Dialing For Santorum

My last-ditch heroic effort to save the GOP's holiest hatchet man

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Election day, early afternoon, Pittsburgh. I'm in a noisy campaign office, a list of Republican names in front of me and a cell phone in my hand. All around me, well-groomed white people are rushing back and forth, yammering at one another. I'm one of the only people here with his own table; a late arrival, I was given a lonely spot near the door, in the shadow of the refrigerator.

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I dial a number.

"Yes?" an older woman's voice answers.

"Hi," I say. "My name is Andy Whittier, and I'm a volunteer for the Republican Party! I'm calling to remind you that Senator Rick Santorum really needs your vote."

The GOP's Dirty War

When I arrived in Pittsburgh the night before to cover the Senate race, my name was still Matt. But then, a little after midnight, I got a gloating call from Kristen Vanderpool, Santorum's press bitch, informing me that, gee, we're sorry, but we just don't have room to let you into the senator's Victory Party tomorrow night. We'd love to have you, of course, but we made up our guest list a long time ago, and unfortunately we just can't exceed the fire code. It's a safety issue, you understand....

This article appeared in the November 30, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

I lay awake in my hotel for almost an hour, admiring the insult. Then the next morning I got myself on the Victory Party list by using a fake name and volunteering for the Santorum campaign. The price was a day's work hitting the phones.

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"What did you say your name was, young man?" the woman on the other end of the phone asks.

"Kevin," I say. "I mean, Andy."

She pauses. "Well, um, Andy," she says, "I'm just not sure I'm going to vote this year."

"Not vote?" I shriek. "Shame on you!"

"I know, I know," the woman says. "But they just kinda seem the same to me."

"The same?" I cry. "The same? Ma'am, are you aware that at twelve weeks, a human fetus can do rudimentary math problems?"

"Oh, my goodness," she says. "Is that true?"

"Yes, it is," I say.

"Who says?" she asks.

"Sweden," I say.

"Sweden?"

"Yes," I say. "The Swedes — they did a study. But the liberal media, you know, they won't report it."

She pauses.

"What kind of study?" she asks finally.

"Ma'am, Senator Santorum really needs your support," I snap. "It's going to be a very close race. Every vote is going to count. Are you really going to sit this one out? People are dying, little babies...."

The old woman relents. "Well, I'll probably go later, I guess."

I sigh in relief, writing "plans to vote" on the sheet and started dialing again.

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Back in Washington, Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel had the champagne chilled and a ballroom ready to rock. But the midterm elections this year were not a celebration of something new — they were the rotting, stinking end of something, a Death Watch. And there was no better place to catch the last act than Pennsylvania, where Santorum was set to take one final drink and drive the Republican revolution off the pier. A fiercely devout Catholic with an altar-boy face, Santorum has been an icon of America's political divisiveness for the past dozen years — a pioneer of the religious, crusading politics that helped wipe out the ideological middle and divide the country into two seething, paranoid camps fueled by implacable hatreds.

By religious, I don't mean the injection of biblical themes into his campaigns, though that was also a feature of his style. No, the hallmark of Santorum politics was to say something utterly outrageous and insulting about his opponents, incur a national outcry and then refuse to take even a half a step back, digging in with his convictions in the manner of a man of faith. He blamed pedophilia in the Boston Archdiocese on Massachusetts liberalism. He compared Democrats engaged in a filibuster to Nazis. He likened homosexuality to "man on dog" sex. He described the charity group Care as being "pro-prostitution" and "anti-American." And in his reelection campaign this fall, he accused his opponent, state treasurer Bob Casey, of making state-pension investments that support "terrorism and genocide." Thus, to the Santorum point of view, opponents were at various times whores, dog-fuckers, terrorists, Nazis, mass killers, boy-touchers and traitors. Even McCarthy never got that creative.

In this sense, Santorum's race offered the most exact referendum on the hardheaded, religious inflexibility of George W. Bush. Indeed, the poisonously negative atmosphere

sphere surrounding this entire midterm election was in many ways a hell of Santorum's own creation. All across the country, candidates on both sides of the aisle stooped to new lows in campaign-season broadsides seemingly pulled straight from Santorum's fuck-everybody-else playbook.

A GOP congressional candidate in Wisconsin said his opponent wanted to "let illegal immigrants burn the American flag" and allow "convicted child molesters to enter this country." In Ohio, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell accused opponent Ted Strickland of failing to condemn pedophilia. Meanwhile, in more than two dozen districts around the country, a political-action committee released ads portraying Democrats as the party of choice among black street thugs who want to abort their babies ("If you make a little mistake with one of your ho's," says one, "you'll want to dispose of that problem tout de suite"). And in a kind of masterpiece of political pettiness, the Republican National Congressional Committee ran an ad accusing New York Democrat Michael Arcuri of using state funds to pay for a phone-sex call — which was true, except that Arcuri had dialed a wrong number and hung up immediately.

As I sat in Santorum's headquarters dialing his supporters, this talent for invective was all that was left of the great Republican revolution of Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh and religious crusaders like Santorum. Their biggest policy initiatives, like Iraq, were unmitigated catastrophes, and the much-vaunted "morality" issue so important to them in the Clinton years was now a dead end — crashed on the rocks of funhouse congressional creeps like Mark Foley, Bob Ney, Duke Cunningham and Santorum's fellow Pennsylvania Republican Don Sherwood, who was defeated amid revelations that he cheated on his wife and allegedly choked his mistress. Public perception that the GOP had gorged themselves like leeches on power was so strong that even President Bush was shunned across the country; in Florida, the Republican candidate for governor fled from the president's presence before the polls opened.

Beyond the Republican shipwreck, unfortunately, lies an utter vacuum of positive ideas. The Democrats may have been less over-the-top about their negative campaigning, but they still spent more than $72 million on attack ads, only slightly less than the other guys. They had nothing to say except that the Republicans sucked — which was true, but where does that leave us?

This was the year the national elections devolved into nothing more than a forum for organizing the disgust and revulsion of the population, with both sides firmly entrenched in their own tribal paranoia and ready to disbelieve any unwelcome result the voting machines might spit out, all confidence in the system lost. No one really won — it felt more like the country decided to pull the plug on itself or burn cigarettes in its arm.

As it happens, i met santorum almost immediately upon showing up to volunteer at his headquarters. He looked tired and dazed, like a man who had just fallen on the ice in a hockey game. His eyes were darting toward the exit, but his body was pulling him methodically around the row of supporters lining the edge of the room. I got in position and waited. Weirdly, the senator was not shaking hands but rapping fists in Stringer Bell/Avon Barksdale ghetto fashion. I wondered if he was afraid of germs.

He held out his fist. "Thanks for coming," he said.

I rapped knuckles with him, thinking, "Us, nigga!"

"Good luck, sir," I said.

He wandered out the door.

A few hours later, Santorum was out of work, slain, as it were, on the electoral cross. And he didn't just lose — he was stomped, defeated by more than seventeen points. Across the country, Democrats were raising their fists in triumph and pimping the dawn of a "new direction," but there was nothing left for Rick Santorum to do but thank the Lord for his blessings and console his weeping daughter onstage in a surprisingly tactful and moving concession speech at the Omni Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh.

It was a weird performance. Santorum — just days removed from the "terrorism and genocide" bit — wearily called Casey a "fine man." When his supporters tried to boo at the mention of Casey's name, Santorum chided them almost angrily.

In the Rush Limbaugh era, it has never been the habit of Republican politicians to suppress the hatreds of their followers or admit to any unpleasant intrusions of reality. Never give credit, never admit mistakes, never stop lying about the other guy — this is what the Republican base, thanks to people like Santorum, has come to expect of its leaders in the Bush years. But here was Santorum himself, in his final moments on the public stage, refusing to indulge the old-time urge. During his concession speech, at the mention of Casey, catcalls shot through the crowd.

"Please give him a round of applause ... please." Santorum said. "I congratulate him, and I mean that wholeheartedly."

The crowd, creeped out and depressed by this uncharacteristic display of civility, fell silent. They weren't sure how to react. It was like watching Old Yeller die.

Not long after, Santorum stepped off the stage, a look of something like relief on his face. The man who had ushered in the era of divisive politics was being swept out by the same tide, but he wasn't resisting its judgment. Ironically, it looked like a profoundly Christian moment.

Who knows if it really was. Let's hope we never find out.

From The Archives Issue 1014: November 30, 2006