Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His most recent book, the memoir “Borges and Me,” is an account of his travels through the Scottish Highlands of Scotland with Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges in 1971. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
As is increasingly apparent in many of his public appearances, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is rather like Donald Trump, only without the charm. And that charmless demeanor seeps through his latest book, “The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival,” a grievance-laden tome written in advance of a presumed bid for the Republican nomination in the 2024 presidential election.
The question is, will it help his chances?
That’s unlikely. Only fans or parties actively looking for someone to back in 2024 will read the book, and within a few months unsold copies will lie on the remainder tables, rubbing shoulders with Mike Pompeo’s new memoir, “Never Give an Inch,” or past examples of campaign self-advertisements such as “A Call to Service” by John Kerry, “A Time for Truth” by Ted Cruz or even Trump’s “Crippled America.”
I’ve read a number of these books and they’re rarely good. Nevertheless, DeSantis takes the usual dullness to a fresh level, redefining what cliched writing can sound like. It’s one thing to offer the public a bit of wooden prose, but DeSantis gives us an entire lumber yard.
I don’t blame DeSantis entirely for that lousy prose. Like most politicians, he’s a busy man who will have likely farmed out the writing of his book to nameless minions. The governor doubtless talked at length to the “hardworking team of literary professionals” mentioned in his acknowledgments; these ghostwriters will have also had his speeches, social media feeds, appearances and policy papers to draw on.
And we can be sure the governor read the book and approved of its contents before publication. So we must assume the ideas (and “ideals”) in this book, such as they are, belong to him.
That’s not a good thing.
As one might expect, the book runs through DeSantis’ life and times, talking about his love of baseball and hard work; about his parents and their working-class roots in Pennsylvania and Ohio. They were Italian-Americans — a family of immigrants, although DeSantis has shown little interest in helping recently-arrived migrants on their American journey: he famously flew two planeloads, primarily comprised of Venezuelan migrants, from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in 2022, a cruel, calculated political stunt designed to embarrass the Biden administration and liberal elites with their “sanctuary cities.” That he would play politics with the lives of these poor souls doesn’t, I fear, speak well for him – nor that he performed throughout the ensuing media cycle with such glee.
But this hard-heartedness is a core part and parcel of the narrative, which offers a litany of resentfulness. “Before my time at Yale,” DeSantis writes of his undergraduate years studying history at the Ivy League school, “I had never seen a limousine, much less a limousine liberal. Those students who were the most strident in their leftism… came from the most privileged background.” He experienced “unbridled leftism” on campus, and this pushed him far to the right, where he has remained.
Everywhere in the book, one senses his rage against political correctness. He rails, on nearly every page, about “the woke agenda” that he sees permeating almost every level of life in America.
In DeSantis’ mind, a dire phalanx of “woke” fanatics is led “by the likes of Dr. Anthony Fauci,” who is seen as public enemy #1. He devotes a whole chapter of this book to railing against Dr. Fauci and people who used the powers of the federal government to implement “heavy-handed public health ‘interventions’” during the Covid-19 pandemic. These measures did little, in the governor’s opinion, to slow the course of the disease — rather, they “destroyed livelihoods, hurt children, and harmed overall public health.”
(The jury is probably still out on how DeSantis governed with regard to the pandemic. It’s possible he had some good instincts at work.)
The title of this book must surely be ironic: “The Courage to Be Free.” DeSantis is all about the restriction of freedoms wherever possible. He wants to cancel librarians who allow kids to read certain Black or LGBTQ writers and to fire tenured professors in the state university system who teach “woke” ideas. He wants to restrict the rights of women seeking abortions and those of LGBTQ people seeking to live their lives. He hopes to punish corporations, such as the Walt Disney Company, for criticizing his policies.
Again and again, DeSantis shows little interest in the First Amendment — except when his own free speech is concerned. He seems not to have heard the great words of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Jefferson understood that we each have a right, even a patriotic duty, to speak without permission from the authorities.
Instead, DeSantis rails against the “legacy media” — by which he means The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and so forth. These are “the praetorian guard of the nation’s failed ruling class, running interference for elites who share their vision and smearing those who dare of oppose it.” (I suspect he would, no doubt, wish to exempt Rupert Murdoch’s media empire from this judgment.)
So, if “The Courage to Be Free” is a sign of things to come, DeSantis will likely hang his presidential campaign on efforts to find what he calls the “pressure points” in the system, finding ways to “leverage” his authority to advance his agenda. He’s a lawyer, as he reminds us, educated at the famous Harvard Law School. If the book is any guide, he’s going to use his lawyerly skills to dismantle our heritage and, in his Orwellian manner, he’s going to proclaim that he’s freeing us by doing so.
Overall, I found the hectoring quality of DeSantis oppressive. He’s a chilly man, with a heart of ice and — like so many politicians on both the right and left these days — full of resentments, grudges and the urge to destroy anyone who doesn’t agree with him. The courage he claims for himself he would deny to many others. I shudder to think what he might do if handed the presidential bully pulpit.
The good news, I suppose, is that the lack of charm this book illustrates could well severely limit his chances of success on the national stage.