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.”

SANTORUM’S RACE AGAINST HARRIS WOFFORD brought frequent comparisons with Bob Roberts, a movie that two years earlier had parodied the cult of personality and its role in campaign politics, pitting—with remarkable prescience—a distinguished, slightly diffident liberal senator against a charismatic, insincere upstart prone to singing such inanities as “This land was made for me.” The movie was set in Pennsylvania.

Wofford was a noblesse-oblige activist—a former president of Bryn Mawr and a Peace Corps founder—closely associated with Bill Clinton. About Wofford’s plans to help Clinton institute a National Service Corps, Santorum said he had no interest in young people “picking up trash in a park and singing ‘Kumbaya’ around the campfire at night.” Addressing Wofford’s support of the Clinton health-care plan, he described a White House social-policy adviser as “a Marxist.” One Santorum mailer, paid for by an anti-gun-control organization, showed a bull’s-eye target with Wofford’s name in the center. Although Wofford has worked for John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Santorum’s campaign did little to distance itself from the ads when confronted afterward. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also reported that Santorum was employing an office staffer on the campaign, a violation of campaign laws.

Again, the religious right’s involvement was essential. When the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia printed 150,000 ballots for area parishioners, asking them to vote on select positions of Santorum’s and Wofford’s, the Christian Coalition and the Santorum campaign expected Wofford to score higher. (Wofford has pro-life leanings, and the majority of the Catholics surveyed also favored his support of gun control and family leave.) So the Christian Coalition and the Santorum campaign implored the Archdiocese to print new ballots using slightly different criteria. The Archdiocese obliged, destroying its original batch of scorecards and publicizing the new ones, on which, of course, Santorum had come out ahead.

Santorum’s was the second-highest-priority race for the National Republican Senate Committee, behind only Oliver North’s in Virginia. With the help of the NRSC, Santorum managed to outspend Wofford—which is rare for a challenger. Wofford’s effort, meanwhile, was poorly run. Its celebrity adviser, James Carville, was off promoting his book throughout much of the campaign, and Carville’s partner Paul Begala spent time on two other campaigns that had hired him simultaneously. Santorum came from behind to win, though he almost blew it in the final week, tripping over his own ego twice: First, he exploded at Teresa Heinz, attributing her support of Wofford to the fact that she was “dating a Democratic senator from Massachusetts”—John Kerry; then, he snapped at a LaSalle University student when pressed on his conviction to cut Social Security.

He won without a majority—49 percent of the vote to Wofford’s 47 percent. Coming as it did in the worst Democratic year in more than three decades, it was a weak victory. And while national Republicans hailed Santorum’s as a cornerstone of the great victories of the Conservative Revolution, the Republican Party back home wasn’t completely thrilled. When a friend approached Elsie Hillman to ask her how she felt about her state’s new senator, she shrugged and rolled her eyes in a very Santorum-like gesture. “What can I tell you?” she said. “He worked for me.”

It should come as no surprise that Santorum has taken heat in Pennsylvania, a state that has always elected moderates: Heinz, Specter, Wofford, Ridge, Bob Casey, and to a certain extent Thornburgh.

Even Santorum calls himself a moderate; or so he did when I visited him (though in the same month he described himself in a political newsletter as a “kick-ass conservative”). “The only position I have that is not embraced by moderates is my stance on abortion,” he said. But his votes certainly place him right of center: He has supported tuition tax credits for Christian and private schools, and voted against gun control, against allowing gays into the military, against letting immigrants with HIV into the country, against federal funding for “obscene art,” against Henry Foster’s nomination for surgeon general and against the Civil Rights Act of 1991 (though he eventually voted for George Bush’s diluted version of it).

Santorum’s simplicity has enabled him to convince both voters and colleagues of the sincerity of these positions. “He is extraordinarily effective, very smart and very believable,” says Representative Walker. “He is so straightforward you can’t help but understand from listening to him why there is such a need in America to reduce the size and power of the federal government.”

Similarly, many have been convinced of his Saul-to-Paul religious conversion. During Santorum’s first two Congressional campaigns, says a veteran of those two efforts, his staff held daily prayer sessions. One of his top staff members claims to have spoken in tongues with Clarence Thomas, and at least one other has biblical quotations on her computer screen-saver. Recently, Santorum joined a Bible-study group, consisting of a half-dozen or so senators who meet Thursdays at noon in Vice President Gore’s Senate office (when Gore is not there). “I couldn’t tell you what religion he is by what he says in this group, but I would say he’s got a wonderful spirit about him,” said former Senator David Durenberger, a frequent attendant. “He’s got a sense that he hasn’t arrived yet, in terms of formal religious study, but he’s not afraid of expressing himself, no matter how silly it sounds.”

Santorum does concede that he’s had a volte-face on abortion. “I was basically pro-choice all my life, until I ran for Congress,” he said. “But it had never been something I thought about.”

“So why did you change?” I asked.

“I sat down and read the literature. Scientific literature.”

“So religion had nothing to do with it?”

“Oh, well, of course,” he said. “And religion too. It was both of those, science and religion.”

Santorum’s political identity is better defined by what he is against, by what he seeks to disrupt or dismantle, than by what he hopes to erect. Each of his best-known “accomplishments”—inflaming the House bank scandal, as well as the Hatfield and Clinton eruptions—have held the shape not of reform, but indictment.

I asked Santorum if throughout his life he had encountered any book or movie, any cultural or intellectual touchstone, to inspire his political worldview. He stared at a fixed point on his desk for several seconds, then looked at his press secretary.

“I wouldn’t say there was any book,” he said finally, pausing again. “I’d say Martin Luther King, and what he was speaking about had a profound influence on me, his commitment to bringing the races together.”

When I asked what he had done in his legislative career to try to realize King’s hopes, Santorum grew testy.

“Well,” he started. “It’s not … You don’t necessarily …”

“Welfare,” his press secretary said.

“That’s right,” Santorum said, not missing a beat. “Welfare reform. Welfare reform that will get blacks working and eventually bring about racial equality.”

AS LONG AS SANTORUM REMAINS WILLING to let Gingrich and his disciples project their agendas onto his tabula rasa, his usefulness and stature seem likely to grow. Several Republican members of Congress say privately that they expect him to make a bid for the presidency in either the year 2000 or 2004.

“I’ll tell you,” Santorum said, “when I decided to run for the Senate, Newt said to me…” He stopped. “I don’t know if I should…” He stopped again. “I think he put it this way: I was one of the few members, or the only one, who could be president. But as I told you, I’ve never had a big plan, never needed to look too far ahead. I just do what’s in front of me, and things just sort of happen.”

“And here you are in the U.S. Senate?”

He looked at his press secretary and chuckled. “It’s a great country,” he said.

 

This story originally appeared in the December 1995 issue under the title, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Santorum."

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