Rick Santorum’s Inquirer columns offer a window into the candidate’s mind

One year after he lost his seat in the U.S. Senate — at a moment when his political party was hobbled and his own name had become a national dirty joke — Rick Santorum got a new job.

He became a newspaper columnist. Starting in November 2007, the former senator (R-Pa.) wrote a biweekly column for the Philadelphia Inquirer in which he developed and refined the political and ideological messages that have sparked his surge to front of the GOP presidential field.

“At a time when the conservative movement is rudderless and the lineup of future standard bearers is a mix of Johnnies-come-lately and Johnnies-never-been,” Santorum wrote in his first column, “I hope to provide some ideas that could help restore America’s confidence in the conservative movement.” He noted in that first column that another Inquirer columnist had recently called him a “doofus.”

Over more than 21 / 2 years, the beaten former senator tried to find a new voice on a range of topics: anger over same-sex marriage and abortion, suspicion of Iran, and calls to defend religious liberty from government. Santorum wrote movingly of his young daughter’s struggle with a genetic disorder, which has become a keystone of his campaign biography.

But the columns also reveal Santorum’s limits as a politician.

Several columns are devoted only to other people’s failures, and he comes across as a tremendous downer. In the columns, he struggles to lift his message above fist-shaking outrage and (sometimes literal) prophecies of doomsday.

“Often wrong,” he called himself in one column. “But never in doubt.”

Santorum’s columns are difficult to find now — this week, only a few of them were publicly available on the Inquirer’s Web site. He was paid $1,750 for each one, according to the Inquirer’s rival Philadelphia Daily News.

The arrangement ended in the summer of 2010.

“It was really a financial decision,” said Harold Jackson, the Inquirer’s editorial-page editor, in a telephone interview. He said Santorum’s column was axed during a round of budget cuts: “We decided to end a number of [columnist] contracts, and he was one of those.”

Santorum’s columns returned often to the social issues that had made him famous — and infamous — in the Senate.

He mentioned abortion in at least 18 of them, and same-sex marriage in at least 11. In 2008, Santorum said he had not regretted “sounding the alarm” on gay marriage in 2003, referring to an interview in which he compared homosexual acts to bigamy, adultery and “man on dog.”

“Is anyone saying same-sex couples can’t love each other?” he wrote in that column, reiterating his opposition to same-sex marriage. “I love my children. I love my friends, my brother. Heck, I even love my mother-in-law. Should we call these relationships marriage, too?”

Santorum predicted that the government would soon crack down even on people who spoke out against same-sex marriage.

“Within 10 years, clergy will be sued or indicted for preaching on certain Bible passages dealing with homosexuality and churches,” he wrote.

Despite the new platform, the columns retained the feel of a Senate floor speech — occasionally funny, often clunky, with little new information to fill them out. Santorum made only scant and awkward references to pop culture, with one major exception.

That was another 2008 column, which celebrated recent movies in which characters chose not to have abortions.

“The recognition of the life in the womb is going mainstream,” Santorum wrote. “In a nation with one of the world’s most wide-open abortion regimes, U.S. audiences flocked to see five motion pictures with life-affirming texts or subtexts: Knocked Up, Waitress, Bella, August Rush and Juno.”

These movies were about premarital sex, adultery, premarital sex, premarital sex and premarital sex in high school, respectively. Santorum said that was okay: “They are meeting audiences where they live.”

But this was a rare upbeat moment. Santorum used several of his columns to underline the gravity of social issues — and to castigate both fellow politicians and fellow Catholics for their views.

In one column, Santorum blasted Catholic colleges: “You might be surprised to learn that most professors are not Catholic and that the Catholics are often nonpracticing.” Even Notre Dame University, he said, had hosted performances of “The Vagina Monologues.”

And Santorum personally criticized two Democratic politicians — then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and then-Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) — for not following Catholic teaching on abortion.

“Catholics must be true to their consciences. But that is not a free-floating guide that we can define ourselves,” Santorum wrote in August 2008. “A Catholic is required to form his conscience in accordance with the church’s teachings on faith and reason.”

Santorum’s other obsession was Iran, which he mentioned in at least 12 of his columns. He criticized that country’s treatment of non-Muslims and warned about its connections with leftists in Latin America; and he attacked President Obama for doing too little to stop its nuclear ambitions.

“Obama’s acquiescence will either give this supermarket to the world’s terrorists a high-end line of nuclear weapons to purvey at what I am sure will be bargain prices, or force an Iran/Israel war,” Santorum wrote.

Santorum also warned about the dangers of an electro-magnetic pulse attack, in which a nuclear weapon detonated in the upper atmosphere would fry the circuits of all electronic machinery.

The result, he suggested, would be a society thrown back to the 1800s — and a deadly struggle to adapt.

“Waves of death, starting with the passengers on commercial airplanes falling out of the sky, explosions in manufacturing facilities, and patients on life support; followed by the chronically sick, such as patients on dialysis machines or lifesaving medications; and then the victims of ruthless violence, disease, and starvation,” said Santorum, basing his predictions on a novel called “One Second After.” “All told, the novel suggests 90 percent of Americans won’t survive a year.”

“In short,” Santorum wrote, “doomsday.”

These columns undoubtedly helped Santorum reestablish himself as a national conservative voice, after an 18-point electoral drubbing and a devastating Internet campaign that made his name into something vulgar.

Is there anything in them that could sink him in this Republican primary? In one column, Santorum suggested a solution to the problem of imported oil that the tea party might not like. “Hold on to your hats,” Santorum wrote, talking to his fellow conservatives. “What we need is a government mandate!” He meant a mandate that all cars be able to use 85 percent ethanol gasoline.

And, in one column from April 2008, Santorum used a word that has since become one of the dirtiest in Washington. Santorum was talking about then-candidate John McCain: “a thorn in the side of many of us who supported important appropriations earmarks for our states.” The dirty word, of course, was “earmarks.”

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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