‘Culture is downstream from politics,” is how Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum put it moments before he bared his soul.
Baring their souls is exactly what the moderator, pollster Frank Luntz, asked the candidates to do, and for his confession, Santorum talked about fatherhood.
Coming from someone in a field that doesn’t exactly encourage the best of parenting skills and presence, what he said was worth hearing for reasons both personal and political.
He talked about his youngest daughter, Isabella Maria. She was born with a condition known as Trisomy 18, which causes various abnormalities and often leads to death before or shortly after birth.
“We went to the hospital, and there she was lying on the table, about five months of age,” said Santorum. “As she was lying on the emergency-room table, I reached out and held her little finger.”
“For the five months leading up to this I was the rock in the house,” he continued. But that was only because “I decided the best thing I could do was treat her differently — to not love her . . . because it wouldn’t hurt as much if I lost her,” he painfully recalled.
“I remember holding that finger, looking at her and realizing what I had done,” he said. Speaking of the issue he has become best known for addressing over the years, he reflected that “I had been exactly what I . . . had fought against. I had seen her as less of a person because of her disability. I prayed at that moment, ‘Please, please let her live. I promise I will do everything to commit to her and every child like her.’ She made it.”
“One of the reasons I am here tonight is because of Obamacare and to fight for kids with disabilities,” Santorum added.
His story helps fill out a political-cultural picture about mothers and fathers and the challenges we face in our daily lives, with lives in our hands. It’s a story that resonates as an important reminder of who we are and who we ought to be.
Before Sarah Palin became a household name in the lower 48, the then-Alaska governor’s website had a page dedicated to welcoming her new son, Trig Palin. Her and her husband’s parents, siblings, and others wrote about how beautifully challenging life with a child with Down Syndrome can be. They explained how their lives were richer. Trig’s grandparents in New York wrote of him: “He has shown us an inner strength to never give up. The best things in life come to us unexpectedly.”
On the campaign trail, Palin encountered gratitude everywhere she went. In her book Going Rogue, she recalled being at a campaign event in Pensacola, Fla.: “Up in the stands, I spotted a group of 15 kids with Down syndrome wearing shirts that said, we love trig! and trig in the white house. I thought, ‘Wow! How great that these precious people have someone associated with a national campaign that they can identify with.’” She wrote, “it blessed me in ways I can’t even describe to be able to help bring them from the fringe into the bright spotlight that most often seems reserved only for the privileged.”
Both the Santorums and the Palins were faced with odds stacked against life. Not only the medical conditions themselves, but a culture — including a medical one — that seeks to eliminate problems even when those problems are people. Sarah Palin has admitted that she “never ordered up, planned on, being the mother of a son with special needs,” and that for a brief moment she was painfully aware that she had a legal way out via abortion. The Santorums, meanwhile, had to insist that their daughter be given oxygen when a doctor urged that they learn to “let go.” (As Bobby Schindler, brother of Terri Schiavo and now co-executive director of the Life & Hope Network notes, such basic medical care is increasingly considered quite a lot to ask.)
Earlier in that Thanksgiving forum, Senator Santorum spoke about his faith and about what has made the difference in his life: accountability. In the Senate, he told the audience, he ensured that “I had a small group, I had people I was accountable to,” who would help keep him in line in making faith and family his priorities. “Because if you have those things in line, everything else will probably be in line too,” he said. It won’t be perfect, as life isn’t and we’re not, but it gives us the right perspective.
In an imperfect world, sometimes the innocence of a child and her challenges can make all the difference, inspiring us to be better, holding up a mirror to our souls, our culture, and our politics.
As a friend has observed, “Rick’s daughter is an education in the dignity of every human life; a tutor in the meaning of love.” In a Thanksgiving reflection last week, Palin wrote: “Through Trig, I see firsthand that there is man’s standard of perfection, and then there is God’s. Man’s standard is flawed, temporary, and shallow. God’s standard lasts an eternity. At the end of the day, His is what matters.”
The Thanksgiving Family Forum didn’t get as much attention as some others because former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who is not officially competing in Iowa, wasn’t in attendance. But it brought out an authentic message that can and must be heard above what is said in the typical debates. It’s about who we are and how we live our lives — and whom and why we love. It’s about leadership, and whether we choose to rise to our stewardship responsibilities, whether we chose to live life in a way that helps others do the same — and that lets everyone know his life is valued and she is loved.
At that same event, the current frontrunner, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich brought it back to the health-care debate: “Do I want some bureaucracy deciding that on a percentage basis this is not worth the investment, or do I want a country that cares about every life?”
That’s what it is all about. Politics of the people, by the people, and motivated by love for people. It is about making sure that we are protecting the most vulnerable — not forgetting anyone, including those closest to us. When we remember that, we might just have a fighting chance of getting the policies right.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through United Media.