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.”

IT WASN’T THAT LONG AGO that Santorum was a working grunt in Harrisburg, serving as staff director to state Senator J. Doyle Corman. Santorum describes himself in those days as a “jokester,” and indeed there is little in his friends’ descriptions of their shared experiences that brings to mind the apprenticeship of a statesman. Charlie Artz, then a roommate of Santorum’s and now an attorney in Harrisburg, concurs. “Those were fun times,” he says. “When we were at home, we watched ESPN, a lot of ESPN. Rick’s favorite thing was to watch that announcer Chris Berman do the hockey highlights, and every time they’d show someone hit a slap shot, Rick would stand up and yell along with Berman ‘A cannonading blast!’ It got kind of annoying after a while, but Rick could really crack himself up.”

A teammate in the state-employees’ softball league remembers Santorum, a rather lumbering shortstop, as the sort of person easily coerced into doing something foolish at his own expense. “A classic was when we got him to try chewing tobacco right before he stepped into the on-deck circle. I told him it was something only real players did. When his turn came to bat, he was back in the bushes throwing up. We’d never laughed so hard in our lives.”

Not that Santorum’s leisure time in Harrisburg was without reward. “It was a great time to be a young single man in Harrisburg, let’s leave it at that,” says Stan Rapp, a Harrisburg lobbyist who remains Santorum’s closest friend. Cohorts speak of evenings spent drinking beer at a handful of town bars and, occasionally, setting out for the dance floor—typically at the Marriott or at a club called VIPs, where Santorum was heard to approach a young woman with the proposition “How’d you like to go out with a governor?” He meant himself, of course. “Rick knew it even then,” says Stephen MacNett, a fellow Republican staffer in the state Senate now serving as general counsel to the Pennsylvania Senate’s Republican caucus. “Even if we didn’t.”

SANTORUM’S OFFICE IS IN the Russell Building—the most handsome and most architecturally elaborate hall in the Senate. He has a few books on his shelves, and his walls are bare. He is tall and broad, but he sags in his desk chair. He seems uncomfortable with the very idea of being comfortable. He flounces around his office with his back arched, letting his arms dangle behind him, penguin-like. His smile is a pained wince, a facial contortion in which his eyes tighten, the corners of his mouth tighten and his jaw tightens. Over the several days I spent in his presence, he rarely addressed me without first looking to his press secretary for approval. Above all else, Santorum’s discomfort manifests itself in his tendency to roll his eyes, feigning self-deprecation. That way, no one can mistake him for someone who takes his own words seriously. Like he cares. This he does as he tells me what drew him to politics. “It’s the closest thing to sports,” he says.

Santorum, truth be told, was never much of an athlete during high school, but was happy to be in the company of athletes. Growing up in Butler, Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh, he played junior-varsity basketball and managed the baseball team. During football season, he was in the pep squad’s Color Guard. They called him the Rooster. He was a middle child, a latchkey kid. His father was an Italian immigrant who worked as a psychologist at a Veterans administration hospital; his mother was a nurse there. When his family moved to suburban Chicago before his senior year, he made few friends and worked in the locker room of a country club. He was uncertain about college, and his applications were late. “I only applied to two,” he says. “Penn State and the business school at the University of Illinois. I can’t remember why I applied to the business school, but I did, and they said I was too late. Thank God Penn State accepted me. I had no idea what I was going to do—I mean, I couldn’t apply anyplace else.”

Prior to his matriculation in 1976, Santorum had never had any interest in politics. “I always said I never let school get in the way of my education,” he says. But somehow a vital connection was made. Santorum signed up for a poli-sci class freshman year. To fill one requirement of the class, students were given the choice between volunteering on a campaign or following an issue in the New York Times, and “Well,” Santorum says, “I always said I was too cheap to buy the New York Times and too lazy to go to the library every day, so I decided to work on the campaign. I figured it would be easier.” He chose the Republican campaign of then-Senatorial candidate John Heinz, because his was the only name Santorum recognized—Pittsburgh and ketchup and all that. He ended up running Heinz’s first successful bid on campus by default, and then was recruited into resurrecting the Penn State Republicans’ club, which had been dormant since the ’60s.

It was the dawn of the 1980s, and the Reagan Revolution was stirring. But Santorum was not yet politically impassioned, and what political orientation he did have was quite moderate. “There was a Youth for Reagan group on campus, but Rick shunned them,” remembers a friend who was active with him in the Pennsylvania College Republican organization. “He always described them as right-wing fringe. But I don’t think he gave it much thought. Through three years in the College Republicans with Rick, I never heard him actually discuss issues.”

In fact, Santorum now says, those years brought no epiphany that turned him on to politics or to the conservative movement. “That’s just sort of the way my life is,” he says. “I don’t really sit down and plan anything. It just sort of happens.”

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