Rick Santorum's convention speech: he feels your hands' pain

Rick Santorum Makes His Case to Voters with Hands

Rick Santorum Makes His Case to Voters with Hands

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Aug. 29 2012 11:50 AM

Santorum Makes His Case to Voters with Hands

Rick Santorum marvels at his palms and fingers, in all their glory.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Most of last night's convention lineup was spent on some variation of the theme “We Built It,” which made for some very repetitious, content-free speechmaking. If you were drinking at every mention of “abortion,” “traditional marriage,” or “Mitt Romney,” you ended the evening gruesomely sober. The only person who failed to follow directions was Rick Santorum, who immediately began pandering to people with hands:

I shook the hand of the American Dream. And it has a strong grip.


I shook hands of farmers and ranchers who made America the bread basket of the world. Hands weathered and worn. And proud of it.

I grasped dirty hands with scars that come from years of labor in the oil and gas fields, mines and mills. Hands that power and build America and are stewards of the abundant resources that God has given us.

I gripped hands that work in restaurants and hotels, in hospitals, banks, and grocery stores. Hands that serve and care for all of us.

I clasped hands of men and women in uniform and their families. Hands that sacrifice and risk all to protect and keep us free. And hands that pray for their safe return home.


I held hands that are in want. Hands looking for the dignity of a good job, hands growing weary of not finding one but refusing to give up hope.

This is actually the America in which I long to live—the America full of disembodied hands that do all the labor, then put aside the profits of that labor and spread it among those of us with bodies in some sort of equitable way. In any case, here is a picture of Rick Santorum’s hands. Looking at them may be instructive. They are not “weathered and worn.” I wouldn’t pick these out as “hands in want,” though I would have some trouble saying what those hands might look like. But Santorum doesn’t want you to look at his hands. He’d rather you imagine the hands of his grandfather:

When my grandfather died, I remember as a kid kneeling at his casket and not being able to take my eyes off his thick strong hands—hands that dug his path in life, and gave his family a chance at living the American Dream.

Working the mines may not have been the dream he dreamed— I never dared to ask him— but I think his answer would have been that America gave him more than he had ever hoped.

There’s a long tradition of soft conservative politicians admiring “rough-hewn male paws,” as Nick Gillespie put it here, and there’s also a long tradition of politicians, left and right, leaning way too hard on their grandparents to suggest their solidarity with the kind of people they are not. “Some of you might not know this,” Ann Romney said in her speech, “but I am the granddaughter of a Welsh coal miner.”

What is it that we are supposed to take from the fact that both Santorum and Ann Romney each have a grandparent who worked in a mine? If what one looks for in a politician is some proximity to the experience of being middle class or poor, having a grandparent who told stories about it seems like a lousy substitute. Presumably, these same people have extant relatives who cannot even afford a single dressage horse. No one ever stands there telling you about his cousin Billy who works as a janitor in Kansas this very minute, which would seem to be more relevant. You could go visit Billy, join him on a trip to the Fareway, discuss the state of government services in Billy's neighborhood. But that's a rather less romantic story, and somehow does less to suggest that you've got the blood of upright, hardworking, American-dream-chasing poor people running through your veins.

I suppose grandparents also provide the benefit of some narrative development. Santorum doesn't work the mines because his grandfather was determined to make a better life for his family. And look at that life! But if all you’ve got to say about your relationship to lived poverty is that a long time ago, in a very different historical setting, someone worked hard so you wouldn’t ever have to fly coach, maybe it’s better just to say you’ve recently touched some poor hands.

Kerry Howley's work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and the New York Times Magazine. She is currently finishing a book about consensual violence, ecstatic experience, and the body.