Rick Santorum’s Not Such a Bad Guy. Even Bono Agrees.

The presidential candidate is a champion for the sick, poor and underprivileged.

Rick Santorum lost the nomination during the Arizona debate. His strength is, and has always been, that he is honest and a man of principle. You may not agree with Rick Santorum, but you always knew exactly where he stood. Ironically it was his honesty last night that showed us he is not always a man of principle. When asked about No Child Left Behind, Santorum answered that he voted for the bill even though he disagreed with it in principle. That brought boos from the Mesa, Arizona audience, and Santorum just made matters worse by saying “Politics is a team sport.”

The Republicans are looking for a leader who will not back down from his principles. Forget his comments about gays or Satan, Santorum will lose Arizona and Michigan next week and the nomination by admitting he is a team player.

Truth be told, Santorum probably was never going to be president. He has a hate-hate relationship with the media, and he was already starting to feel the heat from that mutually abusive relationship. Once again his words and speeches are being cherry-picked to portray him as an uncaring, religious, ultra-right zealot.

But uncaring he’s not. I first learned that at Citizens Bank Park.

I was the emcee of a massive rally to raise money and awareness for autism research in 2005. The Pennsylvania senator was there and scheduled to speak. Santorum was running for re-election and was trailing far behind in the polls. It was unusual for a candidate to be permitted to speak at a charity event. This appearance was even more unusual because Rick Santorum had just made his now infamous comparison of gay sex to bestiality. A statement that enraged the gay community and was especially ill received in Hollywood.

The man who invited Rick Santorum to that rally is Jonathan Shestack, a Hollywood producer who founded Cure Autism Now, the charity that sponsored the event.

“I am a Democrat and a liberal, but I am also a one-issue guy,” explained Shestack. “Rick Santorum is a hero for those of us who have children with autism.” Jon’s son Dov is severely autistic and has been featured on the Today show and 60 Minutes and in Newsweek. “We went to Washington to attempt to get funding for research and met with dozens of senators and congressman. Santorum was the only one who met with us for an hour, spoke without notes and knew more than anyone in the room about autism and current research.” Santorum pushed a bill through Congress that poured $860 million into autism research and care.

That is the strange dichotomy of Rick Santorum, his actions belie his words. The media has used his socially conservative verbal eruptions to paint him as callous, even mean. His legislative actions are anything but; they are caring, even loving.

As Rick Santorum was on the verge of being thrown out of the Senate, David Brooks of the New York Times wrote that Pennsylvania voters were hurting poor people around the world.

For there has been at least one constant in Washington over the past 12 years: Almost every time a serious piece of antipoverty legislation surfaces in Congress, Rick Santorum is there playing a leadership role.

In the mid-1990s, he was a floor manager for welfare reform, the most successful piece of domestic legislation of the past 10 years. …

More recently, he has pushed through a stream of legislation to help the underprivileged, often with Democratic partners. With Dick Durbin and Joe Biden, Santorum has sponsored a series of laws to fight global AIDS and offer third world debt relief. With Chuck Schumer and Harold Ford, he’s pushed to offer savings accounts to children from low-income families. With John Kerry, he’s proposed homeownership tax credits. …

In addition, he’s issued a torrent of proposals, many of which have become law: efforts to fight tuberculosis; to provide assistance to orphans and vulnerable children in developing countries; to provide housing for people with AIDS; to increase funding for Social Services Block Grants and organizations like Healthy Start and the Children’s Aid Society; to finance community health centers; to combat genocide in Sudan.”

Brooks’s column was prophetic. With Santorum gone, the poor and disabled were left without an advocate on one side of the aisle. When Republicans would dig in and argue that America couldn’t afford a health or poverty bill, it was Santorum who argued that America couldn’t afford not to. Without Santorum in the Senate, those bills withered and died.

If Rick Santorum could be judged on the accomplishments that he never talks about instead of what he talks about but could never accomplish, he would be a political star and a media darling. Rock Star Bono, who worked closely with Santorum, put it this way: “I would suggest that Rick Santorum has a kind of Tourette’s disease; he always says the most unpopular thing. But on our issues, he has been the defender of the most vulnerable.”

It is doubtful you will hear about Rick Santorum’s work with the sick and poor in this campaign. A legislative body of work is ignored by the media. Cable news has made the presidential campaign palatable to a reality-show audience by exclusively covering the scandal of the week and the gaffe of the day. Good news about a candidate never emerges from the past, but a four-year-old videotape of a speech about good and evil at a Catholic institution makes headlines in hopes of a manufactured controversy.

Unfortunately, Rick Santorum can’t rise above his media-created caricature. That’s too bad for the nation’s underprivileged, sick and disabled. In the last 25 years, he has been their most effective champion. And there is every reason to believe he would be again, if given the chance.