Charlie Crist's Achingly Bad Search for Self

by Isaac Chotiner | January 31, 2014

The Party's Over: How the Extreme Righ Highjacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat by Charlie Crist (Dutton Adult)

photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Charlie Crist’s new book, lazily titled The Party’s Over, is a cause for both anger and sadness. Crist, the former Republican governor of Florida who is now running for the same office as a Democrat, has written—or rather has co-written, with Newsday columnist and Fox News liberal Ellis Henican—a dishonest and boring memoir. But by the end of this slim volume, a self-justifying account of why Crist switched parties, pathos overwhelms the sheer awfulness of the book. Crist is such a political hack, and so unable to talk or sound like a normal human being, that he actually provides a window into the soul-destroying business of politics. 

To explain what I mean, here is a quote from near the end of the book, in which Crist is describing life out of public office:

Friends had warned that I might have a tough time adjusting to life as a private citizen. … But I have to say that living on the outside wasn’t all that bad. … Just because I was out of office didn’t mean I had stopped caring about Florida. But day to day, I was enjoying the rest of my life. Morgan & Morgan turned out to be a great fit for me. I settled in comfortably at the law firm. … I had been ‘the people’s governor.’ They were ‘for the people.’ That was even their website name.

Reserve some sympathy for this man. Not only is he unable to describe his own life except in an entirely mechanistic fashion, but he also can’t resist including campaign lines—“the people’s governor”—in this dull survey. And the comment about the law firm, right down to its Internet advertising, truly makes one ache for such a pathetically artificial person. 

This raises two questions: How does you arrive at a place where you're only capable of speaking in platitudes? And how does such a person justify a career characterized only by inconsistency? Crist was born in Pennsylvania and went on to graduate from law school in Alabama; he held various positions in the Florida state government before becoming governor in 2007. To travel back to the beginning of Crist’s story is necessary, because, as he actually writes, “I’ve always believed that it matters where a person comes from. We are all, in part, products of our upbringings and environments.” Who knew?

As governor, Crist revealed himself as, primarily, a man with no convictions. He flip-flopped on everything from abortion to criminal justice to voting rights. He infuriated conservatives and liberals. He bowed down to special interests, including the sugar industry. He angered the Giuliani campaign by leading it to believe he would endorse the former mayor; instead, he backed McCain. In the book, he explains this episode by writing, confusingly, that he liked McCain because, while “extremism seemed to be rising inside the party, John was the voice of reason to me,” including on the “red-meat social issues.” This makes no sense, considering that McCain was strongly pro-life and very much against gay marriage. Crist has changed his mind so often on abortion that perhaps he is just confused.

But Crist’s biggest mistake, at least for his future as a Republican, was his (literal) embrace of Obama after the 2008 election and his support for the president’s stimulus—although on this, too, he has vacillated. As Salon has reported: “At the rally with Obama, Crist said: ‘We know that it’s important that we pass a stimulus package.’” But, as the Salon story continues, “By last November, he was telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, ‘I didn’t endorse it.’” Christ decided not to run for re-election as governor, and instead to try to capture a Senate seat in 2010. The problem was that he had to face Marco Rubio, who was (then) arguably the fastest-rising Republican in the country, and a darling of Tea Party voters.

Crist watched Rubio’s rise with mounting alarm and anger. At one moment in the book—after recounting an irksome Rubio profile in The New York Times—he quotes Rubio on the Tea Party: “an important part of a bigger movement in America united behind the idea that you don’t have to get rid of everything that’s right about America to fix what is wrong about our great country.” To this, Crist adds: “What empty platitudes! I remember thinking when I read that.” It’s touching to see “the people’s governor” express dismay over platitudes, although Rubio’s statement doesn’t even really qualify as platitudinous. It’s more dense and wordy than anything else. (Rubio also said this to Newsweek, not the Times; Crist, or his research assistant, doesn’t have a great memory.)

The Rubio-Crist match-up is indeed the soulless heart of the book, because it marked the moment when Crist formally ditched the Republican Party. He would have lost big to Rubio in the primary had he stayed in, which was undoubtedly the cause of his decision to switch to running as an independent. Rubio won in the general election anyway. 

Now, of course, Crist wants to show that he was never much of a Party guy. It’s true that while he was the attorney general of Florida he refused to intervene in the Terry Schiavo controversy. He was even chewed out by Karl Rove for skipping a George W. Bush event in Florida. He tells us that during the Schiavo catastrophe he “just didn’t participate” and kept a dignified silence. When he is tasked, several years later, with showing Sarah Palin around Florida during the 2008 campaign, he gives us a brief picture of a woman who is quite clearly solipsistic and ignorant. But then-governor Crist merely stood by, swallowed his misgivings, and continued to support the McCain ticket. (Earlier that same year he flip-flopped on offshore oil drilling, probably hoping that it would earn him a nomination as McCain’s vice president. No such luck.)

Crist highlights his Palin concerns to underline his own worries about the Republican Party being too conservative, even though it took him until 2010—when he was on the verge of being crushed by Rubio—to finally see the light. (The years of Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush apparently didn’t breach his consciousness.) Crist also dumps on his staff, which resigned en masse after the decision to become an independent, painting them as Party stooges. Crist was completely reinventing himself—his eventual defection all the way to full-blown Obama supporter and Democrat was nearly inevitable—and yet he seems confused about why his conservative staff would not want to work with him for anything other than low, careerist reasons. 

In the closing pages of this book, Crist attempts to do two, somewhat contradictory things. The first is to show that he is a regular guy who doesn’t need politics to thrive; he can find inner peace elsewhere. Here is another example of Crist writing about his private life: “I still had my family. I still had my friends. I could spend more time with them. I still had my boat, Freedom. I appreciated my time on the water even more than I had before.” Of his wife, Crist restricts himself to saying that she “made me a far, far happier man.” Touching stuff.

The second imperative of these last pages is to justify—as he might put it in his persistently clichéd style—throwing his hat back into the political ring. Crist applauds himself for daring to challenge the Republican incumbent, writing, “How could I stand by quietly as Governor Rick Scott and his band of right-wing extremists kept finding fresh ways to harm the state and the people I loved?” He seems to have forgotten that, back in the good old days, standing silently by in the face of right-wing nuttery was, in his mind, actually a sign of character.

The book ends with Crist’s explanation of his final switch to the Democratic Party. “Together, I know we can achieve amazing things,” he writes in the last line. (No, really.) It would be easy to say that Crist is addicted to clichés and soundbites because he chooses to ruminate on votes all day. But that’s too cynical. All these many years and compromises later, Charlie Crist probably can’t think any other way. 

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