Column: Don’t listen to the chatter about Newsom running for president
Most of us have learned not to swallow everything a politician says. They play too many word games. Republicans and Democrats alike.
That’s especially true with politicians who duck and slide when asked whether they aspire to higher office. They try to leave the option open so they’ll be “mentioned” — without making themselves targets.
That said, it’s past time for us — especially in the news media — to accept what Gov. Gavin Newsom says about his presidential aspiration. Stop fantasizing about a potential Newsom race for the White House.
California’s Democratic governor has repeatedly insisted:
- He is not running for president in 2024.
- The telegenic 55-year-old won’t run even if aging President Biden, 80, does not. But Biden is running, so that scenario is moot.
- If Biden did drop out unexpectedly, Newsom would defer to his old San Francisco ally, Vice President Kamala Harris, as the next Democratic standard-bearer. He’d never run against her.
What about 2028? Conventional wisdom is that Newsom is plotting for that presidential election because, unless Biden is replaced in the White House by another Democrat before then, the party’s nomination will be wide open.
But I’m highly skeptical Newsom is even attracted to a 2028 race.
Why? Mainly because of Newsom’s struggles his entire life with dyslexia. It’s my guess — based on observing him and talking with Newsom insiders — that he views the presidency with some trepidation.
Newsom’s propensity for rattling off numbers and facts can feed into the public image of California’s self-assured and all-too-polished governor. But it’s also a byproduct of the lengths he goes to overcome insecurities from his learning issues.
Dyslexia limits reading ability and affects areas of the brain that process language, according to the Mayo Clinic.
It certainly doesn’t mean that someone with dyslexia isn’t fit to be president. A few presidents have been afflicted with it, starting with George Washington. Also Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence.
Another dyslexia sufferer was physicist Albert Einstein, whose name is synonymous with the word genius.
So one can adapt, as Newsom has. But he has struggled.
“I found out [about dyslexia] when I was in the fifth grade,” Newsom told me shortly after being inaugurated as governor in 2019. “My mother struggled with whether to tell me about it. She didn’t want me to have an excuse. She wanted me to work hard.”
With screening and trained help, he said, a child can work around the disorder and “later in life you find other strengths.”
Newsom has difficulty reading, especially speeches off teleprompters.
In a 2021 interview with Times reporter Taryn Luna, Newsom acknowledged: “I’m mesmerized by the politicians that are literally handed a script or talking points from an advisor … and they’re able to go up there and just read off the script beautifully.”
For Newsom, a five-minute speech may require six hours of preparation and research, which is why he appears so good at talking off the cuff. There’s nothing off the cuff about it.
He told Luna: “It’s spelling, writing and just deep struggles reading — and the reading is comprehension, because I can read two chapters and literally be daydreaming. And I’ve read every word and not remember one damn thing unless I’m underlining it.”
Newsom underlines and circles a lot and summarizes reams of subject matter onto yellow cards.
Early in his political career, Newsom said, “I realized I’m just gonna outwork everybody.”
It’s laborious. But imagine him trying to handle a president’s sweeping, worldwide portfolio — and constant speechmaking demands — while adjusting for dyslexia, even with a huge staff.
I envision Newsom shuddering at the thought.
Why do I think that? Mainly because of all the effort he has gone to the last three years to avoid giving a traditional, annual State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature. It’s usually the most festive day of the year in the Capitol.
But Newsom feels he can’t handle the teleprompter without hours of practice. And he doesn’t like doing that in a strange environment, the Assembly chamber.
In 2021, he gave the speech in center field of an empty Dodger Stadium. It was an error widely jeered. Last year, he delivered it in the sterile state Resources Agency auditorium in Sacramento, where the governor could practice his delivery repeatedly in private. This year, he scrapped the speech entirely and went on a four-city road trip to outline his legislative agenda.
“He hates giving speeches,” a top aide once told me. “It’s anxiety-producing.”
But stiffing Congress by abandoning the president’s annual State of the Union address would not play well in the nation’s Capitol.
None of this means Newson wouldn’t — or shouldn’t — run for president. But read his own words.
He said last year he had “subzero” interest.
Last month, Fox TV host Sean Hannity tried to coax the governor into discussing a possible 2024 presidential run.
“Under any circumstances, would you get in this race?” the conservative questioner asked. “No,” Newsom immediately replied. “I think [Biden’s] a man of decency and character. I’m really proud of the president.”
Chuck Todd, moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” tried again Sunday. What if Biden doesn’t run?
“The vice president is naturally the one lined up,” Newsom replied. “We need to move past this notion that he’s not going to run. … There’s been so much wallowing in the last few months and handwringing in this respect.”
What does he tell wallowers who urge him to run? “Time to move on.”
Todd: “You’re not plotting anything? There’s no Plan B?”
Newsom: “No. And perhaps there’s never been more consistent words that have come out of my mouth than that.”
But that’s difficult for us in the news media to accept. A big state governor is a lot better copy when he’s viewed as a presidential candidate.
What Newsom really wants is to be seen as a national political leader. And that goal he is achieving.
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