A sick child-- and especially an incurably sick child--is every parent’s worst nightmare. So we all are forced to picture ourselves in Melinda Henneberger’s in­cred­ibly moving story of Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s (R) family, and how it is dealing with the illness of his 3-year-old daughter Bella while he runs a longshot campaign for president.


View Photo Gallery: Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum made his GOP presidential campaign official.

What would I do if this horrible situation happened in my family?

Should Santorum be out there running what some would call a vanity campaign for president that is draining his family’s financial resources? Or should he be spending these precious days at home with his overburdened wife and family?

In the story, Santorum himself acknowledges his family--which includes seven children under the age of 21--has “opinions all over the map as to whether they want me to do this or not.”

The fact is, those of us who are lucky enough to have never faced this situation just don’t know. I can’t help but be reminded of the late Elizabeth Edwards, and the kind of criticism she got four years ago, when her breast cancer returned and their family decided that John Edwards should continue his presidential campaign fully aware that his wife’s days with her two small children were likely to be numbered.

My former Time magazine bureau chief (and now White House press secretary) Jay Carney was one of those, writing that he found their decision “discomfiting.”

At one point, when I was following her in New Hampshire, Elizabeth (who tended to stay up late and read the Web) came across a blogger who had condemned her as a bad mother. Here’s how she responded:

You don’t get to judge me because you think you know exactly what you would do if you had my disease. I want to be really clear: you don’t know. And if the sun always shines on you — and I pray it does — you will never know.

Interestingly, I later discovered that Elizabeth had support for her decision from an unlikely source--one who did indeed have some personal experience at what happens to a family when it is trying to balance illness with political ambition. That person was Ann Romney, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. “I totally understand why you’re still fighting,” Romney told her. “I totally get it.”

The reactions of some of our commenters to Henneberger’s storysuggest some echoes of that earlier debate. They are almost unanimously critical of Santorum’s decision to pursue a grueling and unlikely campaign. Many, such as bls2011, see a misplaced set of values:

A good part of being President is being able to prioritize. Leaving your wife and seven children, one of whom is seriously ill, while you pursue a clearly unattainable political goal is certainly an indication that this man is clueless when it comes to knowing what his priorities should be, particularly as a man of great faith as he claims to be.

Commenter cricket44 writes:

He just gets more and more repulsive. Talk about narcissism!

Then there are those, such as ejmurphy414, who see political hypocrisy in Santorum’s stance against the new health care law, which aims to guarantee coverage (like the insurance he presumably has) to everyone:

The problem with Santorum is that he shamelessly uses his daughter’s disability to smear the Affordable Care Act, when he is intelligent enough to know that she would likely be better off than if the plan is repealed. Most Americans seem to have swallowed the myth that European “socialized medicine” is far worse than America’s system, and that “Obamacare” is pure socialized medicine. That is based on lies and misunderstandings. Several European systems are predominantly privately administered, as the Affordable Care system is, and disabled children are wonderfully taken care of in them. A former senator like Santorum ought to know better, but he spreads the myth and uses the sad case of his daughter as poignant reason to oppose the new system. We can safely disregard virtually anything Santorum says; during his brief Senate career he constantly sought far right goals and was quite willing to misrepresent the facts to try to achieve his goals. In other words, he is and has been a phony!

We spend a lot of time arguing over whether it is proper to discuss a politician’s personal life. But there are some stories that give us not only a window into a candidate’s character, but also how they connect the implications of their policy decisions with the lives of ordinary Americans.

In that way, they may be the most revealing stories of all.

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Santorum campaigns with seriously ill daughter