A Churchillian Moment
U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum was only half way through his declamation on Islamofascism yesterday (Thurs. 10-06) when a quote from Winston Churchill, nestled somewhere deep within my brain, struggled up to the surface. It was his famous definition of a fanatic -- as someone who can't change his mind and won't change the subject.
Santorum was visiting the Inquirer's Editorial Board for its endorsement meeting, an on-the-record interview that is a ritual for candidates at election time. Santorum's relationship with the Editorial Board has not been one of mutual warmth and affection, but it was a civil encounter because the board was content mostly to let the senator do the talking.
And talk he did.
Santorum's discourse on the manifold evils of radical Islam was a Reader's Digest version of one he gave earlier at the Harrisburg Press Club. You can find the full text of that speech here.
I won't go into the merits of his argument. There are other blogs for that.
No, the thought that struck wasn't philosophical or theological. It was purely political.
Rick Santorum is running for President of the United States.
And he is running as Winston Churchill.
If he does win re-election on Nov. 7th (a prospect that looks doubtful at this point) he will run as a political wunderkind: A red-meat conservative who survived against all odds in a blue state. If can win in Pennsylvania, imagine what he can do elsewhere? He becomes just what the Republican party needs to lead it out of the wilderness.
If he loses, he runs as a Martyr-Saint of True Conservatism. The man who stood by his principles, spoke the truth as he saw it, and went down to defeat due to a (temporary and regrettable ) triumph of moral and political relativism. He becomes just what the Republican party needs to lead it out of the wilderness.
The analogy to Churchill is not my own, it is the senator's.
As Santorum tells it, this is not 2006 and the United States is not grappling with mere terrorism. This is 1936 and we are facing the rise of Fascism. Why can't we see the clear and present danger? Because we are besotted by the vices and enticements of the modern world. Fat and happy, zonked out on HDTV, too morally and intellectually weak to see the manifest evil of our enemy.
Iran is an example. Europe wants to pretty-please the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad out of developing nuclear weapons. Even President Bush is dithering. In short,
the best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity…
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Why, it's Islamofacism.
(I always wondered what that poem meant.)
It is easy to get swept away in the Santorum cosmology: Good vs. Evil. Islam vs. Christianity. East vs. West. It is also equally easy to hear it in and say: This is f%#*ing nuts!
But that's beside the point.
The point is the political value of these views to Santorum. People who to react to Santorum viscerally (pro or con) tend to forget that he is a wonderfully talented and skilled politician. . He's won two terms in the Senate in a state where, arguably, he is way too conservative for the average voter. He has risen quickly to a leadership position in the Senate, and (if re-elected) he seems destined to go higher. Along with regular discourses on Faith, Life & the American Way, he also delivers the pork to the folks back home. (As yesterday's meeting, he took credit for $800 million of the $1.2 billion Philadelphia has received to redo its public housing.) His political campaigns are models of smart media and brilliant field operations.
In short, Rick Santorum may pray the rosary, but he's also read Machiavelli.
And now he has decided to become Winston Churchill, which is a wonderful thing to be, if he can pull it off. Resolute, fearless and eloquent. What a glorious combination.
Of course, Santorum lacks Churchill's benign public demeanor -- something he shared with his fellow artistocrat, Franklin Roosevelt. The senator can't help but exude arrogance, a trait that is off-putting, but probably beyond remediation. It's hard-wired into his personality.
He also lacks on his current vita an important chapter in Churchill's life -- his years in political exile between the two World Wars, when he was scorned by liberals and conservatives alike as an eccentric liability to any regime in power. The one-word title of second volume of William Manchester's great biography of Churchill tells it all. "Alone."
The thought crossed my mind yesterday, whilst the senator was launching his peroration on Islamofascism, that the likelihood of defeat has crossed his mind. Not to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but to Bob Casey. And that he is preparing himself, psychologically and politically, for the next stage in his life. One that would last, he would hope, not 18 years as Churchill's did, but 18 months.