South Carolina, Santorum, and the penguin show


What fun we’re having! (JASON REED/REUTERS)

Become a candidate for president and you find yourself stranded with six Actual Voters and dozens of cameras and scribblers with notepads. And somehow you have to create the illusion that you are doing something Vital and Exciting.

It’s a tall order.

And here, where Polite Applause is the unofficial state sport, it’s well-nigh impossible.

Everyone here is so polite I have no idea what they mean.

It is a state where the weather is unseasonably warm and the tea is unreasonably sweet and everyone is too polite to tell you when you have lost the crowd.

Bored stiff. Listening, rapt.

You would have to visit a long time to tell the difference between the two.

The people are gorgeous. I don’t understand how they get that to happen with their hair. What is it you do? It’s unnatural. It’s as though you gave it a good talking-to and now it’s terrified to fall out of line.

The other trouble with being in Charleston is you keep thinking you see Tucker Carlson everywhere. It’s practically a uniform. Bow tie. Sweater. Khakis. Grin.

Who are these people, these pretty people, who can pull off bright red pantsuits? How are they so skinny? Are the women offered a separate menu?

What do they think of us? Everyone is so polite that I am in the dark.

Much has been made of South Carolina’s ability to pick winners. In Iowa, if people liked you they would tell you. Here?

I have no idea.

They can’t help being a little rude to Mitt Romney. Well, not rude. Polite. But silent. Since Preston Brooks caned Charles Sumner on the floor of Congress, South Carolina and Massachusetts have had a somewhat uneasy relationship.

But even Santorum gets an applause break.

This experience is like nothing so much as going to the zoo and trying to get a good look at the penguins. The penguins are placed in an artificial habitat that is some zoo expert’s idea of What Might Make a Penguin Happy. Between you and the penguin is an enormous gap. Both of you are a little nonplussed, and if you were hoping to guess what the penguin is really like at home, you are out of luck.

But the audience is very polite about it.

Politeness, they say, is the art of making people feel at home when you wish they were. That’s about right.

In this case, Santorum stands on a stage populated with Citadel cadets. They are either bored or at attention. It’s difficult to say.

The room is about a fifth full.

It’s Thursday afternoon at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference and Rick Santorum has a unique gift for emptying rooms.

Even full rooms. Whenever he begins to speak, you hear background noise. You hear vacuuming. You hear the roaring sound of butterflies in neighboring fields. Suddenly, you realize that there are all sorts of more interesting things you should be doing.

I heard once that he had started wearing sweater vests because he thought people would respect him more. If so, it isn’t working. You can’t listen to a man in a sweater vest. You keep thinking he’s going to teach you eighth-grade science.

This is, Rick Santorum says, the “most important election in this country’s history.”

He is speaking on a makeshift stage erected in the middle of a basketball court. There are possibly 70 Actual Voter People in the crowd. Everyone else is typing frenziedly away on a laptop or BlackBerry or iPad.

It is like watching a child’s basketball game where the all the children’s parents are high-powered lawyers.

Santorum’s pitch has evolved, if I am allowed to use that word with him, into cautiously suggesting that people endorse him because he will probably turn out to be like Ronald Reagan. I am not making this up. You endorsed Reagan, he told them. That went well. I am a human being who could be endorsed in South Carolina, just like Reagan was!

Santorum is a folksy man of the people in the sense that some people and folks are dogged and uncharismatic and always seem to be talking under you.

When his speech concludes, two dozen people stand. They applaud. They move towards the door. You have the sense that they are standing to give them an excuse to get out of there sooner.

But will they vote for him?

It’s anyone’s guess.

Everyone’s polite here. They hold doors for you. Sometimes you sense it’s that they’re trying to encourage you to leave.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".

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