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Steve Bousquet: Crist at risk of putting hug with Obama in racial terms

A white Florida politician shows support for a black leader and click! Cameras capture the moment with grave consequences for the white politician.

Partisan politics? Racism? Both?

The white politician is Charlie Crist, whose 2009 hug of President Barack Obama in Fort Myers cost him dearly with Republicans. "It killed me," he says.

But the hug that was so troublesome for Crist a few years ago as a Republican is now a badge of honor, a calling card to prove to fellow Democrats his unwavering support for a president with his own popularity issues.

Speaking to 40 Democratic legislators in Tallahassee a few nights ago — about half of them black — Crist gave a blow-by-blow account of that fateful day in Fort Myers.

"He hugs me. And I hug him back. And there's a photograph," Crist said. "That photograph killed me as a Republican."

Crist then accused Republican Marco Rubio of race-baiting in their 2010 U.S. Senate race by showing a photo of the hug on the outer envelope of a direct mail piece, where even the most disinterested voter couldn't miss it.

"Charlie with the black man," Crist said. "I'm just going to call a thing a thing, because I know what it is."

Then Crist went a step further and told his audience how something similar happened once before. He drew a direct link between the Obama hug and what happened to Florida's greatest governor, LeRoy Collins. Like Crist, Collins chased a U.S. Senate seat and lost.

It was 1968, a year of race riots and assassinations. Three years earlier, President Lyndon Johnson had sent Collins, his civil rights mediator, to Selma, Ala., to avert bloody violence between Alabama authorities and civil rights marchers led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., determined to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge and march to Montgomery.

A grainy black-and-white wire service photo shows a gesturing Collins talking to King and the caption suggested that Collins was marching with King. He wasn't.

But the damage was done: In the Democratic U.S. Senate primary in 1968, Collins' opponent, Earl Faircloth, exploited the photo's political power with conservative white voters.

"Why is Collins afraid of a photograph?" Faircloth's campaign asked in a leaflet. "If he is proud of his work, why would a picture of him at work be a distortion?" Faircloth also circulated fliers showing a city in flames and the words: "Stop riots … elect Faircloth."

Collins beat Faircloth to win the Democratic Senate nomination, but he was gravely wounded and lost the November election to Republican Ed Gurney on the same ballot in which Richard Nixon was elected president on a theme of law and order.

The situations Crist and Collins faced were different, and they happened in very different times.

Crist faces political risks in trying to describe the hug in largely racial terms, because of the effect it could have on some white voters.

As LeRoy Collins discovered the hard way in 1968, things are seldom as black and white as they look.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Steve Bousquet: Crist at risk of putting hug with Obama in racial terms 04/14/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 15, 2014 7:53am]
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