Over the past two weeks, I’ve been awash in condolences. Friends tell me how deeply sorry for me they feel. They say they can only imagine my pain. They wonder how I’ve gotten through it.
They’re talking about the hours I had to spend with Ron DeSantis.
To be more specific, they’re talking about my coverage first of his televised face-off with Gavin Newsom and then, six days later, his debate with Nikki Haley, Chris Christie and (is there no mercy in this world?) Vivek Ramaswamy, whose singularly manic smugness makes him the political equivalent of one of those carnival rides that just spin you in circles, faster and faster. I’ve endured many presidential candidates who had me reaching for a cocktail. Ramaswamy is the first who has me looking for Dramamine.
But he isn’t the great puzzle of the race for the White House. That honor belongs to DeSantis, who won a second term as Florida governor in 2022 by an indisputably wowie margin of nearly 20 percentage points, had donors lining up for the pleasure of hurling big wads of cash at him, and was supposed to be MAGA magic — Donald Trump’s priorities without Donald Trump’s pathologies.
He performed a nifty trick, all right. Abracadabra: His early promise disappeared.
And while DeSantis’s downward trajectory recalls the sad arcs of Rudy Giuliani in the 2008 presidential race and Scott Walker eight years later, a big part of the explanation is peculiar to him. It’s a deficit of joy.
His joylessness is why it’s so unpleasant to watch him, whether he’s at a lectern or a state fair, dressed up or dressed down, demonizing schoolteachers or migrants or Mickey Mouse.
Oh, sure, there’s the demonizing itself, which positions him contemptuously and censoriously far to the right. But the scornful manner completes the spiteful message. You can get away with an air of meanness if there are gusts of exuberance along with it — if you relish your rants and exult in your evil, as Trump seems or long seemed to. But not if you project the sense that campaigning is some nuisance you’ve deigned to put up with. Not if you’re put out. Not if your every smile comes across as an onerous homework assignment in a class you were forced to take for your major.
“Grinding away methodically” — that’s how Dan Balz, in an article in The Washington Post last weekend, described both DeSantis’s county-by-county trudge across Iowa and his point-by-point slog through debates. Balz was sizing up Haley’s surge past DeSantis into second place in many polls, and he was kinder than the CNN senior political commentator Ana Navarro, who several days later said that the DeSantis campaign had “that certain stench of political death.”
It’s not moribund yet. As Balz rightly noted, Iowa is famously unpredictable and DeSantis has garnered some important endorsements in the state. He’s also concentrating his resources there in a manner that could well lift him above Haley (though not Trump) in the end.
But even before his campaign’s stench of death, he often bore the expression of someone catching a whiff of something foul. And a sour puss is not the sweetest bait. It’s not the smartest presidential audition.
Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump all had moments when they communicated an outsize delight at drawing near, and then reaching, the pinnacle of American politics. They had their resentments, too, and their degrees of interest in masking those, along with their success in doing so, varied widely. Trump devolved into all resentment all the time. It’s where he dwells — or, rather, rages — now.
But a while back he, like the others, could flash a certain spark. Joe Biden still can — he clearly regards the presidency as a great privilege.
Maybe DeSantis does, too, and perhaps his quest for it really does excite and inspire him. You wouldn’t know it from his debates or from his CNN town hall in Des Moines on Tuesday night, when his diminished chances to win his party’s nomination prompted a salvo of negative comments about Trump that he should have been firing off all along.
Maybe he’s just terrible at glee or at anything glee adjacent. Maybe that won’t matter: We’ve entered a scarier, stranger chapter of American political life — of American life, period — in which a genuine smile may seem discordant and a grudging one in tune with mournful times.
Whatever the case, it’s possible that DeSantis will be back on a debate stage just before the Iowa caucuses. I apparently haven’t suffered enough.
For the Love of Sentences
In The Washington Post, Monica Hesse marveled at the extent to which Paris Hilton hasoutsourced her newborn’s diaper changing to a nanny and has thus been spared “close encounters of the turd kind.” (Thanks to Trish Webster of Hudson, Ohio, and Marjorie Hollis of Port Angeles, Wash., for nominating this.)
Also in The Post, Sally Jenkins deconstructed the wild finish of the N.F.L. game last Sunday between the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs: “It’s the time of year when some teams flex and some teams fold. The Chiefs have been hanging on to their accustomed dominance with their fingernails, and you can almost hear the titch, titch of them slipping.” (George Gates, Greensboro, N.C.)
And Shane Harris and Samuel Oakford observed that the National Guardsman Jack Teixeira’s alleged leaking of classified documents reflected “an omnivorous appetite for information about global affairs.” “It was as if he had gone to the secrets buffet and sampled one of every dish,” they wrote. (Terry Burridge, Arlington, Va.)
In The Times, Lindsay Zoladz nailed a seasonal annoyance: “When a nonholiday song is suddenly reclassified in the cultural imagination as a holiday song, often, one must blame Pentatonix.” (Chris Winters, Seattle)
Also in The Times, Sarah Isgur defined the challenge of discussing Vivek Ramaswamy: “I think I speak for the entire pundit class when I tell you that we’re all running out of synonyms for ‘jerk.’” (Dave Powell, Longboat Key, Fla.)
And Andrew Solomon, reviewing “The Covenant of Water,” by Abraham Verghese, defended Verghese’s idealistic sensibility, asking, “Why should we assume that sophistication requires cynicism?” “People may not be as good as Verghese’s characters,” he added, “but neither are they as bad as Philip Roth’s or Saul Bellow’s. Ugliness is not truer than loveliness, nor cruelty more so than kindness.” (Florence Nash, Durham, N.C.)
On Semafor, Liz Hoffman surveyed the witnesses called by a Senate committee pondering new banking rules. “We all know the image: C.E.O.s lined up behind a wood table, wearing a practiced look of contrition and their third-best watch,” she wrote. (Alan Stamm, Birmingham, Mich.)
On the music blog Stereogum, Tom Breihan noted the link of a No. 1 Kelly Clarkson hit, “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” to a certain German philosopher: “For a proto-fascistic theorist who died in an insane asylum after a syphilis-induced nervous breakdown, Nietzsche had a real knack for a catchy phrase.” (Mark Pitcock, Merrimack, N.H.)
And in an article in The New Yorker with the terrifically clever (and frightening) headline “All the Carcinogens We Cannot See,” Siddhartha Mukherjee described a conversation with a researcher named William Hill: “Hill reached into a drawer and pulled out a vial filled with a coal-black sludge. ‘That’s a solution of suspended particles of dust and soot,’ he explained. ‘It’s liquid air pollution.’ I shook the vial, watching the particles rise and settle. It was as if someone had made a hideous snow globe with the grime wiped from my windows in New York.” (Susan Hacker, Willingboro, N.J.)
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.
What I’m Watching
My end-of-year movie binge continues, at least to the extent that it can amid a storm of work obligations. Students’ final papers! Proofreading the pages of my forthcoming book! This newsletter! I was so far behind last weekend that I couldn’t use the ticket I bought to a Sunday night showing of “Maestro.”
But I found time days before that for “May December,” which I enjoyed less than most critics apparently did. I found its jumble of tones and its melodramatic score distancing, though I’m never sorry to spend time watching Julianne Moore, who plays a woman who went to prison for the sexual abuse of a minor; married and had children with him; and is trustingly but tentatively welcoming an actress (Natalie Portman) who is about to play her into the couple’s home.
I’m also never sorry to spend time with Tilda Swinton, whose one extended scene with Michael Fassbender is the high point of “The Killer,” an otherwise uneven, underbaked affair about a professional assassin (Fassbender) who botches a job, is marked for elimination and strikes back against the people coming after him.
“Leave the World Behind” — about strangers warily sizing up one another as they confront what just might be the end of the world — held my interest more effectively than either of those other movies did. While it plays heavy-handedly with the question of whether we humans are worse than we admit or better than we realize — whether we’re drowning in our own malice or buoyed by our fugitive grace — it expertly builds tension and has a few bravura sequences. It also has a quartet of excellent performances by Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Mahershala Ali and Myha’la.
On a Personal Note
Both courses that I taught this semester ended last week, and in the waning minutes, my students and I allowed ourselves conversations far afield of the topics at hand. That always seems to happen. I asked them questions about their lives that I hadn’t asked before. They asked me questions about mine. A few of them, eyeing the vast and scary expanse beyond college, were curious about my path to where I am now. Did I plan it all out?
“Plan” is a flexible verb, an elastic concept. The students were talking about a meticulous choreography, a step-by-step progression. That’s how many people approach the future, and for some of them, it’s the right call. But what those people see as a risk-minimizing strategy always seemed dangerous to me, because it presumes a degree of control over events that most of us don’t really have and a predictability by which the world doesn’t operate. It also creates a merciless yardstick: If things don’t happen a certain way by a certain point, you’re off course. You’re behind schedule. You’ve failed.
But there’s another kind of planning. It involves knowing generally what you’re after, preparing for a range of possibilities therein, not so much writing a script as sculpting a space: You want a career in the law, but you choose your focus — or it chooses you — as you go along. You want to arm yourself with the skills and sensibility to start a business, but the nature of that enterprise will be determined by circumstances that you can’t, and shouldn’t, guess right now. You want to lavish your energy on — and earn your keep with — words, but whether they’re in screenplays, novels, magazines or newspapers is up for grabs.
We talk too little about that kind of map, though it has much to recommend it, including its allowance for serendipity, for surprise, which can thrill as often as it disappoints.
My students asked me: Did I plan to leave New York for North Carolina and trade the churn of Manhattan for the calm of my suburb? Was I determined to become a professor? Was I set on Duke?
I wasn’t set at all. I didn’t time this to happen when it did, two and a half years ago. I felt an itch for just a bit of an adventure. I felt a pang for new scenery and a new challenge. I craved more green, less noise. And I’d arranged my life so that I could make such a pivot when the pivot made sense. Then I got an email about my current job, and I let life fill in the blanks.