You’ve probably heard all the good ones about GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum by now. The one about his “Google problem.” The one about the “man-on-dog sex” (prompting the greatest journalistic response ever, when the reporter told Santorum that he was “sort of freaking me out.”) The one about how the Catholic Church’s priest sex abuse scandal was caused by Boston liberalism, or the one about how President Obama should be anti-abortion because he’s black and abortion is like slavery. And so on and so forth.
That’s the Rick Santorum that America has come to know over the last 15 years or so – an unapologetic and almost goofy culture warrior whose obsessions – like thinking that gay sex is a gateway drug to bestiality – make him a hero to social conservatives and often a laughing stock to most everyone else. Santorum’s rise in the 2012 presidential race has people talking about whether his views on social issues – talk of annulling gay marriages, seemingly questioning the right to even birth control --- make him too extreme to be president – and that’s an important topic to discuss.
But I also think Santorum’s weird sexual bluster can obscure who he really is, and what truly matters about his suddenly surging campaign. As a Philadelphia-based political reporter, I arrived in town just seven months after Santorum became my state’s junior senator. I followed his 12 years on the Washington political stage closely, and I think people obsessing on the “man-on-dog” stuff are missing the bigger picture. For one thing, the self-styled “family values” expert has a surprisingly ambiguous record with his own personal ethics. Also, Santorum’s legislative record shows that his real workaday agenda was not so much waging culture wars as protecting the interests of the 1 Percent, the millionaires and billionaires who funded the modern Republican Party. You could say that Rick Santorum is just another politician. But that would be giving him too much credit.
Here’s a Pennsylvanian’s brief guide to the Rick Santorum you don’t know:
1. This compassionate Christian conservative founded a charity that was actually a bit of a scam. In 2001, following up on a faith-based urban charity initiative around the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia, Santorum launched a charitable foundation called the Operation Good Neighbor Foundation. While in its first few years the charity cut checks to community groups for $474,000, Operation Good Neighbor Foundation had actually raised more than $1 million, from donors who overlapped with Santorum’s political fund raising. Where did the majority of the charity’s money go? In salary and consulting fees to a network of politically connected lobbyists, aides and fundraisers, including rent and office payments to Santorum’s finance director Rob Bickhart, later finance chair of the Republican National Committee. When I reported on Santorum’s charity for The American Prospect in 2006, experts told me a responsible charity doles out at least 75 percent of its income in grants, and they were shocked to learn the figure for Operation Good Neighbor Fund was less than 36 percent. The charity – which didn’t register with the state of Pennsylvania as required under the law --- was finally disbanded in 2007.
2. Likewise, a so-called “leadership PAC” created by Santorum that was supposed to fund other Republicans instead seemed to mostly pay for the lifestyle of Santorum and those around him. My investigation of the America’s Foundation PAC showed that only 18 percent of its money went to fund political candidates, less -- and typically far less -- than any other “leadership PACs.” What America’s Foundation did spend a lot on with what looked like everyday expenses, including 66 trips to the Starbucks in Santorum’s then hometown of Leesburg, Va., multiple fast-food outings and expenditures at Wal-Mart, Target and Giant supermarkets. Campaign finance experts said the PAC’s expenses – paid for by donations from wealthy businessmen and lobbyists – were “unconventional,” at best and arguably not legal. Santorum also funded his large Leesburg “McMansion” with a $500,000 mortgage from a private bank run by a major campaign donor, in a program that was only supposed to be open to high-wealth investment clients in the trust, which Santorum was not, and closed to the general public.
3. Santorum was never above mingling his cultural crusades with the everyday work of raising political cash. In 2005, Santorum made headlines – not all positive – for visiting the deathbed of Terri Schiavo, the woman at the center of a national right-to-die controversy.What my Philadelphia Daily News colleague John Baer later exposed was that the real reason he was in the Tampa, Fla., area was to collect money at a $250,000 fundraiser organized by executives of Outback Steakhouses, a company that shared Santorum’s passion for a low minimum wage for waitresses and other rank-and-file workers. Santorum’s efforts were also aided by his unusual mode of travel: Wal-Mart’s corporate jet. And he canceled a public meeting on Social Security reform "out of respect for the Schiavo family" even as the closed fundraisers went on.
4. Santorum didn’t seem to be against government waste when it came to his family. During his years in the Senate, Santorum raised his family in northern Virginia and rarely if ever seemed to use the small house that he claimed as his legal residence, in a blue-collar Pittsburgh suburb called Penn Hills. So Pennsylvania voters were shocked when they found out the Penn Hills School District had paid out $72,000 for the home cyberschooling of five of Santorum’s kids, hundreds of miles away in a different state. The cash=strapped district was unsuccessful in its efforts to get any of its money back from Santorum.
5. Washington's lobbyist culture -- Santorum was soaking in it. The ex-Pennsylvania senator spent much of his final years in government trying to downplay and defend his involvement in the so-called "K Street Project," an effort created by GOP uber-lobbyist and tax-cutting fanatic Grover Norquist and future felon and House majority whip Tom DeLay. By all accounts, Santorum was the Senate's "point man" on the K Street Project and he met with Norquist -- at least occasionally and perhaps frequently -- to discuss the effort to sure that Republicans were landing well-paying jobs in lobbying firms that were seeking to then access and influence other Republicans.
6. Santorum had no problem with big government if it was supporting his campaign contributors in Big Pharma.It's little wonder that Santorum ultimately supported Medicare Part D, a prescription drug plan for the elderly that has added hundreds of billions of dollars to the federal deficit and was drafted in such a way to best help pharmaceutical companies maximize profits from all the unbridled spending. When Santorum was defeated for a third term in 2006, an internal memo at the drug giant GlaxoSmithKline said his departure from Washington "creates a big hole that we need to fill.
7. The defender of family values was also slavish in his devotion to a large American corporate behemoth, Wal-Mart: In the wake of the report about Santorum's travel in the Wal-Mart corporate jet, I counted the many ways that Santorum had done the bidding of the world's largest retailer in the Senate, including battling to limit any increases in the minimum wage and seeking to make changes in overtime rules that woulld benefit the company and hurt its blue-collar workforce, tort reform to limit lawsuits against what is said to be the world's most-sued company, and changes in charitable giving laws and of course eliminating the estate tax that would benefit the billionaire heirs of Sam Walton.
8. Santorum has frequently insisted that his political values are guided by his religious values, and that John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 speech describing a separtion between the two had done "much harm" in America. But despite inviting such scrutiny, there's been little discussion of Santorum's ties to ultra-conservative movements within the Roman Catholic Church Santorum's comments about JFK were made in Rome in 2002 when he spoke at a 100th birthday event for Jose Maria Escrivade Balaguer, founder of the secretive group within the church known as Opus Dei. Although Santorum says he is not a member of Opus Dei -- which has been criticized by some for alleged cult-like qualities and ties to ultra-conservative regimes around the world -- he did receive written permission to attend the ultra-conservative St. Catherine of Siena Church in Great Falls, Va., where Mass is still conducted in Latin and a long-time priest and many parishioners are members of Opus Dei, mingling with political conservatives like Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and former FBI director Louis Freeh.
9. Santorum isn't above big government-funded boondoggles -- when they're linked to his allies and campaign contributors. Consider the type of project that the Tea Party loves to hate, a $750 million energy plant in Schuylkill County, Pa., that was to convert coal to liquids but needed massive subsidies. Santorum boasted of his rule in securing an $100 million federal loan for the project -- which had hired Pennsylvania's top Republican Party power broker of the 2000s, Bob Asher, as a lobbyist and paid him at least $900,000. Despite Santorum's efforts, the plant has not been built.
10. Santorum apparently believes in "an entitlement culture" when it comes for former politicians. After Tuesday night's virtual tie in the Iowa caucus, the Pennsylvanian spoke eloquently about his immigrant grandfather working for decades in the Pennsylvania coal fields and his massive hands; the grandson probably won't have that problem. Losing an election in 2006 allowed Santorum to become a poster child for how ex-pols quickly and easily cash in in America, as a lawyer-rainmaker and joining a "think tank" (that for a time was called America's Enemies) and as an analyst for the Fox News Channel and as a board member for Universal Health Services, an ethically challenged company where executives had supported his Senate campaigns. The New York Times' Gail Collins noted that Santorum had earned $970,000 in 2010 despite seeming sort of unemployed.
The real Rick Santorum is indeed a frothy mixture -- of self-interest, loose ethical standards, and careerism in a career that's been largely devoted not so much to the social causes about which he makes headlines as looking out for the interests of big corporations and the wealthiest 1 Percent of Americans. It's a shame that more voters don't know that yet. That is the "Google problem" that Santorum actually deserves.