David Remnick: All right, sorry about that. We've got so many people here that I think we are melting the servers.
Speaker 1: I think we're back online here. Great.
Ron DeSantis: I am running for President of the United States to lead our great American comeback.
David Remnick: Despite some very embarrassing technical difficulties on Twitter, Ron DeSantis finally declared his candidacy for President, and he enters the race with an enormous for chest in name recognition, that he's also the object of daily rage from a familiar corner, Mar-a-Lago. Donald Trump refers to DeSantis, of course, as DeSanctimonious, and a lot worse. Welcome to the 2024 campaign. DeSantis gained attention nationally during COVID when Florida refused many of the recommended public health measures.
Since then, he's been pursuing political vendettas seemingly designed to keep him in the headlines. Last fall, he chartered planes to fly migrants to the wealthy beach community of Martha's Vineyard, and he's embroiled in a titanic legal battle with the Disney Corporation and its CEO, Bob Iger. Staff writer Dexter Filkins profiled Ron DeSantis in the New Yorker as his presidential ambitions were becoming quite clear. I talked with Dexter last year.
Well, let's talk a little bit about his background. Who is Ron DeSantis? Where does he come from? What kind of person is he?
Dexter Filkins: He's from Florida. He was born in Jacksonville. He grew up outside of Tampa in a town called Dunedin. It's a working-class neighborhood, a working-class guy, went to public school. He was a great baseball player in Little League, where they won the World Series, and in high school. He went to Yale on a baseball scholarship and then onto Harvard Law School, so he's come a long way.
David Remnick: Did he distinguish himself academically at Yale and then Harvard Law?
Dexter Filkins: He did. He did. In fact, one of the more funny quotes that I got from one of his former classmates at Yale was, "Ron was so smart that we couldn't plagiarize off of his papers because everyone would know where it came from because he is the only one that smart who could have made that argument."
David Remnick: He's smart in what way?
Dexter Filkins: More than a couple of people told me his memory is practically photographic, and particularly when I was having conversations about the coronavirus, that he was reading medical journals. He'd read them once, he would digest it, he would understand it, and could have a conversation about it. He's very, very fast.
David Remnick: How would you describe Ron DeSantis ideologically, and how did he become that way?
Dexter Filkins: It's hard to tell how much of Ron DeSantis is ideological and how much is opportunism. He sounds like Trump, except that he speaks in complete sentences. He's very, very articulate and very, very quick, but he's competing for the same constituency. He's very, very angry at the elites, even though he went to Harvard and Yale. He's very angry at Washington. He talks about, he's very angry at the politicians, and so he's rallying, basically, the white working class of Florida, of which the numbers are still quite large, and he's angry.
Ron DeSantis: We're going to make sure that parents are able to send their kid to kindergarten without having some of this stuff injected into their school curriculum.
David Remnick: How did he become governor? My understanding is that, although he's now seen as the dominant political figure in state politics-- obviously, Trump himself is in Palm Beach-- that DeSantis really, he squeaked by to get in.
Dexter Filkins: He squeaked by, he did. I think he won by less than 1%, and I think there was at least one recount, automatic recount. He defeated a politician named Andrew Gillum, who had been the mayor of Tallahassee, a very, very close race. I think he benefited from the fact that Gillum, not only was he Black in a state, former Confederacy, but also because Gillum came from the left of the party. Gillum had squeaked in and beaten a moderate to get the nomination against Gwen Graham, who many people believed would've fared much better against DeSantis. DeSantis won just by a hair, but he's been a missile going straight up ever since.
David Remnick: What do you mean?
Dexter Filkins: He has developed a style which is very visible, very theatrical, again, very angry, but it has made him a national politician. Over the last couple of years, he really built himself and his persona, and I hate to use the word brand, but it's a brand, around the way that he dealt with the coronavirus. Essentially, it played in perfectly for him and his style because he could say, "I don't agree with Fauci and all the pinheads in Washington, and all they want to do is oppress you and make you wear masks and keep your children at home." He charted this very, very novel course on the coronavirus, and that's what made him famous.
David Remnick: Now, the COVID policy that you describe is not just sheer, obstinate ignorance. We've seen some of that in political quarters in the last few years, but something a little bit more complicated.
Dexter Filkins: I had a long conversation with a professor at Stanford of public health, an epidemiologist named Jay Bhattacharya, who said he was sitting at home one day on a Sunday. His phone rang and it was Ron DeSantis and he wanted to talk about the coronavirus. Bhattacharya, very, very much like DeSantis, we're charting a slightly different course. Basically, and I'm going to make this a little crude, but it's essentially masking doesn't really work.
The only thing you can really do is protect the elderly, which DeSantis did from the get-go, protect the elderly, and basically try to ride the virus out until a vaccine comes, but don't kid yourself. There's not that much that we can do about it. What followed from that naturally was, keep the schools open, keep the government offices open, keep the beaches open, keep the shopping malls open, and that's what Florida did. Very, very different from say, New York or California.
Ron DeSantis: I think the question is we can either have a free society or we can have a biomedical security state, and I can tell you Florida, we're a free state.
David Remnick: How are its statistics?
Dexter Filkins: That's very, very interesting. They went up and down and up and down/ He caught a lot of hell over the course of the pandemic, but the numbers aren't bad. Florida is in the middle when you look at death rates. It's pretty much in the middle of the pack right next to California. California shut down their entire economy, all their schools, for two years. Florida kept everything open. He's looking better than he did.
David Remnick: Now, another issue that's been crucial to his presence on the national scene is LGBTQ issues and how they're taught in schools. DeSantis has been out front on that. He passed a law a couple of months ago called the Parental Rights in Education, or the so-called "Don't Say Gay" law, where he supported it. What's the deal there? Tell me what happened and what role DeSantis plays there.
Dexter Filkins: Well, I think again, DeSantis has become a master at picking these issues that get everyone excited.
David Remnick: Hot-button cultural issues.
Dexter Filkins: Super hot-button, yes, and he's very, very good at staking out a position and pounding the table and saying, "I'm not giving in to the liberals in the Northeast."
David Remnick: One of the stunning things about this episode is that DeSantis goes to war against a huge company in this state against Disney.
Dexter Filkins: It's remarkable, and he appears not to have suffered for it politically, not yet.
David Remnick: Describe the fight and what was the outcome.
Dexter Filkins: They hate it when you say the "Don't Say Gay" law, but that's how everybody understands it now, so I'm going to use that. The legislature passes the law. He signs it. Disney's response initially in Orlando, Disney World, is tepid. Many employees at Disney World got angry at their CEO and said, "This isn't enough. We hate this." Then the CEO came forward and condemned DeSantis and condemned the law. Then DeSantis basically went after Disney, and Disney, since it was built in the late 1960s, basically, it governs itself. If there's a fire at Disney World, Disney World put out the fire.
David Remnick: They have special accommodations in some ways.
Dexter Filkins: Yes, very, and they govern themselves essentially. They are left alone. DeSantis just took that and threatened to zero out the entire special district for Disney World. When you talk to, say, ordinary voters or his supporters, that's what they love about him. They would say, any other politician would've caved into Disney. Would've backed down and said, I'm so sorry, and not Ron.
David Remnick: What's the purpose of the law in the first place?
Dexter Filkins: I hate to speculate as to his motive, but it made a lot of headlines all across the country. I think just the kind of headlines that he wants to make.
David Remnick: Which are what?
Dexter Filkins: Which is, when you see him speak, he says, "I'm anti-woke, I'm anti-elites, I'm against the press, I'm against the pinhead politicians in Washington." He can position himself
very much as a kind of anti-elitist. He doesn't really need to do all that in Florida to win. I mean, he's got that constituency locked up anyway.
David Remnick: It's all national politics?
Dexter Filkins: That's what it seems like. Every person I talked to who knows him says this is a deeply ambitious man. He's had his eyes on the White House since he was in college and that every job he had was basically a stepping stone to the next one.
David Remnick: You knocked on a lot of doors in the state of Florida in pursuit of a really deep piece on Ron DeSantis. One of the doors you knocked on was on the door of the father of Ron DeSantis. Describe that encounter.
Dexter Filkins: Well, I had just come from the CPAC conference in Orlando, where Ron Jr. spoke, pounding the table.
David Remnick: That's the Conservative Political Action Committee.
Dexter Filkins: Yes. It's the big gathering. I drove to Dunedin, a little town where they still live. I looked up his address. He was there. I pulled over into a McDonald's and changed into a nice-- I put a white shirt on and long pants. I went with absolutely no expectation of success. I went and knocked on the door.
David Remnick: As we learned to do as young reporters many years ago.
Dexter Filkins: Yes, you think there's no way he's going to come out and talk to me. He probably won't even be there. Lo and behold, he did. He was wearing an FSU t-shirt, looked like he hadn't shaved in a couple of days, barefoot, shorts, nicest guy in the world. I mean absolutely, really nice. Didn't really want to talk to me at first, said, "I'm a little suspicious. I'll be frank with you." Then we had a really nice talk about his son.
David Remnick: How did he characterize him?
Dexter Filkins: More than once he said, "Well, Ron is stubborn." He told a very funny story about him, which was, "You know, Ron's a very good baseball player and, my gosh, I must have thrown a half million pitches to him when he was young, right out there in the front yard. I think he only swung at 500 of them."
David Remnick: He likes to walk. Well, Fox has had a huge role in DeSantis, as it's said. You did a public records request and got a lot of emails between Fox News and DeSantis' office. What did you learn from those emails?
Dexter Filkins: It's pretty amazing. It's basically a symbiotic relationship. DeSantis needs Fox to become a national figure. Fox needs somebody to replace Trump. They find each other. Over the course of the emails, they're each suggesting programs to the other. They're practically writing the questions for each other. They're saying, "God, that was great. We should make you a host of our show." It is so close that, you know, the traditional idea of journalism, which is you keep your distance, journalists keep their distance from politicians, that's all gone.
David Remnick: Not so much.
Dexter Filkins: Yes.
David Remnick: What's been the impact of his appearances on Fox? Is it quantifiable?
Dexter Filkins: I think so. It's quantifiable in the polls, which are-- he is now far ahead of any of the potential Republican nominee for the presidential election. I think that's with the exception of Trump.
David Remnick: What is that relationship like?
Dexter Filkins: As I was told, Trump believes, with some justification, that he created DeSantis. He endorsed him during the primary, and DeSantis, who had been far behind, just took off and won the nomination. I think former President Trump expects a little bit of deference and a little bit more gratitude than he's been getting from DeSantis. As somebody put it to me, Ron refuses to kiss his ring.
David Remnick: Or anything else. Dexter, thank you.
Dexter Filkins: Thanks, David.
David Remnick: Staff writer Dexter Filkins. His 2022 profile of Ron DeSantis is at newyorker.com.
[00:14:05] [END OF AUDIO]
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