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Apr 26, 2023


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By Frank Bruni

Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.

From the breathless media coverage of Ron DeSantis's recent visits to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, you could easily get the impression that:

Voting starts in approximately five minutes.

You’re really watching a new Netflix series about a body snatcher's attempts to pantomime just enough humanity to amass power on Planet Earth.

The Florida governor's entire candidacy hinges on his wife, Casey DeSantis.

She could be RuPaul at a drag ball for all the attention she's getting. She could be the sorcerer in Disney's "Fantasia" for all the magic journalists are primed for: When she's with her grumpy guv, will her sunshine melt his ice? Can her aptitude for small talk make up for his allergy to it? And when she trots out the couple's three children, ages 3 to 6, will voters be reminded of and charmed by her husband's youth? (He's 44 to Donald Trump's 76.)

Those are the wrong questions about Casey DeSantis. And they reflect how wrongly we in the media often approach the subject of political spouses in general.

We wildly overestimate their potential impact on a politician's image. I’ve spoken to many, many voters over the years, and I’ve emerged from exactly zero of those conversations thinking: "Wow, Barack is going to owe Michelle for a few hundred of this state's votes." Or: "Tipper just swung that state out of Al's win column."

Back when Bill Clinton was running for the White House, some pundits cast Hillary Clinton as a poison pill with voters in the middle. Last I checked, he won two presidential elections in a row.

And I challenge you to find me one voter, just one, whose pro or con decision about Trump hinged on his third wife. Where, by the way, is she? And how, pray tell, did she assist his 2016 victory? I’d forgotten all about her until she came up the other day in a Daily Beast headline that called Casey DeSantis "the Walmart Melania." Better than "the Bergdorf Melania," which would be redundant. It would also summon thoughts of a certain dressing room and would disregard Republicans’ populist conversion. They’re now all about the little guy and gal! Well, except when they’re doling out tax cuts.

But while we tend to exaggerate the importance of what a spouse does in public, we sometimes shortchange the relevance of what a spouse does in private. That's where and how Casey DeSantis probably matters most.

By many accounts, including an especially thorough profile of her by Michael Kruse in Politico recently, she's "uncommonly involved" (Kruse's words) in all aspects of her husband's career: strategy, policy, the friends-and-enemies scorecard. He doesn't simply turn to her in a dutiful, chivalrous, "And what do you think, honey?" fashion. She's no afterthought. She's the first thought. And the second thought. And the very last thought.

The political spouse I observed most closely, Laura Bush, was much more consequential behind the scenes than in front of the cameras. She in fact recoiled from the spotlight. But George W.'s aides relished her presence on the campaign trail with him because she calmed him, grounded him, took the bluster out of him whenever he was getting blustery.

She read the news coverage about him so that he didn't have to, and she would tell him what he needed to know but not what would make him fume pointlessly at us journalists in the back of the plane. That was her impact — not the way she dressed, not how she styled her hair, not the degree of verve or humor with which she delivered public remarks when she consented to do that. She regulated his emotional temperature.

I get the impression that Jill Biden does likewise with Joe, to an extent that could be absolutely critical to what happens in November 2024.

That Jill gets a say and gets her way was clear in a priceless anecdote that she included in her 2019 memoir, "Where the Light Enters." She recalled being by the pool and hearing her husband's political advisers, who were inside with him, trying to persuade him to enter the 2004 presidential race. She and Joe had ruled that out.

"A Sharpie caught my eye," she wrote. "I drew NO on my stomach in big letters, and marched through the room in my bikini."

President Biden is 80. It's not ageist to observe that over the months between now and Election Day, he must pace himself carefully, watch his health closely, do all he can to decrease the odds of any stammer or stumble that will be turned against him. He must stay focused and optimistic, which means tuning out as much of the Hunter Biden melodrama as he can. Rest is vital. Mood is pivotal.

And no one — not Ron Klain, not Mike Donilon, not Anita Dunn — can help with that the way Jill can. So, you go ahead and put Walmart Melania under a microscope. I’ll be over here putting White House Jill on a pedestal.

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My computers’ operating systems demand to be updated yearly, it seems. Several of my apps cry out for renewal every few months. So how is it that archaic sayings hang around for not just decades but centuries past the point of any coherence?

I direct you to the doggedness of phrases that invoke dogs. I can't square them with the ways of my dog, Regan, and of most of the other American pooches I know.

It's still said that someone "works like a dog." How many of the dogs around you do arduous physical labor — do any physical labor — or keep even a 9-to-5 schedule of other tasks? Barking at the Amazon delivery person doesn't count.

A hypochondriacal friend of mine always announces: "I’m sick as a dog!" In my experience, dogs are significantly hardier than we humans. No cold compresses, no hot tea, no Purell, no Pepto Bismol.

"A dog's life" means a harsh one, never mind the Instagram parade of golden retrievers in platinum digs, French bulldogs in haute couture and Siberian huskies that will never come within a snowball's toss of a sled (or of Siberia).

And those furry social-media stars nosh on treats, not one another. So the phrase "dog-eat-dog world" baffles me. They’re dachshunds, not the Donner party.

Also, I detect, at least in English, some semantic inequality between dogs and cats, with the former starring in more negative metaphors ("lie down with dogs, get up with fleas," "call off the dogs") than the latter do.

To wit: Donald Trump so frequently took a canine tack with his insults that Philip Rucker wrote an entire article in The Washington Post about how, in Trump's "singular lexicon, there is no more vicious put-down than likening an adversary to a dog." "Choked like a dog," "fired like a dog," "sweat like a dog" — Trump had used all of those and more.

Cats got off easy. Don't they always? If someone calls you "the cat's meow," "the cat's pajamas" or a "cool cat," you have cause to purr. A "fat cat" indulging in a "cat nap" has anything but "a dog's life."

That said, I cringe at hearing that someone "let the cat out of the bag." What sadist almost suffocated the kitty in the first place?

Let's retire that phrase, along with the digs about dogs above. While we’re at it, let's rethink "kill two birds with one stone." I’d rather let the feathered creatures live. And I’m not much for hurling heavy objects, just as Regan isn't much for fetching heavy, medium-weight or even light ones. She can't be bothered with all that back-and-forth when there are soft patches of grass on which to sun herself. It's a dog's life.

"Words Worth Sidelining" is a recurring newsletter feature.

In The Washington Post, Mattie Kahn took issue with the word "fearless" being applied so often and fashionably to young women today: "We haven't really created a generation of unflinching girls. With our broken world, we’ve scared them into action." (Thanks to Olga Adler of Delray Beach, Fla., for nominating this.)

Also in the Post, Paul Waldman took the measure of Mike Pence's appeal beyond the Republican primaries: "Voters are not clamoring for someone to tell them why we need to cut taxes for the rich and outlaw abortion, delivered in the tone of a stepdad explaining why you’re being grounded for the rest of the school year." (Adam Schmuckler, Olney, Md., and Alfred Reid, Durham, N.C.)

And David Von Drehle used the occasion of the P.G.A.-LIV golf merger to reflect on the odd career of a golfer centrally involved in it: "Greg Norman with a four-stroke lead in a major tournament was like a cat leaping onto a narrow shelf of Limoges. You just covered your eyes and waited for the sound of disaster." (Christopher Dodson, Montville, N.J., and Joe Bohr, Park City, Utah, among others) Von Drehle's article also had the clever observation that "golf was for decades — for centuries — the province of people who cared about money but never spoke of it openly. Scots. Episcopalians. Members of the Walker and Bush families. People who built huge homes then failed to heat them properly. People who drove around with big dogs in their old Mercedes station wagons. People who greeted the offer of a scotch and soda by saying, ‘Well, it's 5 o’clock somewhere!’" (Jessica N. Lange, Beavercreek, Ohio)

In The Times, Kurt Streeter reassessed the PGA's onetime pose of rectitude in light of the merger: "The PGA Tour presented itself as the guy who calls a penalty on himself if he accidentally moves his ball a quarter-inch. Turns out it was the guy who makes a double-bogey and marks it down as a par." (John Daly, Richmond, Va., and Doug Hardy, Concord, Mass., among others)

Also in The Times, Ezra Klein marveled at how little, in the end, Republicans extracted from the debt-ceiling standoff: "Threatening default — and we came within days of it this time — in order to get a deal like this is like threatening to detonate a bomb beneath the bank unless the teller gives you $150 and a commemorative mug." (Will Rothfuss, Stroudsburg, Penn., and Anita Moran, San Francisco, among many others)

In The New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich examined Paul Simon's newest album, "Seven Psalms," a deeply spiritual reflection on human life: "Outside religious spaces, posing the big questions — how we arrived here; what we’re supposed to do with the time we’ve been allotted — is generally considered the terrain of undergraduate philosophy majors and people who have gravely misjudged their tolerance for edibles." (Helen Pelletier, Portland, Maine, and Michael O’Keefe, San Juan Cosala, Mexico, among many others)

An article in The Economist assessed DeSantis's apparent reticence and long delay before he squarely took on Donald Trump: "It is as if Brutus had overslept on the Ides of March, giving Julius Caesar a chance to put on his armor, but had tried to proceed with his hit job all the same. The plot to overthrow Mr. Trump, which once seemed plausible, now looks forlorn." (Howard Stambor, Seattle, and Harry Gerecke, Vashon, Wash.)

And in GQ, Alex Pappademas had a grand time profiling the musician Dave Matthews and noted that when "someone tells you they don't like Dave Matthews, they’re really voicing a deep tribal aversion to the type of person they picture when they picture a Dave Matthews fan — spiritually incurious trustafarians, pumpkin-spice basics, fleece-vest I.P.A. bros, or whichever straw-man stereotype offends their imagination most." Matthews owns a Tesla "but he's a little embarrassed by it — specifically the gull-wing doors, because it's basically impossible to be a rock star and get out of a car with gull-wing doors without looking like an asshole, especially if you’re wearing sunglasses." (Kate Schultz, Madison, Wis.)

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.

The presidential race is heating up, even at this early stage. The war between Ukraine and Russia continues to rage. Robert Kennedy Jr. is cyber-hobnobbing with Elon Musk, in a convergence of runaway vanity and ruinous nonsense that's scarily emblematic of the United States circa 2023.

But the article that everybody I know was talking about most over the past week was Tim Alberta's profile in The Atlantic of Chris Licht, who had been in charge at CNN for 13 baffling and tumultuous months and, it turned out, was days away from being canned.

That's largely because my circle of acquaintance is bloated with people in the news business. We can navel-gaze with the best of them. But it also reflects the richness of the portrait of Licht that Alberta deftly paints.

His article (behind a paywall, which may or may not block you) is about more than CNN, more than Licht. It's about tendencies and traps that many people have skirted or tumbled into. It's about confidence bleeding into grandiosity, defensiveness edging into reclusiveness, bluntness becoming coldness. It examines the lies we tell ourselves about the deals and compromises we’ve made.

The key scene, for me, is the one in which Licht huffs, puffs and perspires at an elite gym with a quirky personal trainer. He hoists a heavy pole. He does a side plank. He pushes a weighted sleigh. He tells Alberta, who's there, "Zucker couldn't do this shit." That's Jeff Zucker, who ran CNN before him.

What's the point of that statement? And why is Licht letting Alberta watch him work out? One answer — which I can relate to as a large person who struggles to lose weight — is that Licht was 226 pounds three years ago but 178 when Alberta spent time with him. He's surely proud of that.

But what's also happening in that scene — what apparently happened during the whole of Licht's time at CNN — is that someone who built his career making other people (Joe Scarborough, Stephen Colbert, Gayle King) look good is overly relishing his moment in the spotlight. He's forgetting what his job is. He's losing sight of the larger picture.

It's a recognizable human error. And it's a cautionary tale with resonance far beyond the world of journalism.

Source photograph by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images

Frank Bruni is a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, the author of the book "The Beauty of Dusk" and a contributing Opinion writer. He writes a weekly email newsletter. Instagram • @FrankBruni • Facebook


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