Dismiss Ron DeSantis at Your Peril

So now Ron DeSantis is wishy-washy. A bit of a wimp. Or at least runs the risk of looking like one.

That’s a fresh sentiment discernible in some recent assessments, as political analysts and journalists marvel at, chew over and second-guess his failure to return Donald Trump’s increasingly ugly jabs.

I wish I agreed. I’m no DeSantis fan. But where those critics spot possible weakness, I see proven discipline. Brawling with Trump doesn’t flex DeSantis’s muscle. It shows he can be baited. And it just covers them both in mud.

The doubters have also theorized that DeSantis could be this presidential election cycle’s Scott Walker, a gleaming governor who can’t make the leap from a local stage to the national one — who dims as the lights grow brighter. Walker’s bid to be the Republican nominee in 2016 winked out even before the Iowa caucuses.

But he’d won his second term in Wisconsin in 2014 by less than six percentage points, while DeSantis sailed to re-election in Florida last year by more than 19. And DeSantis faced a much better-known opponent than Walker had.

It brings me no joy to make those observations. It gives me the willies. I’m rooting hard against DeSantis, a flamboyantly divisive and transcendently smug operator with the chilling grandiosity to cast his political ascent as God’s will and a rapacity for power that’s one of the best arguments against giving it to him.

But the latest wave of commentary underestimates him — and that’s dangerous. He’s not Walker: Nate Cohn explained why in The Times early this week, concluding that DeSantis “has a lot more in common with Barack Obama or Ronald Reagan” when they were gearing up for their first presidential bids than with Walker, Kamala Harris or Rick Perry, whose sizzle fizzled fast.

He’s also not Jeb Bush. It has become popular to make that comparison as well, likening DeSantis to his predecessor in the Florida governor’s mansion. But DeSantis has the very venom that Bush didn’t. He’s a viper to Bush’s garter snake.

Of course, there’s no guarantee DeSantis will even run for president. But many signs suggest that he’s headed there. Trump is obviously braced for that, and is intensifying his aspersions accordingly. A few months ago, “Ron DeSanctimonious” made its puerile and lavishly syllabic debut. “Meatball Ron” is apparently under consideration. And this month Trump insinuated on social media that when DeSantis was a secondary school teacher decades ago, he behaved inappropriately around female students.

DeSantis’s response? “I spend my time delivering results for the people of Florida and fighting against Joe Biden,” he told a reporter who asked him about the vague and unsubstantiated allegation. “I don’t spend my time trying to smear other Republicans,” he added.

What he mostly spends his time doing is peacocking and planting unignorable markers along every fault line in the culture wars.

Immigration? He sends a planeload of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. “Woke” corporate activism? He punishes Disney for standing up for L.G.B.T.Q. employees and proposes banning any consideration of “environmental, social and governance” factors in decisions about how and where to invest Florida funds.

Public education about systemic racism? He goes to war with the College Board over its proposed Advanced Placement course on African American studies. Abortion? He punishes and publicly shames a pro-choice Tampa-area prosecutor. Covid vaccines? He exhorts his state’s Supreme Court to convene a grand jury to look into incomplete and inaccurate information about them. He’s making a list and checking it twice, an anti-Santa of all-purpose antipathy.

He’s methodical and relentless, and that compensates for his oratory, more yawn-stoking than heart-stirring, and his debating, more bluster than luster. Those limitations are also the object of current scrutiny and skepticism.

Attention to politicians on the rise and on the make comes in predictable phases. They are built up, each observer outdoing the breathlessness of the previous ones, until they must be torn down, because the existing story is stale and new adjectives and anecdotes are in order.

So DeSantis has gone from cunning (which he is) to unlikable (ditto), from someone who has outperformed expectations (that 19-point margin) to someone who cannot possibly meet them. In truth, there’s too much time between now and when he’d have to announce his candidacy — and between then and the start of voting — to evaluate his fortunes properly. They’ll change in unpredictable ways, just like the world around him.

But voters have chosen plenty of presidential nominees — and presidents — who were humdrum speakers, workmanlike debaters or loath to fling muck at their rivals. None of those qualities nullifies DeSantis.

And if he starts savaging Trump, whose flaws hardly need exposure, he doesn’t gain separation from him. He blurs into him.

Heaven help us, he may well be too smart for that.

For the Love of Sentences

Marjorie Taylor Greene at the State of the Union address.Credit…Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA, via Shutterstock

Before President Biden’s State of the Union speech recedes too much further into the past, I share two of the funnier riffs on it.

Yair Rosenberg, in his Deep Shtetl newsletter for The Atlantic, remarked on how Marjorie Taylor Greene, “shouting ineffectually from the back while draped in an ostentatious white fur coat, looked like she’d just lost her last Dalmatian.” (Thanks to Barbara Steinhardt-Carter of Sacramento, Calif., and Deborah Barnes of Tallula, Ill., among others, for nominating this.)

And in The Times, Annie Karni followed up on the visibly tense exchange between Senator Mitt Romney and Representative George Santos: “After the speech, Mr. Romney, a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told reporters that Mr. Santos is ‘a sick puppy, he shouldn’t have been there,’ in what could be construed as the Mormon equivalent of an eviscerating, curse-filled diatribe.” (Pam Maines, Goleta, Calif., and Brian Sullam, Baltimore, among others)

Sticking with The Times, A.O. Scott reviewed “Magic Mike’s Last Dance,” “the final chapter in a trilogy about lust, ambition and abdominal fitness in the modern age,” noting that “the sources of Mike’s appeal — a heart as big as his trapezius, resolve as firm as his glutes, a character as sturdy as his quadriceps — haven’t changed.” (Jane Sapinsky, Cherry Valley, N.Y.)

Kyle Buchanan provided background on Andrea Riseborough, whose performance in “To Leslie” netted her an intensely debated Oscar nomination for best actress: “Because Riseborough has played such a wide variety of roles without developing a tangible star persona, she is often described as a ‘chameleon’ or even ‘unrecognizable,’ which is Hollywood-speak for an actress who doesn’t wear eye makeup.” (Paul Dobbs, Relanges, France)

Jason Farago argued for the special current relevance of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings: “He matters now precisely for his vindication that we have not wholly decayed into data receptors; that we are still human, and if only we find the right master we can slow down time. What is a masterpiece, in 2023? A thing that returns to you — vitally, commandingly, after this clamorous world of news and notifications seemed to have wiped them out — your powers of concentration.” (Patricia Tracy, Blacksburg, Va., and Gwendolyn Morris, Stamford, Conn., among others)

Sam Anderson made clear that he is “not a film critic”: “I am an ordinary American, someone raised on MTV and ‘S.N.L.’ and C.G.I. Which means that my entertainment metabolism has been carefully tuned to digest the purest visual corn syrup. Sarcastic men with large guns. Yearning princesses with grumpy fathers. Explosive explosions explosively exploding.” (Martin Hunt, Melbourne, Australia)

“A paradox defines writing: The public sees writers mainly in their victories but their lives are spent mostly in defeat,” Stephen Marche observed. “I suppose that’s why, in the rare moments of triumph, writers always look a little out of place — posing in magazine profiles in their half-considered outfits with their last-minute hair; desperately re-upping their most positive reviews on Instagram; or, at the ceremonies for writing prizes — the Oscars for lumpy people — grinning like recently released prisoners readjusting to society.” (Mitch Kardon, Pittsburgh)

And Stuart Stevens weighed in on a contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination who junked her supposed principles: “There is a great future behind Nikki Haley.” (John Connon, Toronto, and Mirinda Kossoff, Pittsboro, N.C., among others)

In The New Yorker, James Wood appraised the fiction of Gwendoline Riley, first by comparing her to another writer, Helen Garner: “Riley has Garner’s quick eye for detail but replaces her anguished charity with vengeful clarity. Both of her novels have the unguarded nudity of correspondence; they have no time for the diplomatic niceties, the aesthetic throat-clearing of most literary fiction. The two novels relate to each other like twitching limbs from the same violated torso.” (Merrill Gillaspy, Berkeley, Calif., and Len Philipp, Toronto)

Also in The New Yorker, Amy Davidson Sorkin provided historical context for a looming standoff between President Biden and Republicans in Congress: “In 1953, during an earlier debt-limit crisis, the federal government sold off gold coins and bullion that were sitting in its vaults — the change between the cushions of the national couch.” (Larry Feinberg, Chapel Hill, N.C.)

And in the BBC Countryfile Magazine, Nicola Chester examined an industrious specimen of nature: “Blackbirds are ostensibly a woodland bird, and can be heard loudly and furiously flinging leaves about to find insects, eggs and grubs beneath hedges and shrubs, like a teenager who has lost something on the bedroom ‘floor-drobe.’” (Anne Fletcher-Jones, New Milton, England)

To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here and include your name and place of residence.

On a Personal Note (Odd Neighborhood Names)

Credit…Georges Louis Leclerc Buffon/Art Images, via Getty Images

What a gold mine of material about discordantly, pretentiously, adorably, whimsically or just plain strangely named streets and subdivisions you all have sent me. It will generate occasional posts like this deep into the year. I’m going through your hundreds of emails at random, so this isn’t the best of the best. It’s just good stuff in the missives that I’ve had a chance to open, read and enjoy so far.

“I grew up near a road whose name couldn’t have been less representative of its character,” Valerie Masin of Boston wrote. “It is a long, winding, lush, beautiful road on the north shore of Long Island. Its name: Skunks Misery Road. Were they trying to keep out the riffraff?!?” Maybe, Valerie. I prefer a more charitable interpretation. They were paying tribute to the roadkill.

But it appears that we’re both wrong. I did some extensive research, which is to say I spent about five minutes on Google and I discovered a 2013 article in Newsday that gives a different explanation for the name of the road, which is in the town of Locust Valley. It says that a swamp there was long ago used “as a dump that was a handy fast-food stop for large numbers of skunks that foraged in the refuse. The odor was said to be so bad that people wondered how even the skunks could tolerate it.”

As it happens, there are Skunk Misery and Skunk’s Misery roads, forests and such in places beyond Long Island. Miserable skunks and misery-inducing skunks are apparently a longstanding human preoccupation, at least cartographically speaking.

Elsewhere in America: “I moved from North Carolina to central Texas in late 2020, to a neighborhood just east of Bastrop called ‘Tahitian Village,’” wrote Wick Baker. “The streets all have South Pacific names. Manawianui Drive, Kaanapali Lane (not to be confused with Kaukonahua Lane or Keanahalululu Lane). My favorites are Puu Waa Waa Lane and Pukoo Drive. No ocean. I pity the Amazon drivers!” And I am suddenly hankering for a pu pu platter.

In Lititz, Penn., Mindy Rosenberg has had an oxymoronic experience on the street where she lives, in a community “with a patriotic theme,” she wrote. In addition to her street (whose name I’ll reveal shortly), there’s Independence Way, Glory Way, Patriots Way, Constitution Drive, Allegiance Drive and Presidents Drive. Governing all of them, she wrote, is a homeowners association “with hundreds of rules. So when we got a notice that the third bird feeder we hung up exceeded the two permitted, my son commented, ‘I guess there’s no freedom on Freedom Street!’”

Special programming note: It’s an especially busy late winter and spring for me, with a full load of teaching at Duke on top of my journalism. In order to make overdue progress on my next book, I’m taking a March break from the newsletter. I’ll disappear after next week’s newsletter but be back at the start of April. My apologies (and deep thanks) to those of you who look forward to — and read — it weekly. The newsletter will continue to land in your inboxes in March, but will be written by guest authors with some connection, personal or thematic, to me. More on that next week.

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