Kathryn Lopez

There was something remarkably attractive at the Republican debate at the Reagan Library on Sept. 7.

No, it wasn't Jon Huntsman's tan, Mitt Romney's hair, Michele Bachmann's shoes or Rick Perry's swagger.

Although I suppose the swagger isn't entirely unrelated. But what was special was something far less superficial, the kind of thing you know when you see, but that we all might be a bit too jaded about politics to acknowledge: authenticity.

Yes, even politicians can have it.

You saw it when Romney, given the opportunity to beat up on Perry for a terrible decision he made as governor of Texas -- to mandate that Texas girls going into the sixth grade be inoculated against the human papillomavirus (a trampling of parental rights, for starters) -- decided not to. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, perhaps seeing his own vulnerabilities -- records can be a biting reality -- didn't take the bait.

Whatever the motivation, it was one of many pander-free zones in the Reagan Library debate.

You even saw it in things I don't agree with. Consider Gov. Perry on the death penalty. I actually found it more than a little disturbing when the audience applauded his robust record of capital-punishment enforcement in Texas before he even had the opportunity to speak. I do think the death penalty is used way too widely, but Perry's record is what it is -- and so he stood by it, explained it and didn't try to finesse it. I'm not with him, but the man seems to know who he is and is unapologetic about it.

Perhaps there's even an authenticity to Jon Huntsman's presentation, which left everyone scratching their heads, wondering what exactly his strategy is or who makes up his constituency. One can't really accuse him of saying what conservative primary voters in South Carolina (or wherever) want to hear.

And then there is Rick Santorum.

Perhaps it was the Reagan overload that got to him, but "Hardball" host Chris Matthews took time out from being vocally disturbed by most of the debate goings-on to pay a little tribute to the former Pennsylvania senator. Matthews, himself from Pennsylvania, with a brother who has long been active in politics there, has always been decent to Santorum, when many others haven't. Just Google -- or don't, especially not at work or with kids around -- Santorum's name and you'll see the kind of nonsense he has to put up with. It's a real injustice, considering that he has been a self-sacrificing leader of the kind I think most Americans want in government. And so, in the post-debate analysis, he got a few minutes, which he was clearly grateful for. Matthews said, in introducing Santorum: "I think you're very honest. I don't think you play any games."

Making the case for himself in the presidential race, Santorum said: "I've gotten things done, I've been willing to make the compromises necessary, but never compromises on principle."

When people talk about wanting Washington to work, I think this is what they mean. They want people there who know who they are, and are willing to work with leaders of different points of view to move the bar. That's not what President Obama did when he forced through his radical and unwieldy health-care plan. It is what Rick Santorum and others did when Santorum worked with Ted Kennedy and then-president Clinton to pass welfare reform (since rolled back by President Obama).

There is, of course, a certain liberation that comes from dismal poll numbers that lead people to underestimate your campaign. But this is who Santorum is. Anyone who, like Matthews, has watched him over the years knows that.

And it's attractive. Even to an MSNBC host who frequently disagrees with him. Even in a climate where 54 percent polled want every member of Congress voted out of office.

"Transparency" has been a buzzword in Washington for a while now. Anyone for a revival of "authenticity"? Not putting on a mask, just being who you are, unapologetic except where an apology is absolutely called for. Someday historians may trace its origins back to a little Reagan Library magnetism.


Kathryn Lopez

Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of National Review Online, writes a weekly column of conservative political and social commentary for Newspaper Enterprise Association.