The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Remember the Crying Girl?

Posted on | January 3, 2012 | 52 Comments

JOHNSTON, Iowa
Last night I called my wife and told her I loved her, after listening to Rick Santorum’s speech to his supporters at the final town hall meeting before Caucus Day here in Iowa. Santorum paid tribute to his wife, Karen, and also to his children, who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much:

Being away from home this past week — I flew out to Iowa the day after Christmas — I could appreciate how sincerely Santorum felt about his family’s role in his campaign. He went a long time with very little money to hire staff or buy ads, and so his wife and kids made phone calls and did a lot of other work necessary to keep his campaign going. The first time I covered him in August, at an event held in a barn amid the cornfields near Roland, Iowa, his wife and kids were serving ice cream:

And then, on the day of the Ames Straw Poll, I bumped into three of his kids while they were just wandering around seeing the sights:

Longtime readers of this blog know that I was on the Cain Train from the get-go, and the main reason I covered the Santorum campaign back in August was as a favor to my Twitter buddy Lisa Graas, who has been a Santorum supporter all along. In October, when I went to the Value Voter Summit in DC, both Santorum and his wife lobbied me to get behind their campaign. But I’m very keen on loyalty, and despite my friendliness toward Santorum, I rode the Cain Train all the way to the end.

Readers may remember how it hurt that Saturday when I had to explain to my 13-year-old Jefferson that “suspend” means “quit.” And you may also remember that I had taken Jefferson with me as my assistant when I went to cover the Values Voter summit, when Jefferson posed for a picture with Senator Santorum:

If you remembered all that, congratulations: My own memory is kind of shaky sometimes. I’m awful with names, for example, and haven’t been able to keep the names of Santorum’s kids straight in my mind. So now we come to the whole point of this post, what happened last night at the final town hall meeting of Santorum’s Iowa campaign.

When I walked into the Pizza Ranch, the first person I talked to was Shane Vander Hart of Caffeinated Thoughts, who was one of the first Iowa bloggers to endorse Santorum. Shane recalled how for a long time it seemed his candidate was doomed and now . . .

Well, we were standing behind Carl Cameron, who was doing a live remote for Fox News. And it seemed like every other reporter on the planet was in that pizza restaurant. Clearly, Santorum had become the hot ticket in the Hawkeye State. Santorum’s family was with him, and at one point I found myself talking to them, which became the lead of my column today for The American Spectator:

ALTOONA, Iowa — A teenager stood beside the salad bar at Pizza Ranch here Monday night, surrounded by a huge crowd packed into the restaurant for Rick Santorum’s final Iowa town hall meeting before Tuesday’s caucuses. Carl Cameron of Fox News was there, as was conservative talk-radio host Laura Ingraham and so many reporters and photographers that some Republican voters who had come to see the surging Republican presidential candidate were forced to park in the lot of a nearby Hy-Vee grocery store. This vivid evidence that the former Pennsylvania senator has suddenly become the man of the hour in the Hawkeye State clearly made an impression on the brown-haired girl standing beside the salad bar.
“Our prayers are paying off,” said 13-year-old Sarah Maria Santorum, whose father soon emerged from the throng, stood on a chair and addressed the crowd. …

“Our prayers are paying off.”

Understand that I wasn’t “interviewing” Sarah Santorum. We were just talking, and I made some remark about how huge the crowd was, and then she just said that sentence clear out of the blue. It made such an impression that I immediately jotted it down on a scrap of paper.

Advanced Reporting Seminar, for you newbies: You get the best quotes when you just talk to people, instead of interrogating them in a confrontational manner. Be informal and friendly, put people at ease and listen to what they say. You’ll learn a lot more that way, whether you get a quote or not, and people will say real honest stuff rather than reciting talking points.

But my memory is shaky and I’m bad with names, so when I sat down to write my column — in the deli department of the Hy-Vee grocery story, which has free WiFi — I wanted to make sure I had Sarah’s name and age right. And when I Googled her name, one of the results was that picture at the top of this post.

Yeah, it’s her: The Santorum kid who gave me that quote was the same girl who cried so helplessly on national TV that night in 2006 during her dad’s concession speech. I’d forgotten all about that, until I saw the picture. Then I remembered how the video clip had been played over and over on the news, and also on late-night comedy shows while people mocked the way Sarah and her family cried. And I remembered my wife saying how bad she felt while watching that little girl, hugging her doll, and crying for the whole world to see.

Amazing that I’d talked to her without recognizing her — a poised and cheerful young lady — as that same little girl. But even more amazing, I think she’s exactly right when she says, “our prayers are paying off.”

As I write this, the folks on “Fox and Friends” are marveling at how Santorum went from single digits in the polls to being a serious contender in the space of just a few days. Say what you will, I call it a miracle.

And now read the rest of my column at The American Spectator.

It’s not every day a journalist gets to cover a miracle in the making.

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