5 highlights from DeSantis’ book, ‘The Courage to Be Free’

The book is part memoir, part policy paper, part airing of grievances.
“A governor must have a strong sense of true north to guide him, but that sense must be coupled with the ability and willingness to lead with conviction,” Gov. Ron DeSantis writes in his new book’s opening page.
“A governor must have a strong sense of true north to guide him, but that sense must be coupled with the ability and willingness to lead with conviction,” Gov. Ron DeSantis writes in his new book’s opening page. [ JOHN LOCHER | AP ]
Published Feb. 28|Updated March 23

In “The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival,” which is being released publicly Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis depicts himself as a singular figure capable of combating unelected elites in academia, government and media who are hellbent on eroding the country’s foundational values.

“A governor must have a strong sense of true north to guide him, but that sense must be coupled with the ability and willingness to lead with conviction,” DeSantis writes in the book’s opening page. “A governor who is right on the issues, but who lacks the courage to lead, will be an inadequate chief executive.”

The 256-page book offers a glossy account of DeSantis’ life. The governor papers over parts of his own political rise, barely mentioning a crucial endorsement tweet from President Donald Trump in June 2018 during DeSantis’ first run for governor.

DeSantis cast his fights against opponents in sometimes epic terms, using allusions to the Bible or ancient mythology. Much of the book is organized around those foes: “Woke” corporations, mainstream news outlets, and the federal bureaucracy each get their own chapter, plus one on the COVID-19 pandemic that largely revolves around his disdain for established medical experts.

DeSantis doesn’t grant readers much more insight into his life than what he has so far shown publicly. But the book does leave behind the outline of a squeaky-clean conservative warrior.

The Tampa Bay Times received an advance copy of the book from the publisher, which is a division of HarperCollins called Broadside Books ($15.99 on Kindle, $35 for hardcover).

Here are five takeaways.

1. DeSantis doesn’t take shots at Trump — for the most part

Despite months of public tension between Trump and DeSantis, the book spends considerable ink defending the former president.

DeSantis credits Trump for providing a policy platform that reached Republican voters who had long felt ignored by their party’s leaders.

And DeSantis repeatedly slams the various investigations into Trump and Russian influence in the 2016 election — of which Trump has also been harshly critical.

Still, DeSantis draws a distinction between Florida’s response to the pandemic and the approach taken by the federal government under Trump. While he lays the blame mostly on Anthony Fauci, then the nation’s top infectious disease official, and other health experts, the implicit criticism of the man at the top is unmistakable.

“The cornerstone of the US COVID response — the so-called ‘15 Days to Slow the Spread’ that evolved into boundless Faucist ‘mitigation’ — was ill-conceived, crafted based on inaccurate assumptions, and blind to the harm that heavy-handed public health ‘interventions’ inflict on society,” DeSantis wrote. He says that the modeling used by the White House’s task force on the pandemic overstated the dangers of the disease and led Trump to extend restrictions.

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2. DeSantis lays out his philosophy on executive power

As governor of Florida, DeSantis has pushed the boundaries of the powers of his office. In his book, he openly acknowledges how his explicit powers and growing political clout allow him to strong-arm other elected officials, including Republicans, to follow his agenda.

For example, DeSantis writes that his ability to veto specific projects in the state budget gave him “a source of leverage … to wield against the Legislature,” which is controlled by his fellow Republicans.

“Legislators who support the governor’s priorities during the legislative session typically fare better when it comes time for budget vetoes,” he writes.

Related: From Disney to Andrew Warren, DeSantis shows taste for power — and a fight

DeSantis casts his veto power in avenging tit-for-tat terms, touting his 2022 veto of congressional redistricting maps passed by Republican state lawmakers. The Legislature had to reconvene, and ended up passing maps drawn by his office that more aggressively favored Republicans.

“House and Senate leaders could either seek to join with Democrats to override my veto or accede to the criteria laid out in my veto message,” DeSantis wrote. “The former would be politically suicidal for members in Republican primaries … so they wisely chose the latter.”

At times, he revels in his power over local officials, too, quoting himself telling the Ultimate Fighting Championship president that he would “overrule any mayor that gives you guys a hard time” for hosting their event during the pandemic. He also describes his removal of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren from office as a “clear signal to other prosecutors around Florida” not to follow Warren’s lead on progressive policies.

DeSantis, a former member of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, says the conservative ideals of small government are noble but outdated. Instead, he doubles down on the need for an executive willing to police the actions of private businesses.

“From Big Tech to traditional corporations, these private institutions wield an enormous amount of power over society — and sometimes even collude with the government to do so,” DeSantis writes. “Many are actively trying to impose an ideological agenda on society. In this context, elected officials who do nothing more than get out of the way are essentially green-lighting these institutions to continue their unimpeded march through society.”

3. DeSantis almost never gives the inside scoop

The book is sparse on scenes or narrative details of DeSantis’ political victories or life.

Of his reaction to the narrow victory in the 2018 governor’s race — the most triumphant political moment of his life at that point — DeSantis writes: “Casey (his wife) gave me a big hug, and I high-fived some of my friends and supporters.”

There are a few exceptions to this. He reveals how it was his office that resurrected a bill banning transgender women and girls from participating in female scholastic sports in the final days of the 2021 legislative session.

And in by far the most emotional passage, DeSantis writes that his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, which the governor publicly announced in October 2021, “was like a ton of bricks coming down on our family.”

Related: Florida first lady Casey DeSantis finishes chemotherapy for breast cancer

“Suddenly, she had her mortality laid right before her eyes,” he says of Casey DeSantis, writing about the heavy physical and emotional toll that chemotherapy took on her. “Every morning we’d have our young kids bouncing around the house, and it would cause her to reflect on what would happen if she didn’t make it.”

4. DeSantis calls out Republicans

At various points, DeSantis is critical not just of Democratic leaders, but of Republicans who lack the conviction to stand up to corrupting forces.

“For decades, a huge swath of GOP elected officials have campaigned on free market principles, but governed as corporatists — supporting subsidies, tax breaks, and legislative carve-outs to confer special benefits on entrenched corporate interests,” DeSantis writes. “Just because policies may benefit corporate America does not mean that such policies serve the interests of the American economy writ large.”

Related: DeSantis slammed a special Disney carveout. His staff helped write it.

The governor gets specific. He mentions several of the state’s top Republican leaders by name.

In particular, DeSantis places some blame on the early pandemic closure of Florida schools onto former education commissioner Richard Corcoran, a longtime ally. (DeSantis also heaps praise on Corcoran at another point in the book.)

“I did not order schools to close in the spring of 2020; this was a decision that each district made, with state commissioner of education Richard Corcoran recommending transitioning to ‘remote’ learning,” he writes. “But as the data came in from places like Sweden and South Korea, I thought it important to respond accordingly, and I prodded Corcoran to be more aggressive about getting kids back in school.”

DeSantis, who is known to keep a minuscule inner circle, also alludes to some distrust of former Senate President Wilton Simpson, who is now the state agriculture commissioner.

In a passage about the drafting of the bill to repeal Disney’s special tax district, DeSantis writes that he worked closely with then-House Speaker Chris Sprowls, but told him to keep it in a “very tight circle.” DeSantis says he later met with Simpson, closer to when the lawmakers would be convening, to let him know of their plans.

“Given Disney’s hammerlock on policy in Florida, I was not sure how he would react. But, to his credit, he was unequivocal (in his support).”

5. DeSantis hints to what kind of president he would be

DeSantis makes clear he’d apply the philosophy of a strong executive to the White House, in particular to “overhaul” what he said is “an unaccountable fourth branch of government”: unelected government bureaucrats. He later refers to this group as the “so-called deep state,” and says such officials, which include the nation’s intelligence agencies, are made up “almost entirely from the coastal, college-educated, self-appointed elite.”

“The upshot has been a bureaucracy that reflects one particular view in society, rather than society as a whole — regardless of the outcome of elections,” he writes.

To that end, DeSantis backs a few concrete policy proposals, including congressional term limits as well as a plan called “Schedule F,” which would reclassify tens of thousands of federal employees to be at-will employees who could be fired by the president, essentially turning them into political appointees.

“Many had hoped that the administration of Donald Trump” would implement this plan, DeSantis writes. Trump began to implement the policy but ran out of time in his administration, and President Joe Biden quickly reversed it.

He also hints at a foreign policy doctrine, trumpeting his own efforts to get the U.S. embassy in Israel moved to Jerusalem, and his work to combat the influence of China in Florida.

In one section on his military service in Iraq, he calls out yet another Republican — former President George W. Bush, for trying to build a western-style democracy out of the fallen Iraqi regime.

“This messianic impulse — that the U.S. had both the right and the obligation to promote democracy, by force, if necessary, around the world,” DeSantis writes, was not grounded in a “clear-eyed view of American interests.”