Rick Santorum: “I Was Basically Pro-Choice All My Life, Until I Ran for Congress”

In a 1995 Philadelphia magazine feature, the 2012 presidential candidate was depicted as a Newt Gingrich acolyte, a Congressional bully, a class clown … and someone who changed his mind about abortion because of “science and religion.”

 

 

IN THE SUMMER OF 1989, Rick Santorum and a fellow associate at the Pittsburgh law firm of Kirkpatrick and Lockhart left work to drive to Three Rivers Stadium for the firm’s annual softball game. Sitting behind the wheel, Santorum popped in a tape, and on came the reedy voice of a man lecturing as if to a classroom.

“Listen,” Santorum said. “Newt Gingrich.”

“Who the hell is Newt Gingrich?” the co-worker asked.

Santorum explained that Gingrich was a congressman from Georgia, and that he was the guy to listen to if you were considering a future in politics. “At the time,” says the co-worker, “I had no idea that was something Rick was interested in.” As it turned out, Santorum was already telling people he was running for Congress in the upcoming election. The tape was something he had ordered from GOPAC, Gingrich’s political action committee, full of do-it-yourself campaign tips for aspiring candidates.

In recent years, of course, Gingrich’s tutelage of Santorum has taken on a much more direct nature. Last September, Santorum, at 37 a Republican U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, managed the Senate floor debate as it passed its welfare bill, all the while working closely with Gingrich, now speaker of the House of Representatives and the country’s most powerful Republican. Santorum, who prior to his election to the Senate last year served two terms in the House with Gingrich, is in fact known on Capitol Hill as Gingrich’s protégé and his point man in the Senate. The two meet weekly for early-morning swims at the House gym.

Much of Santorum’s record, thus far, has been a series of tantrums. More than a dozen times in his first few months in the Senate, Santorum took to the floor to trash Bill Clinton for not drafting a balanced-budget proposal, holding up handmade signs and repeatedly shouting “Where is Bill?” In March, Santorum went after a member of his own party, angrily demanding that moderate Mark Hatfield, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, resign his post for refusing to endorse an amendment to an amendment to balance the federal budget.

Santorum’s break with Senate decorum has been roundly criticized—by members of both parties. Hatfield is said to have told fellow senators, “I’ll be damned if some little shit who wasn’t even born when I was elected governor of Oregon is going to tell me what to do.” Another Republican senator says, “He has such contempt for the institution of the Senate. It’s completely disruptive, the way he carries on.” Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, himself not known for restraint, was recently heard asking another senator, “Santorum? Is that Latin for asshole?”

But while Santorum’s red-faced outpourings might lead one to think he’s some sort of renegade—“He’s not afraid to alienate the good old boys,” says Florida Senator Connie Mack (who in fact put Santorum up to calling for Hatfield’s resignation)—the truth is that Santorum is doing what he’s doing precisely because he seeks the approval of his elders, particularly those who are pushing Gingrich’s anti-tax, anti-government hostility. In other words, Santorum may be abrasive, but he is very much in lockstep with Gingrich and the other legislators towing the Contract With America line—a group that in the Senate includes Mack, Phil Gramm of Texas, Trent Lott of Mississippi and Santorum’s ten fellow freshmen. “He is a key player in much of what I and certain reform-minded members are doing in the Senate, all the more unusual for a freshman,” says Gramm. “He will go far here. I could see him as the Senate majority leader in a term or two.”

“Rick does our dirty work for us,” says Pennsylvania Representative Bob Walker, another Gingrich acolyte. “Because he’s a freshman, he gets away with a lot of things that we in the leadership couldn’t.” A former Republican Senate staffer who has worked with Santorum puts it differently: “He’s a Stepford wife to Gingrich. The WHERE IS BILL? signs—that was vintage Gingrich. If you took the key out of his back, I’m not sure his lips would keep moving.” (Gingrich declined to comment on Santorum for this article.)

The genesis of Santorum’s own views remains something of a conundrum. He has forgone a past that was unexaminedly moderate for a platform that is unexaminedly conservative, including reversing, rather quietly, his pro-choice stance on abortion. He is a favorite legislator of such moralist groups as the National Rifle Association and the Christian Coalition, and his voting record is in accord with the religious right. In his brief time in the Senate, he has achieved a measure of stature and prominence in part because—like a half-caste pledge in an elite fraternity—he has been willing to make a fool of himself to advance within Congress’ ruling core. What he wants most, it seems, is acceptance. “I figure now that I’m here for six years,” he says, “my colleagues have to take me seriously. I mean, they have to.”

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