Who is Charlie Crist?
Charlie Crist stood on one side of the pool, and almost all of the rest of the people stood on the other, the glittery Florida portrait between them. The former governor who wants to be governor again had spent the past hour or so at this house of a lawyer on a golf course in Bradenton. He gaped at family vacation photos on the walls, telling the host and his wife, "Show me all your pictures, please." He walked outside to the yard to toss a football with their 11-year-old son, taking off his jacket and handing it to an aide, loosening his pink tie but only slightly, lobbing reliable spirals in the early evening heat, showing no sign of sweat, his pressed blue shirt staying impeccably tucked into the slender waist of his charcoal slacks. One of the guests asked, "Governor, do you ever have bad days?" And he answered, "It hardly ever happens! How can you have bad days? We live in Florida!" He made his way back inside, gliding past an aquarium filled with pretty, flitting fish, past the bar stocked with Crown Royal and Michelob Ultra, past the trays of shrimp and cheese, popping into his mouth a niblet of tuna on a tiny piece of toast. He floated through the crowd, asking for their names, asking about their jobs, thanking them for coming in his pleasing, polished patter, but never lingering for long, before ending up on his side of the pool and calling this state "the prettiest place on the planet." The people had paid up to $500 a head to attend. Now Crist asked them for more.
"Whatever you gave," he said, "double it."
They laughed and clapped.
"I'm not kidding," he said.
They laughed and clapped some more.
"Please," he said, letting the stir subside, waiting for silence. "Because you're not giving it to me. You're giving it to your children. You're investing in their future. You're saving our Florida."
Imagine if Rick Scott got re-elected, Crist told them, "and you didn't give a little bit more … and it's Wednesday morning after the election day …" All of Scott's negative ads, Crist said, "I mean, I'm bleeding for you. You watch TV, they're hitting me, every day … and I'm taking it. And I'm honored to do it."
All politicians say stuff of this sort. Few say it as convincingly as Crist. If politics is a series of interactions that ultimately are transactions, means to an end — give me your money, give me your vote — then Crist, say people who like him, and also people who don't, has an undeniable gift. He can walk into a room filled with mostly strangers, and when he leaves, even if it's just an hour later, everybody feels as if they know him. Feels as if he knows them. Feels good. He makes politics look easy.
It's all the more remarkable because little else about Crist suggests a logical winner. He was divorced and single for most of his adulthood and has minimal private-sector experience. He has had to address rumors that he's gay. He has had to withstand questions over whether he's the father of a daughter from a one-night stand. He has had to listen to chatter that his wife did not speak to her own daughters for nearly three years. His pick for chairman of the Republican Party of Florida went to prison for theft and just published a book portraying Crist as a sociopathic, narcissistic backstabber. Half a dozen other Crist associates also have gone to prison.
And what the 58-year-old St. Petersburg resident is trying to do now should be impossible. It should be impossible to be governor as a Republican and then governor, again, just four years later, as a Democrat. Nobody has ever done that. Polls, though, say Crist has a chance, and a good chance.
He could win in November because he's one of Florida's most famous politicians. He could win because he's running against one of the country's most unpopular governors. He could win, too, he thinks, because people see him as affable and approachable. Because they like him. Because they know him.
But who is Charlie Crist?
Charming or scheming? Focused or distracted? Disciplined or reckless? A lover of people or a user of people? Uncommon empath or unrelenting opportunist?
The answer to all: Yes.
A "vessel," Crist called himself last month. It's unwittingly introspective, an apt description, more true than he even intends. A vessel is empty until it's not. Who do you want him to be? What do you want him to do? He's a devoted listener. Fill him up. Keep reading.