Conversations are the mine fields in America’s politics. A candidate, even a well-meaning Democrat, opens his mouth at his own risk. He might think he knows words and what they mean, but what he doesn’t know is that everyone gets to play Humpty-Dumpty with Alice in Wonderland.
“When I use a word,” Mr. Dumpty told Alice, in a scornful tone spoken through a curled lip, “it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”
Joe Biden, the eccentric uncle at the head of the Thanksgiving Day table, learned this anew nearly every day when he was the veep. Uncle Joe was always tripping over his spilled pearls of wisdom.
Once, campaigning in Virginia, he more or less apologized for Delaware, a slave state after all, for having failed to come to Virginia’s side in the late Cruel War of Northern Aggression. On another occasion, he said the proper way to defend home and hearth was to repair to the back porch and fire a shotgun into the dark. With double-aught, that would certainly stop a passing buck, a prowler up to no good, or even a child late getting home for supper.
Tsk, tsk, said the ladies and gentlemen of the media, and both incidents passed swiftly from public view. Good old Joe, like the ladies and gents of the media, is a good Democrat, and good Democrats mean well. No need to make a federal case out of an innocent gaffe.
Ron DeSantis, the new Republican candidate for governor of Florida, got no such pass when he warned his Republican friends the other day to avoid the campaign mistakes that would ruin his chances of defeating Andrew Gillum, his opponent, the mayor of Tallahassee and, not so coincidentally, a black man.
“He’s an articulate spokesman for far-left views, and he’s a charismatic candidate,” Mr. DeSantis said. “I watched those Democratic debates, and none of that is my cup of tea, but he performed better than those other people there. The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state. That’s not going to work.”
Probably not. But Mr. DeSantis, a Trump man and regarded as a star that fell on the party, stepped into a puddle of manure with his kind words for the Democratic candidate. He called him “articulate,” which is semi-racist, and “charismatic,” regarded as pseudo-bigoted by the inspectors of contemporary language.
They pounced as if one. Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee who knows better, said “this is how white folks talk about black men who are successful.” (It is?) Mr. Steele, who is black himself, thinks calling a black man “articulate” and “charismatic” is merely “checking off those boxes. Why do you have to describe him that way? Doesn’t happen to a lot of white candidates.” If it doesn’t it’s a shame, because there are never enough “articulate” and “charismatic” white folks, either.
The chairman of the Florida Democratic Party was disgusted, too, and said so. “It’s disgusting that Ron DeSantis is launching his general his general election campaign with racist dog whistles.” My old yellow hound, a yelper and yapper with remarkable charisma and unusual articulation, and gone lo! these many years to cavort with Rin Tin Tin and Lassie on a high green meadow beyond the clouds, would deeply resent that slur. A “news host,” whatever that is, on Fox News reassured her viewers that the network did not condone such language. A television network with knowledge of and concern for the language. Who knew?
Joe Biden was asked to size up prospective Democratic presidential candidates in 2007, on the eve of Barack Obama’s announcing his candidacy for president.
“Well,” he said, “you’ve got Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama.” He clearly liked Mr. Obama best, and why not? “I mean,” he said, “you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s storybook, man.”
Indeed, it was true. Barack Obama practically invented charisma. But who you calling articulate, man? Here’s Barack Obama, the man himself, campaigning at Kent State University in Ohio, on Sept. 3, 2007:
“I come from Chicago. It’s not as if it’s just Republicans who have monkeyed around with elections in the past. Sometimes Democrats have, too. You know, whenever people are in power, they have this tendency to try to tilt things in their direction.”
You could look it up, as Casey Stengel used to say. We’ve clearly got enough monkeys to go around. And maybe one or two we don’t really need.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times