Ruth Marcus
Columnist January 31, 2012

The stories about Rick Santorum — to be precise, the stories about Rick Santorum’s 3-year-old daughter — tiptoe around the issue with all deliberate delicacy:

Should he be running for president with a child so ill? Is his decision to run, and his determination to stay in the race, a powerful example of Santorum’s devotion to the cause of life — or an especially vivid illustration of every politician’s overriding ambition?

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

Or is it some combination of both?

This is, I recognize, a combustible matter to broach. It involves casting judgment to some extent on the most personal and emotional of decisions. Questioning Santorum’s parenting choice at this particularly difficult family moment may seem unfeeling, even cruel.

Yet the topic is also unavoidable because it is so compelling. When Santorum briefly left the campaign trail because his daughter was hospitalized with life-threatening pneumonia, who did not pause to wonder: What would I do in that terrible circumstance?

For most of us, I suspect, the answer would have been different than Santorum’s from the start. If we had a child with a typically fatal genetic disorder, we would forgo the 99 Iowa counties’ worth of Pizza Ranches and the incessant blur of town-hall meetings, and stay home.

Santorum, in a forum last year, described how he struggled with the decision to run. “I have a little girl who’s 3 1 / 2 years old. I don’t know whether her life is going to be measured — it’s always been measured — in days and weeks. Yet here I am,” he said. “Because I feel like I wouldn’t be a good dad if I wasn’t out here fighting for a country that would see the dignity in her and every other child.”

This explanation sums up what I think is the essential difference between politicians and the rest of us. To decide to run for office, and in particular to decide to run for the presidency, is the ultimate egotistical act. No matter how decent or well-meaning, no matter how loving, the candidate is the center of his or her solar system; others, even spouses and family members, are orbiting planets.

And when the candidate, male or female, has younger children, it is folly — self-deluding folly on the candidate’s part — to imagine that his or her actions are really in the best interests of the child. Reasonable trade-off, perhaps. But not, as much as Santorum would have it, my definition of “good dad.”

About that “his or her” part — let’s pause to acknowledge that the Santorum conversation would be more extensive, and far more fiercely critical, if the candidate with a sick child was the mother. Exhibit A: Vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin with an infant, and one with special needs at that. I wondered in print at the time not about whether Palin could juggle BlackBerry and breast pump but why, under the difficult circumstances she faced, she would choose to do so.

In case you think this is a partisan critique, I had the same concerns about Elizabeth Edwards’s decision, after she discovered that her cancer had spread, to subject her children to the further turmoil of a presidential campaign. Edwards was not the candidate, of course, but her determination to have her husband continue his campaign despite her illness was another manifestation of the-candidate-comes-first nature of political family life.

Now Santorum’s tragic family situation has expanded that important conversation to the role of the politician/father as well.

As it happens, this is a subject that Barack Obama wrote about, explicitly and movingly, in “The Audacity of Hope,” describing his dereliction of parental duty after being elected to the Senate.

“I have chosen a life with a ridiculous schedule, a life that requires me to be gone from Michelle and the girls for long stretches of time and that exposes Michelle to all sorts of stress,” he wrote.

“I may tell myself that in some larger sense I am in politics for Malia and Sasha, that the work I do will make the world a better place for them,” Obama added.

“But such rationalizations seem feeble and painfully abstract when I’m missing one of the girls’ school potlucks because of a vote. . . . And so I do my best to answer the accusation that floats around in my mind — that I am selfish, that I do what I do to feed my own ego or fill a void in my heart.”

Obama the author did not answer his own question. But it remains, for every politician juggling career and family, political ambition and personal responsibility, the right one to ask.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com