DeSantis says Biden can ‘barely read,’ but our governor is no paragon of fluency

Governor’s grammar seems disconnected from his Yale, Harvard credentials

By: - July 26, 2022 7:00 am

FL Gov. Ron DeSantis’ interview on Fox News’ Ingraham Angle. DeSantis remarked that President Joe Biden “can barely read the teleprompter.” July 23, 2022. Credit: YouTube

Analysis

“Because as bad as Biden is, even though he can barely read the teleprompter, and as much as people disapprove of him, nobody wants Harris, and so they’d much rather stick with Biden floundering around than actually turn the wheels of power over to somebody that clearly is in over her head.”

That was Gov. Ron DeSantis talking about President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Fox News recently.

Pot, meet kettle.

Like the president, who overcame a childhood stutter, our governor is no paragon of fluency in speech. He uhs and ahs. He stutters. He abandons sentences in midstream. He often uses words such as “wanna,” “gonna,” and “stuff,” and phrases like “you know.”

Not exactly a presidential-sounding grammarian, despite his Ivy League credentials at undergrad Yale University and Harvard Law School.

For example:

DeSantis’ news conferences are replete with examples:

“Someone that wants to go into local government and become, like, a county manager, people that wanna work in a state agency — you know, what kind of a foundation are they having? And this is really what we’re providing here: the ability for them to really excel. And, if you go through a lot of this and you choose to do other stuff, this is still gonna be very helpful for what you’re gonna be doing.” (July 18, discussing civics academies.)

Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the Boys State convention on June 21, 2022. Source: Screenshot/DeSantis Facebook

“So, whenever there’s something in the news cycle or, you know, a phony controversy or whatever, just don’t even indulge in that. There’s no worry. So, we always keep focused on what we’re here to do and the things that actually matter to people, and we’re not going to let little blips in public opinion” — he trailed off. (June 21, address to Boys State.)

“You also have the issue of mental health and, you know, my wife is very good on this and, you know, she will always tell me, you know, you have some deranged lunatic — that is not necessarily what we mean by mental health. Yeah, they probably have some mental problems, for sure. Maybe there could have been interventions.” (June 3, discussing mass shootings.)

“And so, you’re doing that and I think there’s a lot of really, really crazy people out there, unfortunately, that really get consumed with ideology,” he said. “These are people that don’t really have, I think, a religious foundation or any type of, of, of relationship with God, and so they turn to radical politics as kind of what they’re going to do.” (June 9, DeSantis on politics as a stand-in for religion.)

Ivy League

Rick Wilson, the former Republican political strategist and Lincoln Project co-founder, described the governor’s speech patterns as “discursive, wandering, weirdly syntactical.”

He said that a political speech coach told him once: “You can always tell the people who read a lot. They speak in more complete sentences. Even their reading of speeches and remarks comes across as more coherent, more cogent, more considered, etc.”

“I don’t know what his reading habits are,” Wilson said, but his speech “is almost like tweeting. It’s like these little bursts. They don’t always end; they don’t always land; they don’t always connect.”

Susan MacManus. Source: MacManus Twitter profile

Susan MacManus, professor emerita of politics at the University of South Florida, said in a telephone interview that she viewed recent DeSantis speeches to a Moms for Liberty conference and Turning Point USA’s Student Action Summit to study his political communications style.

She notices that he’ll pose a question to an audience and then supply a punchy answer to it.

“That’s sometimes a very effective way to grab people’s attention, and then if you give a short, succinct answer, they’re much more likely to remember it,” MacManus said. “Since he’s talking mostly to friendly audiences, yes, I do think it’s effective.”

MacManus stressed that she was commenting about the style, not substance, of DeSantis’ performance.

She and Wilson both noted that we tend to forgive people a break on missteps when speaking contemporaneously. “I do have plenty of ums and ahs and elidations and all sorts of little vocal tics. Everyone does,” Wilson allowed.

Friendly audiences

Except for DeSantis’ annual State of the State speeches to joint sessions of the Legislature, the governor rarely speaks to his non-fans. Even during press conferences, his remarks elicit cheers and applause from people clearly devoted to him. He sometimes dispenses with questions from the press, too.

The news media, in fact, comprise a frequent target of DeSantis’ barbs. Other frequent targets include gay and transgender people, “woke” corporations, and universities teaching “Zombie Studies.”

“We refuse to bow down to Lord Fauci,” DeSantis told the Turning Point crowd, referring to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health and chief medical adviser on COVID-19 to the president. Fauci’s prescriptions for fighting the COVID pandemic have been ferociously attacked by the governor.

A DeSantis campaign mailer last week went as far as to call his opponents “the enemy within.”

“This enemy is the radical vigilante woke mob that will steamroll anything and anyone in their way. Their blatant attacks on the American way of life are clear and intensifying: stifling dissent, public shaming, rampant violence, and a perverted version of history,” the mailer said (emphasis in the original.)

“A group that will, literally, tear down monuments and buildings but — perhaps in an even more sinister way — tear down the American spirit itself. They go after the family unit, parental rights, traditional moral values, the church, and fact-based education,” it continued.

Asked about the governor’s approach, Democratic political consultant Kevin Cate (he’s working for Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried in the party’s gubernatorial primary this year) said this:

“The only style that he has is playing the victim and whining. He channels rage and oppression like no governor before him has done. And it resonates with a certain demographic of people who feel like the world is changing faster than they are and that scares the shit out of them and so it scares the shit out of DeSantis.”

Cate sees no evidence of any appeal to Democrats.

“The whole formula is to get as many Fox News viewers pissed off as possible. He wants to act just as pissed off and aggrieved as they are,” he said.

‘Net political positive’

“This is just a purely amateur psychological diagnosis: We know this is a guy who’s a middle-class kid from (Pinellas County’s) Dunedin. He had plenty of hustle and enough brain power to get himself into Harvard and Yale. Great,” Wilson said.

(DeSantis, born in Jacksonville, describes himself on his website as “a native Floridian with blue-collar roots.”)

“But, like a lot of people who come from that middle-class background and get into Harvard and Yale, they are a little overawed by the difference of where they came from and where most of their classmates came from economically,” Wilson continued.

“It may be a net political positive for him that he can reflect back from whence he came versus the outright elitism that many political figures express,” he said.

The late Gov. Lawton Chiles. Credit: State Library and Archives of FL.

DeSantis is not the only Florida governor to have displayed verbal eccentricities. The late Democrat Lawton Chiles inspired head-scratching by declaring in a debate with Jeb Bush in 1994, “The old he-coon walks just before the light of day.”

C-SPAN’s take was: “Chiles was implying he would score a come-from-behind victory, which he did.”

Chiles and the late Republican Gov. Claude Kirk, Jr. were of a generation “when there was still a set in Florida of distinct regional accents and cadences. Lawton has this sort of musical, lyrical Southern vocal presentation. That’s gone now,” Wilson said.

‘Working-class affectation’

“There is a sort of working-class affectation very popular with Republican candidates today that is, I think, it’s quite obviously fake,” he continued.

“And I know for a hard fact that when Ron DeSantis is sitting with major donors who are going to write a $100,000 check he is speaking in the language of the meritocracy and the Harvard and Yale-graduate world. When he’s talking to the Fox audience it’s a little more yee-haw.”

The question is how well this will work for a national audience.

More than two years out from 2024, polls suggest DeSantis may perform well in a head-to-head match against Donald Trump, but that both might have trouble against Biden or Vice President Kamala Harris, notwithstanding Biden’s low numbers now.

Says Wilson: “He sometimes comes across as an odd cat. We’ll see how that translates as his presidential campaign comes together, because voters will forgive a lot in a candidate but they won’t forgive fake and they won’t forgive weird after a certain point.”

 

Correction: This story has been updated to correct that Dr. Anthony Fauci is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health and chief medical adviser on COVID-19 to the president.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.

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