Kathleen Parker: Political name game can be misleading

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 22, 2012

WASHINGTON — What’s in a name? Most of us, perhaps regrettably, do not get to select our own names and are saddled with our parents’ projections of what we might be. It is entertaining to consider what name we might select for ourselves and what that name might suggest about us. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum recently got this chance when they selected their Secret Service code names.
Customarily, presidents are assigned a code name, but candidates get to choose their own. Romney picked “Javelin” and Santorum picked “Petrus,” both telling titles, though even the least cynical among us can appreciate the ironies attached to each.
There’s some discussion about whether Romney’s refers to a vehicle or a weapon, but either would tie into his biography. The Secret Service offered “Javelin” for that reason, according to Romney’s campaign. Javelin was the name of a “pony” car built between 1967 and 1974 by American Motors Corp., which was once run by George Romney. A two-door hardtop, it was the sort of car one might expect to appeal to guys who liked to go fast — or who saw themselves as kinda cool in a slicked-back hair kind of way. It was, in fact, one of Romney’s first cars.
Alternatively, the code name could refer to the track-and-field event and evoke the Olympics, which Romney famously guided from red to black ink. The javelin otherwise is no wimp’s weapon, if one were inclined to embrace its utilitarian value, and dates back to Paleolithic times. Whichever the case, Romney’s self-image is clearly tied to a successful business model, with a hint of Olympian physicality and a symbolic representation of strength, speed and purpose.
Ironically, Romney, though not an athlete, does look as though he stepped down from Mount Olympus.
Santorum is of an entirely different order.To those who know him, his selection of Petrus is perfect, again tinged with irony. In Latin, petrus means rock and also is associated with Saint Peter, the first pope of the Catholic Church. Jesus said to Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church,” and so Peter did. St. Peter’s Basilica, the centerpiece of The Vatican, is built upon the bones of St. Peter.
To behold the famous piazza is to consider Peter’s life and how a man like Santorum might identify with it. In the middle of the “square,” which really isn’t a square, is an enormous obelisk that was brought to Rome by Emperor Caligula in 37 A.D. Originally placed south of the basilica in what is known as the Circus of Nero, it was conceivably the last thing Peter saw as he died — crucified upside down, as was his wish. Peter said he wasn’t worthy to be crucified in the same way as the Son of God.
All of this and more are contained in the name Petrus — and in the self-image of one Rick Santorum. Grandiose? Or self-sacrificing, humble and willing to submit to public humiliation and agony?
The truth may be somewhere in between. When it comes to his principles, Santorum is a rock. Or rather, a boulder: solid, sturdy, unmovable. Whether you agree with those principles, one can’t help admiring his courage in the face of unyieldingly cruel contempt from some quarters. In defense of human life from conception, Santorum is willing to step into the lion’s den. Whether his inflexibility on certain core beliefs is religious fanaticism or mere stubbornness — or represents a steely spine many find lacking in today’s arena — is a matter for voters to discern.
Ironically, the man who perhaps sees himself in the image of the first pope of the Catholic Church has performed poorly among Catholics. His biggest supporters are evangelicals, while Catholics prefer Romney.
A name may be a name may be a name, but the differences between a fast car and a sharp spear — and a brave, martyred pope — are not small. And though it would be silly to place too much emphasis on what a man calls himself, the subtleties therein aren’t entirely trivial. Consider that Herman Cain called himself “Cornbread,” suggesting both his sense of humor and his lack of seriousness.
Republicans considering their nominee to wage battle against President Obama would do well to choose their candidate wisely. Will it be fast, sleek and sharp? Or pious, brave and steadfast?
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Kathleen Parker writes for The Washington Post. Contact her at kathleenparker@washpost.com.