Rick Santorum’s Motto Mess

His website's slogan is borrowed from a gay black poet

So former Inky op-ed opinionator Rick Santorum has a presidential campaign exploration website that prominently features on its home page this slogan: “Fighting to make America America again.” At a campaign event last week, it was pointed out to him that this is a quote from a Langston Hughes poem, LH being one of America’s great poetic voices but unfortunately for Santorum also gay, and black, and pro-union. Santorum promptly scrambled to disavow the quotation, saying, “Well, I’m not too sure that’s my campaign slogan, I think it’s on a website.” As I write, he’s no doubt got his minions hunting for a new motto from some more respectable figure than the famed Harlem Renaissance man. But the poem the quote is taken from highlights the difference between the way conservatives like Santorum and liberals like Barack Obama view the United States.

Here’s what the poem, “Let America Be America Again,” has to say:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

Hughes is looking forward to the eventual fulfillment of our nation’s promise, the nirvana the Founding Fathers hoped for when they declared independence and formed a constitution: a land where even the poor and downtrodden are free. Look at the twist Santorum’s website puts on this: He wants to fight to make America America again, to go backward, to restore the mythical past idealized by conservatives—those idyllic days when uppity Negroes knew their place, women obeyed their husbands and got supper on the table, and children were seen but not heard. Santorum, like so many right-wingers, views America as a lost paradise whose history parallels that of Eden: Its citizenry has been tempted and is fallen into sin. That’s why he rails against abortion rights, immigration rights and homosexuality, and promotes “intelligent design”—America can only be restored to greatness when it reclaims its olden-days WASP godliness, and we’re once again praying at work and in our schools.

Hughes, on the other hand, who actually lived through the era that Santorum extols—he died in 1967, when the ex-Senator was nine—dreamed of Edenic promise still unfulfilled:

America was never America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

That’s the nation Barack Obama dreams of, too: one whose greatest days are yet to come. When he looks back, he sees what he has called “a tragic past.” His optimism for the future is what underlies “the audacity of hope” and “Yes We Can.” What’s wrong with America is that guys like Ranger Rick are too full of nostalgia for a romanticized never-never land to join the President in doing the hard work of moving ahead.