Dammit, People Like Me

Charlie Crist has no ideology beyond his devout hope that people think he’s great.

Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announces that he will run for Governor as a Democrat on November 4, 2013 in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announcing that he will run for governor again as a Democrat.

Photo by Edward Linsmier/Getty Images

The challenge facing Charlie Crist, Florida’s once-and-maybe-future governor, was that which confronts so many struggling authors of romance novels. How do you describe a hug? How do you cram all the intimacy of human skin, breath, and contact into a couple of words in a Garamond font. How do you not end up polishing a Bad Sex Award?

Crist came up with something, but it’s not pleasant. In The Party’s Over, his unimaginatively titled memoir of a political life cut short by the Tea Party movement, Crist returns again and again to his February 2009 appearance with President Obama. “As he and I made our way through the crowd toward the stage,” Crist writes, “how could anyone not feel the power of this man?” When they reach the podium, Crist gave a short speech about budgets and infrastructure that was, he reminds us, interrupted frequently by applause.

Then came the moment. “The new president leaned forward,” Crist writes, “and gave me a hug. Reach. Pull. Release. As hugs go, it wasn’t anything special. It was over in a second—less than that. It was the kind of hug that says, ‘Hey, good to see you, man. Thanks for being here.’ It was the kind of hug I’d exchanged with thousands of thousands and Floridians over the years … reach, pull, release—just like that.”

After the shudder fades, the reader at least understands where Crist is coming from. In 2009, a few months after Obama had carried his state, Crist was one of the only Republican governors willing to take strings-attached stimulus money and denounce anyone who wouldn’t. One of the first rallies of the nascent Tea Party movement took place outside the Crist–Obama rally. Marco Rubio created a fundraising site consisting entirely of the “hug” photo. Conservatives heckled Crist, dared him to “hug Obama again.” When Texas Rep. Steve Stockman’s primary campaign against Sen. John Cornyn lacked a photo of the senator with Obama, it just Photoshopped Cornyn’s head onto Crist’s.

Anyone who followed Crist’s doomed Senate campaign remembers how he scrambled to recover. For as long as he thought he could beat Rubio, he downplayed the “hug” and why it happened. In November 2009, he insisted to CNN that he did not actually “endorse” the stimulus. “I didn’t even have a vote on the darned thing,” he explained, “but I understood that it was going to pass and I wanted to be able to utilize it for the benefit of my fellow Floridians.”

That quote doesn’t surface in The Party’s Over, and it’s not because Crist is loath to quote himself. In one scene, months after the hug, he recalls how he told off his fellow Republican governors at a dinner with the White House, defending his appearance with Obama. (Strangely, he doesn’t name any of the governors who criticized Obama to his face and he says he was tired of “this shit,” but assures the reader that he “didn’t use the expletive.”)

“I went there because I was raised by my mother and father and taught how to behave,” he tells his peers. “We ought to be treating each other as we’re told in the Bible—‘do unto others.’ ” Crist reports that some colleagues did not, for some reason, enjoy being lectured from the scripture. But White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett thanked him personally for speaking the truth. “As Valerie spoke,” Crist writes, “I could see tears were running down her cheeks.”

The conversions of Charlie Crist, from Republican to independent to Democrat, make up one of the least inspiring tales in modern politics. To take it seriously is to admit you’re the sort of person who takes Scientology stress tests and supplies credit card info to anyone who claims to need help from Nigeria. Crist is deeply affable, and handsome in a bottle-tan way. “The only thing that was weird about writing this book with him,” Crist’s co-author Ellis Henican told me, “was that he looked like me if my mother had dumped my father and dated George Hamilton.”

Crist enjoys being popular. He enjoys winning elections, too. When he won his first state Senate race he “danced all night [to] the Sister Sledge song ‘We are Family,’” even though he really doesn’t “like dancing at all.” He enjoys high poll numbers. He enjoys praise, the kind he got after siding with Democrats against an anti-abortion bill on the grounds that he believed in “individual rights.” He can remember exactly what an administrative assistant told him after that: “Great vote, boss.”

This book exists because Crist remains fairly popular, and the Republican who replaced him, conservative hospital tycoon Rick Scott, does not. Democrats have celebrated Crist’s slow embrace of their party, grudgingly, even as Florida’s Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson leaves open the possibility that he’ll run if Crist screws up.

But that’s not in his nature. In 2009, even his enemies attributed Crist’s embrace of the stimulus as an odd lapse from a politician who can usually figure out where the public’s going to be. When he stayed in the 2010 Senate race as an independent, Crist cut the figure that rich know-nothings call for in every election—he was for working together. Other readers of this memoir, seeking insight into the man who might again rule a megastate, have remarked at how little self-awareness he shows or how much he talks in campaign English.

Did the Senate race turn on any issues, any decisions of Crist’s? We aren’t told, though we learn that Crist turned against a teacher tenure bill backed by conservatives because “every day, individual teachers were writing me and calling with personal appeals” to veto it. We assume that they were right, especially after Crist’s political mentor Connie Mack calls him and threatens to resign as a campaign co-chair if Crist vetos.

“It kind of broke my heart that he would feel so strongly about this one issue that he would resign from my campaign,” writes Crist. “Sometimes, there are pressures beyond our understanding. I don’t know what brought that to bear.”

How you read that sentence depends on whether or not you, personally, are Charlie Crist. Mack was a former U.S. senator, making embarrassing amounts of money at a lobbying firm that didn’t actually work on education policy. What was in it for him?

Maybe nothing was in it for him. Crist, who shows no traces of a guiding ideology, thinks of it like a sort of infection or pod-people curse. But what sort of politics do you have without it? There’s a helpful example from the end of the book and the end of Crist’s time in office.

“I convinced my fellow members of the Clemency Board to grant a posthumous pardon to rocker Jim Morrison,” writes Crist. “That may not rank as a major governmental achievement. But it was long overdue.”