest hurdle in any future run for office. A little bit of populist razzle-dazzle might be needed to change the narrative.

NONE OF WHICH ADVICE should change a word of these two men's most recent major speeches. Sometimes substance is its own reward and glory, and in substance both speeches were impregnable. (Forgive me for sounding like a judicious Abe Lincoln avoiding a spat by telling two haberdashers that their respective hats "mutually excelled each other.") In substance, these two speeches have left almost all current politicians, whether possible presidential contenders or not, floundering in their wake. What Santorum called "this great inheritance that generations of Americans created with their last full measure of devotion," and what Pence described, quoting Churchill, as "some great purpose and design being worked out here below, of which we have been the faithful servants," is an inheritance, a purpose and design well worth honoring through thoughtful expositions like these two major addresses, and through the public services already performed by Rick Santorum and Mike Pence.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.