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Keeping up with the Santorums

Lockdown in Virginia with the former senator’s huge family

This article is in The Spectator’s June 2020 US edition. Subscribe here to get yours.

Great Falls, Virginia

Former senator Rick Santorum is mopping the floor. Mrs Santorum is stamping wax thistles onto the backs of envelopes. Four of the six adult Santorum children (plus one spouse) are scattered about the house, ‘working from home’. Bridget, the live-in helper, is doting on the youngest, little Bella, who has the genetic condition Trisomy 18. I’m in the paradisal blue room, behind a stack of books, typing away with my usual four fingers. Before the plague, family members would introduce me to friends as ‘Elizabeth’s Scottish friend whom she met in Uganda, who writes for National Review’. But when my sister got engaged to one of Elizabeth’s brothers, I became ‘Daniel’s fiancée’s sister’. These days, among this kind Virginia clan, I’m ‘the refugee from Manhattan’.

Since most of our writers already worked remotely, life at National Review trundles on much the same. Before, I battled the distraction of New York street noise. Now, I try not to eavesdrop on Mr S as he paces through the halls on his phone, talking like an Italian, which is to say loudly and with confidence. One day, after he’d appeared on CNN (via the piano room), a writer for the New York Times tweeted something unrepeatably vile about him. It’s baffling how intolerant many of these supposedly anti-hate lefties are, like that chap at the Nation who tweeted that Boris Johnson ‘being sick was funny’. Speaking of hypocrites, the Scottish parliament recently introduced a bill that purports to repeal a dormant blasphemy law, but which actually swaps it for a new one proposing up to seven years’ imprisonment for the offense of ‘stirring up hatred’ (i.e., offending woke orthodoxies). God bless the First Amendment.


Mealtimes have a quaint, 19th-century feel. We say grace (without the handholding, thank God) and read aloud between courses. During reminiscences, big names occasionally come up. I catch myself saying things such as, ‘Tell the story about George Clooney at the White House correspondents’ dinner’ and ‘So, how do you know Bono?’ It’s just as well my sister’s not here: she takes a dim view of my enthusiasm for influence. Sometimes, while strolling the grounds, I enter a world of my own, pretending that I’m Jo from Little Women or Kate Bush in her ‘Wuthering Heights’ music video. Novelties abound. Honeybees, guns (so many guns) and a British telephone box by the pool, which apparently came with the house. I’m told that, during Mr S’s 2012 presidential bid, a Secret Service man would take shelter in it whenever it rained.

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Trump’s immigration ban, announced late at night on Twitter, briefly put a damper on things. My sister is in Scotland, along with the rest of my family, but is meant to be moving over this summer in advance of her wedding here in September. The next morning at breakfast, Mrs S asked how I’d slept. Badly, I said, though didn’t specify why. Sarah, with whom I’m sharing a room, has a monstrous cat which at one point jumped on my head. Mrs S presumed the cause of my insomnia to be sisterly concern. She couldn’t sleep either. ‘We should have had tea,’ she said, adding that she’d asked her husband to call the White House to find out the latest.

So far, we’ve had a graduation ceremony in the living room for Sarah, a cruise-themed birthday party for Mrs S and a Christmas-themed murder mystery party in which I played the role of a ‘professional victim’, pursuing litigation against the other characters for causing me ‘emotional distress’. Though I missed the killer, thinking her ‘too obvious’, I was gratified the next morning when Sarah woke up in tears, complaining of a nightmare in which she’d been sued. In another game, ‘salad bowl’, a combination of charades and Articulate, Mr S gesticulated wildly, pulling up his socks and yelling obvious clues. His teammates were spectacularly useless. ‘Sock lady!’ they cried. ‘Penny pantyhose!’ Who hasn’t heard of Pippi Longstocking?

Americans, I’ve learned from living among them these past four years, are several hundred degrees more mawkish than Brits. Sentiments expressed twice a lifetime in Scots-Irish families are expressed twice a day in this household in toasts, gushing letters and spontaneous heart-to-hearts. One such instance made me nostalgic for Christmas Day 2019, which seems an age ago now. Seated around the dinner table at our family home in Glasgow, I encouraged my parents and siblings to each say what they were most grateful for. There was much huffing and puffing, of course — and complaints that I’d been Americanized — but the end result was quite lovely. Even Dad, in his stoic Scottish way, said afterward that it had been a ‘useful exercise’.

Madeleine Kearns is the William F. Buckley, Jr Fellow in Political Journalism at National Review. This article is in The Spectator’s June 2020 US edition. Subscribe here to get yours.


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