He swaggered — yes, that’s what Charlie Crist does, he swaggers — into the Biltmore hotel in Coral Gables with a smaller entourage than I remember him dragging around. And he did what Charlie Crist always does. He started shaking hands and working the room, except he hadn’t gone into the room yet so he was working the hallway.
He walked up to me and shook my hand and asked me how I was doing. He told me how glad he was to be there. He called me by name (I was wearing a nametag) and asked how the Florida Press Association convention was going?
I have met dozens of polished politicians through the years, Al Gore, Jack Kemp, Bob Dole, Bob Graham, Bill Nelson, Jeb Bush and others have crossed my path at various functions and none had the ability to look you in the eye like Crist does and make you feel like he actually remembers who you are and he cares about what you are saying. Now, most of the time he doesn’t actually know who you are, but he certainly has mastered the art of faking it.
We chatted for a minute or so and I could see in his eyes that some internal timer had gone off and it was time for him to move on to the next person and then, finally, he moved into the hall to give his speech.
He took the podium and started to speak and I could tell something was wrong. He asked his aide to bring him his speech that he had left in his jacket pocket. Once he received it, he appeared to regain his footing.
Charlie accepted the invitation to speak in front of the state’s newspaper publishers and editors but would not agree to speak on the same podium as his primary opponent, State Sen. Nan Rich. He would only come if they spoke at different times. That’s not a very courageous stance, but I guess it is a little better than Gov. Rick Scott’s refusal to show up at all.
Crist spent a great deal of his time telling us how he was a real Democrat now. “I was a Republican because my mom and dad were Republicans,” he said.
As I listened to Crist detail reason after reason why he was always closer to the Democratic positions on various issues, I chuckled when a former editor of one of the state’s large daily newspapers blurted out, loud enough for me to hear it, “That’s a #$@%# answer.”
Crist tried to make his case that he was always a little bit like a Democrat all of those years he was a Republican member of the legislature, state cabinet and governor. He vetoed bills that his party passed and he sought federal stimulus funding during the recession.
He is probably reviled most in Republican circles for “The Hug.” That would be the now-infamous photo of Crist hugging President Obama during a presidential visit to Florida. That was too much for some, especially the Tea Party wing of the state GOP.
Now, you won’t get an argument from me if you say that Crist changed parties out of political expediency. Let’s face it, that’s the nature of the game. Mother Teresa wasn’t a politician. Charlie Crist is.
His track record as a Republican was never strictly party line. He went from being a legislator with the nickname “Chain Gang Charlie” when he advocated actual chain gangs to a Governor who sought to restore the civil rights of convicted felons who were released from prison.
He was a Republican who could veer away from the party line. It worked for him for a while but in the end, when he ran for the U.S. Senate, it became too much for the party faithful and Crist wound up being a man without a party, forced to run against Marco Rubio for U.S. Senate as an independent. He lost and then switched to the Democratic Party.
I don’t think switching parties is a traitorous thing to do. Many famous politicians changed parties.
We all know that Ronald Reagan was once a Democrat who turned into the patron saint of the modern Republican Party, stating that “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, it left me.” But did you know that Hillary Clinton was once a Republican who campaigned for Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon? Texas Governor Rick Perry started out his political career as a Democrat before switching to the GOP.
Politics is the game you have to play in order to get the privilege of serving the people. If you are not successful at the game, you don’t get to do the governing part.
Charlie Crist knows that. He knows how to play the game very well.
Whether he will be able to convince enough people that he deserves another chance to govern remains to be seen.