December 18th, 2008

Rick Santorum Is A Wee Winsome Thing

by Philip Baruth

Don’t know about you, but when we have a particularly knotty problem to unravel, we always look to disgraced former Senator Rick Santorum. People think Santorum’s wisdom is limited to variations on the “man on dog” theme, and the occasional religious homily, but it’s so much wider and more varied than that narrow band of opinion would suggest. Like Socrates, Rick is often misunderstood.

santorum and brood

Of course, since losing to Bob Casey by 18% in 2006, Rick has become a regular columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, allowing for the effective santorumization of much of the greater Philly metro region. Which has helped matters.

But this morning Santorum has put together something special, a breathtakingly sagacious column designed to advise the national Republican Party on the selection of their next Chair.

Sure, he rehearses the dead cliches of the moment: that America, despite the fairly indisputable outcome of the last election, remains a “center-right country,” and that most of the trouble in 2008 stemmed from poor communication and thumb-fingered use of technology, rather than a broad-based rejection of Conservative ideology.

But then Santorum gets to the beauty part.

Grimly warning that Republicans face “another Great Communicator,” he offers his own deft summation of what the GOP needs to counter newly emboldened Democrats:

” The Republican National Committee and the Bush campaign once ran circles around the Democrats. We tried to build on what worked, but the Democrats grasped the scale of change in technology and vaulted past us. And technology alone won’t be enough. The new chairman has to winsomely communicate our vision and build a nationwide team to deliver our message.”


Here stands revealed the bold, naked genius that is Rick Santorum’s political mind: the GOP must be winsome to win again.

We know, we know: the glare of the intellectual concept is bright, and it hurts to view it directly. But no one said that deep political theorizing would be easy, or painless. To our work, then.

Clearly, the standard modern definition of “winsome” won’t do here: “Charming, often in a childlike or naive way.” Because Rick is many things (best-selling author, paragon of moral values, recent and epic Senatorial fail) but childlike? Naive? Never.

Perhaps, then, Rick meant to take us to another place entirely, etymologically speaking. “Winsome” is a good Old English word, and maybe the intent was a good, solid bit of straight talk. Okay, the Oxford English Dictionary renders the modern sense of the word, entering the language around 1787, like so: “Cheerful, joyous, gay.”

Um, that can’t be right.

Let’s be clear, no one stands more reliably for the sober and ungay than Rick Santorum. So sober and ungay is he, in fact, that former Senator Bob Kerrey once famously joked that Santorum was “Latin for asshole.” So that’s out.

One option left. Santorum must have been using another possible modern sense of the word, to wit: “Pleasing or attractive in appearance, handsome, comely; of attractive nature or disposition, of winning character or manners.”

The OED offers this helpful illustration from 1792, a few lines from Robert Burns:

My wife’s a winsome wee thing,
She is a handsome wee thing,
She is a bonnie wee thing.

Burns goes on to note that his wife is also a “wanton wee thing,” but that’s beside the point. All of this makes sense, if we just look at it with Santorum eyes: if the Republican Party is to revenge its losses, restore its former glory, and generally find its way out of the dark electoral wilderness in which it now aimlessly wanders, it must do its best to look and act as much like Bobbie Burns’s wife as possible.

Couldn’t hurt.