A quote misattributed to Winston Churchill goes, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing after exhausting all the alternatives.” Well, that pretty much describes my feelings after this month’s midterms: America finally, more or less, did the right thing, and I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m exhausted.
After two years of predicting the death of democracy, the inevitability of civil war, the triumph of the MAGA election deniers, we voters nudged away the worst of it and staggered to the finish line, breathing heavily.
(By the way, the misquote is a small gem of fake news. It was Israeli leader Abba Eban who said something like that long after Churchill was gone from the scene. We have a shorthand for any quote whose origin we don’t quite recall: If British, it must have been by Churchill; if American, by Mark Twain or Yogi Berra; if French by Voltaire; if German, by either Goethe or Goebbels.)
Amazingly, we’re all still here.
Yes, we managed to do the right thing. But in Florida, where the light is more intense, and the colors are always brighter, we went one step better and did the far-right thing.
Our own Gov. Ron DeSantis romped over his colorless Democratic opponent Charlie Crist, and left our state — which had once been a perky purple — a bright, suppurating, blood red. Liberals in our state have begun pulling down their window blinds when they watch MSNBC. Volvo dealerships are going to take a hit. With DeSantis taking Miami-Dade County, with his iron grip on the Legislature, it’s game over for us in Florida for the foreseeable future.
And yet. It may not seem to those of my persuasion as if the crazies have taken over. True, we still have, may always have, the unctuous Marco Rubio, the venal Rick Scott, the frat rat Matt Gaetz — 2020 election deniers all. But speaking for myself, the rout by DeSantis doesn’t quite feel like it’s part of some vast, vicious red tide.
Why is that? As your occasional Designated Senior at this paper, I’ve kept a grandfatherly eye on the antics in this state. As a kind of side hustle, I began covering DeSantis from the start, before he made a national name for himself. I did so with rising concern, sometimes with horror, once in a while with grim appreciation. It’s what he does, and he’s learned to do it with skill at an early age.
I’d like to offer one man’s view of what might await us Floridians in the next couple of years, now that we have a twice-elected governor, flushed with success, headed for higher places. Though I’m not a political reporter, just a humble country essayist, let me put it through the lens of a subject I have some interest in, education.
I guess you could say I began “covering” Ron DeSantis over 20 years ago. The setting was New Haven, Connecticut, in the significant year of 2001.
It was a spring weekend in May, Yale’s 300th Commencement. Still innocent times, four months before 9/11. My wife and I were there to see our oldest, Blair, graduate with the class of ‘01. Earlier in the weekend, Sen. Hillary Clinton, who had gone to Yale Law School, spoke about her years there, when she met her future husband Bill Clinton. In what can only be described as a bit much, the new U.S. president, George W. Bush, Yale ‘68, was scheduled to speak the next day. His father, former President George H.W. Bush, Yale ‘48, was on campus too. When Mother Yale wants to bring out the good china, she knows how to do it.
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All in all, a ritual gathering, complete with ceremonial robes, of America’s establishment tribal chieftains — left, center and right — just before the world changed.
A certain graduate named ‘R.D.’
The graduating seniors, as I recall, were sitting in alphabetical rows. I didn’t know it at the time, but a row or two away from our son Blair, who was sitting in the “G” section, sat a young senior, Ron DeSantis, in the “D” row. Of course we weren’t aware then that his classmate Ron was the varsity baseball captain, like George H.W. Bush, and a member of hard-partying DKE, like George W.
Bush the Younger gave a witty speech about his C grades while at Yale, and took some friendly jabs at his vice president, Dick Cheney, who dropped out of Yale. The speech had a JFK-style self-deprecation to it. As far as I can tell, it was the last time any politician from the Ivy League, or anywhere else, was deprecatory about anyone except a hated opponent.
My wife and I were proud that our son got a special graduation day award for his work on the Yale Daily News. But his classmate DeSantis had another kind of journalistic coup up his sleeve. In a foretaste of his knack for attracting media attention, DeSantis had managed to parlay his graduation into a full-size news article about himself, about his collegiate accomplishments, in … and here’s a meta moment for you …The Tampa Bay Times. A local edition, but still.
He might not have pulled it off in the Northeast, with a greater number of Yale graduates about. But here in Tampa, young DeSantis could spin himself as a bit of a hometown hero. It wasn’t every resident of Dunedin, after all, who went on to captain the Yale baseball team.
The then-reporter of the Tampa Bay Times wrote the profile, dated June 10, 2001. I’ll quote just a fraction of it.
Excelling in academics and athletics, R.D. DeSantis (Dunedin) wrapped up a stellar career at Yale University this month.
The history and political science graduate earned a 3.75 GPA and captained the baseball team his senior year. … DeSantis credits good study skills he learned early for his ability to balance a rigorous class schedule and grueling practice regime for baseball.
Since his freshman year, DeSantis has made A or A-minus grades. ... Yale finished the season 12-22 overall and was 6-14 in the Ivy League. DeSantis led the team in batting with a .336 average…
Last month during activities celebrating Yale’s 300th birthday, former President George Bush made an unannounced visit to the field and met the team. Bush, a first baseman for Yale and its captain in 1948, shook hands with DeSantis and chatted with the squad.
This summer … after a brief trip home, DeSantis will begin his new career as an American History teacher and assistant baseball coach at a school in Georgia.
So consider the scene. It’s graduation time, and Poppy Bush has just reached out to shake the hand of senior “R.D.” It’s reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s famous handshake with JFK. If this was planned by DeSantis, it was … well-played, sir. Or maybe it was just a handshake. Either way, while his classmates were taking photos with their parents, here was a 22-year-old holding forth — at length — in Florida’s leading newspaper. He even managed to get his GPA and his batting average into the article! It wouldn’t be the last time DeSantis found himself in the right place at the right time — and pulled an attention-seeking stunt to mark it.
A no-cancellation policy
History tells us that, of course, young R.D. didn’t teach history for long. (He retained a keen interest in the subject.) He went on to Harvard Law and served a commendable hitch in the Navy SEAL office in Afghanistan. His political rise was lucky and swift. After being elected to Congress, where he joined in forming the “Freedom Caucus,” a group of far-right post-tea party ideologues in the House, DeSantis precociously set his sights on the governor’s race in Florida.
With seven years at Yale and Harvard, bastions of liberal thought, exemplars of the Western canon, you might expect DeSantis to put that to some future use. Not the “liberal” part, certainly; he was already hard, hard right. But the Western canon part. When I, and later my sons, were lucky enough to be at Yale, it certainly tilted left. But there were prominent conservatives to keep the late-night bull sessions going. Besides overdrinking and having to import girls from Vassar and Wellesley, most of us shared a genuine awe for the classical education we were privileged to receive.
Back in my own day, 1963-67, I’ve no doubt at all we were an unfairly privileged lot ( I was a scholarship student, but I doubt I’d have been admitted today). Women were still absent, Black and Asian students few, gays invisible. But on the right-left political axis, as I recall it, there was something like mutual respect. I don’t remember anyone getting cancelled —firebrands on both sides were always banging desks over something. My roomie was a rightie. (On Vietnam, we were mostly fiercely opposed, but there were those of us signed up, and those of us who died.) There was a sense that these were our shortest, gladdest years, surrounded by bright ambitious students, ideas sparking at every lawn and quadrangle.
So when I arrived as an older guy to live in a Florida that was run by one of my son’s classmates, I wasn’t naïve. I understood this was a very bright politician with a very conservative point of view. After all, Yale produced not just the Clintons and my dorm mate John Kerry, but it was also home base for William F. Buckley Jr., who kick-started the entire modern conservative era. (His first book was a screed against proto-wokeism, “God and Man at Yale.”) And over at the law school, not long after Hillary and Bill, a brooding Clarence Thomas sat in his room, presumably nursing his resentments.
Still and all, perhaps naively, I caught myself wondering if DeSantis might tap some of the bright minds he’d chosen to go to school with. Perhaps a political kitchen cabinet, an inspirational political science professor, as rising politicians often do. The Ivies may have been too liberal for his taste, and this elite stuff may be too hoity-toity for an aspiring populist. But surely there were some benefits to hanging out with the caliber of smart people he had chosen to spend seven years with.
Instead, Ron DeSantis turned to … Donald Trump.
It was the first of many curve balls from DeSantis. He’d written a book in 2011, a haranguing, well-researched takedown of Obama’s “redistributive” policies. (I read it.) But he hitched his star to the least intellectually curious chief executive in history. DeSantis wrote a book, but Trump has reportedly never read a book in his adult life. Including the ones he is supposed to have written. Trump declared, “I love the poorly educated.” His first secretary of state referred to him, memorably, as a “moron.” He’s a lot cannier than that, but the chance that Trump reads essays by Montaigne is really, really low.
No one’s ever referred to DeSantis as a moron. He had done his homework, analyzing the Republican field. He knew whose ring needed kissing. The governor’s race in 2018 was a contest between two regional candidates, but DeSantis, again showing precocious media savvy, got instant national attention with his TV commercials. They showed his cute toddlers being taught by their father Ron to “build the wall” with play bricks. Totally cute, but the wall was, in real life, a barrier to keep desperate migrants out. Ha ha, kiddies.
There’s a straight line between that sort of stunt and the one he pulled this year, Memorably, he rounded up migrants and asylum seekers in Texas, and flew them to Martha’s Vineyard — on the Florida taxpayer’s dime. Among his base, there may have been plenty of yuk-yukking about that. But it was also character-confirming. There’s a disturbingly profound meanness to a public prank like that, humiliating and distressful to helpless people. I’m pretty sure I can see the evil twinkle in DeSantis’ eye from across the bay.
In the years since his first campaign for governor, DeSantis’s self-promotion has shown other signs of what he thinks is a sense of humor. But it’s never really that. It’s as far from self-deprecation as it’s possible to get, in the sense that JFK and George W. had it. It is either mock-deadly-serious, like the chosen-by-God TV commercials just before the last election. If you missed them, they were weird religious scenes, more solemn than satirical, meant to buck up the evangelicals. Or, his “humor” is cruel toward someone, diminishing them, like the long campaign of crude mockery against Anthony Fauci, the 80-year-old epidemiologist who spent his career saving lives in public service.
Only in recent days did DeSantis get a taste of his own medicine when Trump spun out his newest nickname for him: Ron DeSanctimonious. Trump, in his brutish way, can show a real, though depraved, wit, and he once again trumped his young mentee with something close to the bone. For now.
Good Ron on his shoulder
In retrospect, DeSantis’s campaign for governor was instructive in several senses. DeSantis would later perfect his media knack, becoming Fox News’ single most frequent political contributor. And he would show intense focus on kids’ learning, on politicizing education — how children are taught, how they’re protected in pandemics, how they’re “indoctrinated” by dangerous ideas. Getting civics courses back into schools — not a bad idea — was important to him, though he wanted only his kind of civics taught — a not good idea.
I get the feeling that we have in DeSantis, as his most authentic self, a Bad Ron. He has a tiny Good Ron perched on his shoulder, Jiminy Cricket-style, very occasionally urging him to do the right thing. But it’s the stern and hectoring Ron, the I-know-what’s good-for-you Ron who mostly prevails. Ron’s first job — as a history major teaching his brand of history to kids — is still his day job.
As governor, in the higher grades, baseball guy DeSantis took a hickory bat to Florida’s universities, signing “anti-woke” laws, exerting hiring control, pressuring faculties, urging students to videotape their professors uttering forbidden opinions. With the Orwellian switch of claiming he is protecting “freedoms,” DeSantis used government power to launch one of the nation’s most sustained attacks on the norms of academic freedom. To DeSantis it is a righteous effort to stamp out criticism of American ideals. To his critics, it is an assault on the Enlightenment principle that academics should be free from political interference — the reason tenure was invented.
On his “don’t say gay” law, he argued that kindergartners and second graders must not be given official instruction on LGBTQ issues. Not an unreasonable sentiment for innocent second graders. Good Ron. But the devil being in the details, it’s what the law also calls for— restricting all but undetermined “age-appropriate” situations — that enables censorship and book-banning, up and down grade levels, instilling fear and sending gay teachers back into the closet. Bad Ron.
Of course that is why DeSantis is such a hero to excitable, motivated groups. Recently, he was the featured speaker at the “Moms for Liberty” gathering here in Tampa. Distressed over children being “indoctrinated,” the group of mothers presented DeSantis with a “sword of liberty.” Personally, I could have done without the sight of another weapon in a school setting. But watch the schools and “parents’ rights” fights these next few years. The sword is drawn, the battle joined.
The other curiosity about DeSantis, this superbly educated governor, are his own “faculty” choices, so to speak. His professional hires. During the pandemic, his own instincts and advisers at first served him well. Keeping the schools open was to his credit, and I praised him for it, as did other parents and grandparents. Good Ron. But soon he began to show a curious taste for the … crackpot.
He avoided flat-out idiocies like ingesting bleach, as his mentor in Washington suggested. But he gathered oddball scientists around him, who floated bizarre notions of letting the pandemic spread “naturally.” He stockpiled bogus, or obsolete therapies. Most famously, he downplayed masks and vaccines, hiring a vax and mask skeptic as his chief medical officer, far out of the mainstream. (Weirdly, he attended Harvard. As a Yalie, I’m not surprised.) Other DeSantis hires have included an education board member who consorts with Qanon crazies, and major advisers who accuse critics of perversion by tweet.
A narrative of DeSantis as Champion Pandemic Wrangler has take hold on the right. But Florida’s numbers — deaths, hospitalizations — were in fact worse than many of the other large states, despite a friendly climate. And they didn’t need to be. He could have supported businesses and school parents — Good Ron — without criminalizing mask mandates and diminishing vaccines, if only during Florida’s notorious COVID spikes. He didn’t — Bad Ron. DeSantis was always “stubborn,” his father told The New Yorker.
On yet another educational front, De Santis’s quest to rewrite Florida’s textbooks, to purge them of “critical race theory,” led to hiring hundreds of freelance “reviewers.” As a result, math textbooks are indeed being revised to eliminate wokeness. Yet thanks to reporting by a joint Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald team, we now know that reviewers found no such thing. Out of hundreds, there were three instances of so-called CRT spotted. Two came from a college sophomore reviewer, a third from an employee of a small Christian college, Hillsdale.
And it is this Hillsdale College on which Ivy League DeSantis now depends for his major overhauls of all of Florida’s textbooks. Teaching civics is badly needed, I think. But instead of drawing from the nation’s rich treasure of educational institutions — as he himself once did— DeSantis has made this small religious college his (and now Florida’s) choice as the major source of educational and textbook reform.
I’m not being snooty here, especially not about the religious part. We sent our sons to a Jesuit high school. But Hillsdale is something else, a fervent aggressively Christian network of expanding charter schools, a favorite of Clarence Thomas and his school-active wife Ginni Thomas. Echoing extremist views, Hillsdale publications publish stories touting “The Insurrection Hoax.” And Hillsdale appreciates Gov. DeSantis right back. Its president calls DeSantis “one of the most important people living.”
Well, that’s certainly mutual admiration, isn’t it?
A handshake deal
I have a personal theory about why DeSantis ran away with the 2022 election. Yes, he hit all the buttons the MAGA base demanded. Yes, with his stunts he raised high the sword against the woke, and he did mightily smite us dangerous liberals. But I don’t think that’s why he won Florida in a walk. I think it was the hurricane.
I think the Good Ron, his Jiminy Cricket, got wind of the winds — and realized he had to play this one straight, for real. No wild throws. He asked Joe Biden for federal help, and shook the president’s hand when he visited Fort Myers. He took care of business, unlike his mentor Donald Trump. It’s not much of a leap to imagine that if Donald Trump had been in charge down here, paper towels would have been thrown, hurricane maps would have been redrawn by Sharpie. If Biden had visited a stricken state run by Trump, rest assured there would have been an important rally to attend instead.
Good Ron knew what he had to do, however briefly. People all over the state breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the handshake. We are just so starved for it. Dogs who are treated harshly will lick the hand at a decent gesture. That’s what got him the numbers, more than he deserved on his merits.
It may have been a moment for the kid from Dunedin, the one with a chip on his shoulder, with the bulldog pugnacity. Just maybe, he remembered the lessons, the manners, he learned at college. If he did, that’s what’s going to make him a formidable foe — to use Dr. Fauci’s term for the pandemic — in the years to come.
We may not have that long to wait. With a final, combustible run by Trump now under way, DeSantis once again finds himself in the right place at the right time. Get set for the stunts. And the sanctimony.
Guest columnist Barry Golson covers the Tampa Bay senior scene. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Playboy, Forbes and AARP. He is the author of “Gringos in Paradise” (Scribner). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.