In the spring of 1980, the race for the Republican presidential nomination got nasty. The front-runner, Ronald Reagan, said his main challenger,George H.W. Bush, wasn't a real conservative. Mr. Bush went on the attack, accusing Mr. Reagan of peddling "voodoo economics" and "a list of phony promises."
Four months later, Mr. Bush was Mr. Reagan's choice to run as vice president. He denied using the words "voodoo economics" — at least until NBC News found a videotape of the speech. Nevertheless, Mr. Bush served for eight years at Mr. Reagan's side and won his boss' endorsement when he ran in his own right in 1988.
In the spring of 2008, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination got nasty too. The front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, said Barack Obama, was "a lot of talk, no action" and charged that Mr. Obama wasn't qualified to lead in a crisis. Mr. Obama responded with television advertisements that accused Mrs. Clinton of "the old politics of phony charges and false attacks," and his aides accused Mrs. Clinton's husband of trying to play the race card.
Yet four months later, at the Democratic National Convention, Mrs. Clinton hailed Mr. Obama's nomination, and six months after that, she became his secretary of state.
This spring, the race for the Republican presidential nomination got nasty — again.
The front-runner, Mitt Romney, attacked Rick Santorum as a "big spender" who voted to raise the federal debt ceiling five times. Mr. Santorum derided Mr. Romney as "the ultimate flip-flopper" and "the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama."
That was then; this is now.
Only minutes after Mr. Santorum announced Tuesday that he was suspending his campaign, his aides assured reporters that the defeated Pennsylvanian would endorse the presumptive nominee — one of these days.
In other words, this year's strife was part of a long tradition of American party politics. In a primary campaign, rivals level bloodcurdling attacks on each other's qualifications and integrity, only to turn around once the nomination is won and praise last month's flip-flopper as the American most suited to leading the Free World.
This year won't be any different. Mr. Romney still has lingering problems with Newt Gingrich, who serenely refuses to read the election returns, and with Ron Paul, who is leading a libertarian movement that doesn't expect to win the presidency this time — but even Messrs. Gingrich and Paul, for all their slash-and-burn rhetoric, have said they will support the eventual GOP nominee.
And Mr. Romney will need their support — particularly that of Mr. Santorum. Indeed, Mr. Romney needs Mr. Santorum at the moment much more than Mr. Santorum needs Mr. Romney.
Mr. Romney has struggled to convince conservative Republicans that he's one of them, despite his relatively moderate record as governor of Massachusetts. But it's hard for them to forget that fatal videotape from his 1994 Senate campaign against Ted Kennedy, when he insisted: "I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush."
What Mr. Romney needs most is for Mr. Santorum, whose credentials as a social conservative remain unquestioned, to put his hand on his heart and tell the rightward edge of GOP voters that Mr. Romney deserves their support in his coming race against Mr. Obama.
That endorsement, plus a few hundred more delegates, will free Mr. Romney to begin the long-awaited pivot of his campaign rhetoric from the internecine conservative battles of the last four months toward the more moderate and independent voters he will need to defeat Mr. Obama.
And what will Mr. Santorum want in return? He'll probably welcome a bit of help from Mr. Romney in raising money to retire his campaign's debt, but what he wants most is something that the campaign has already given him: a political future.
Only a year ago, Mr. Santorum was an obscure former senator known mainly for hard-line social views and the thumping defeat he suffered at the hands of Pennsylvania voters in 2006. Now he's the presumptive leader of a big chunk of the Republican Party — and, at 53, a potential presidential candidate for years to come. He may have lost the nomination, but by every other measure his campaign was a resounding success.
Republican insiders think it's unlikely that Mr. Romney will choose Mr. Santorum as his vice presidential candidate. That's not because the wounds of battle are too fresh; that didn't stop Mr. Reagan from picking Mr. Bush, or five other presidential candidates since 1960 from choosing former primary rivals. It's because the Pennsylvanian turned out to be gaffe-prone on the campaign trail.
Besides, Mr. Santorum couldn't guarantee a GOP win in his home state, another basic qualification for a running mate. (Vice President Joe Biden, born in Pennsylvania, claims it as his home state in election years as well.)
Nor would Mr. Santorum likely covet a Cabinet position, although presidents have given those jobs to former rivals before. (Not only Hillary Clinton; Mr. Romney's father, George, served unhappily in the Cabinet ofRichard M. Nixonafter losing to him in the 1968 campaign.)
Instead, if Mr. Santorum wants to run for president again in 2016 or 2022, what he wants now is legitimacy and respect: a speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in August; a chance to let his delegates make some noise; an opportunity to show off his new credentials as the presidential candidate who came in second — in a party that has a habit of giving the second-place finisher another shot the next time.
And the best way to ensure these things, history shows, is to be a good loser.