Political Hay

Charlie Exposed

Two reporters get to "know" Charlie Crist, devastatingly.

By 8.12.14

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In a fine piece of long journalism, Tampa Bay Times reporters Adam Smith and Michael Kruse provide Floridians with everything they need to know about Charlie Crist in a bit more than 10,000 well-chosen words. It’s not a pretty picture. But then regular TAS readers already know this, as do Floridians paying the slightest attention.

“Knowing Charlie,” which begins on page one of last Sunday’s Times is a lot more than the usual journalistic he-said, she-said, and re-write from the files. It is the result of months of work by the two reporters, interviewing Crist’s supporters and detractors, as well as friends, classmates, relatives, and other Florida politicians. Smith and Kruse also combed public records and attended Crist events. This is a thorough and penetrating look at a former Republican Florida governor who is now seeking to be Florida’s next Democratic governor. (Do not adjust your computer — this last sentence is correct.)

The profile that emerges is of a tireless, charismatic, and smooth-as-butter campaigner who has won elections at the local and state-wide level since the early nineties. We also see a shallow, unprincipled, lazy politician who loves to run for office but cares not a whit for the duties of the offices he wins and therefore neglects them. (While Florida’s governor between 2006 and 2010, Crist set an NCAA record for absenteeism and short work days.) We see an almost clinical narcissist who, in order to be loved, will do almost anything except carry out the duties of the office he has just charmed his way into.

The Times tag team picks up Crist’s story at Riviera Junior High School in St. Petersburg where Charlie hustled a big win as student council president. At 58 now, Crist is still the back slapper, the hand shaker, and master of the kind of superficial, rope-line connection that wins votes. Sadly for Floridians, who’ve voted for Charlie over the years for a series of offices, he is of no more substance than the junior high school Big Kid on Campus. There is no there, there. Never has been. Crist owns some nice suits. But they’re all empty.

Smith and Kruse take readers through Crist’s climb up the Florida political food chain. Crist was an aide to former Florida U.S. Senator Connie Mack in the late eighties and then won a seat in the Florida Senate in 1992. Crist built statewide name recognition and established some chits with Florida Republicans while losing a race for the U.S. Senate to Democrat Bob Graham in 1998. No one was going to beat Graham that year. But Crist’s spirited effort helped him win statewide elections for Florida Education Commissioner in 2000, Florida Attorney General in 2002, and, to the surprise of many who see Crist for the lightweight he is, governor of Florida in 2006.

Those seeking evidence of Crist’s accomplishments while holding these offices will be doomed to frustration because there is none. It’s accurate to say that Crist rose without a trace. There is no Crist Doctrine. No legislation or public policy that bears his stamp. Nothing to show that Charlie Was Here.

In fact, a good case can be made that Charlie has never been anywhere after the campaign was over. Crist spent his time in office, when he bothered to go to work at all, campaigning for the next office. (A political consultant friend tells me of a phone call Crist made to him the week Charlie was sworn in as education commissioner to talk about running for attorney general.) He also tirelessly courted reporters for friendly headlines. That the lights even remained on in the statewide offices Crist held was largely due to the efforts of his chief of staff, George LeMieux.

Staffers who worked in the Crist governor’s office tell of a governor who surrounded himself with yes-men, was uninterested in the details of policy, and spent almost no time on matters of state. While governor, Crist took more vacations than Barack Obama has played rounds of golf, and on those days when he put in an appearance at all he was prone to drag in after 11 and be gone before three.

Like his new political hero, Obama, Crist has never cared to engage with the office he held, and seems to believe the work is done after he has given a speech. Crist was always adept at ferreting out what voters care about and making meaningless noise on the subject. In 1994 Florida was number one in crime in the nation, and Floridians were justly concerned about their safety. State Senator Crist hammed it up so relentlessly on the subject he was called “Chain Gang Charlie,” though nothing he accomplished in the legislature or subsequent state offices headed off a single crime.

Like his father before him, Charlie Crist entered politics as a Republican and remained in the GOP through office after office until, his fortunes sinking within the party to the extent that he no longer had a political future there, he suddenly discovered the Republican Party was “too extreme” — too racist, sexist, homophobic, and laced with trans-fats for him to endure it any longer. So between the summer of 2010 when the then 54-year-old Crist still believed in the GOP and described himself as a “Reagan Republican,” and the summer of 2012 when he appeared at the Democratic National Convention, Crist went from Reagan Republican to Obama Democrat. He simply traded in his former conservative position on issues for brand new leftist ones to suit his new affiliation. Physicians are still treating cases of whiplash suffered by Floridians attempting to understand and believe this middle-age conversion. (I advise against trying it.)

Most even marginally politically interested Floridians know of Crist’s extreme ideological fluidity. Some paying a little more attention even know of the Crist’s sorry ratio of resume over record of achievement. But Smith and Kruse’s magnum opus gives chapter and verse for any still doubting that Crist could possibly be as big a flake as he appears to be on the available evidence. Believe it. He is.

The Smith/Kruse piece puts the reliably liberal Times in an interesting position. They’ve had scratchy things to say about Crist’s opponent in the governor’s race, Republican incumbent Rick Scott. Scott has his own issues, but they are mostly of style rather than substance. The Times can usually be counted on to boost Democrats. But could they possible lift up a candidate the paper’s own writers have exposed as a cipher? The Times may well not endorse anyone in this race. If there was ever a year…

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.