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Charlie Crist’s Character | Martin Dyckman

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Charlie Crist’s Character | Martin Dyckman

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Charlie Crist’s Character
Monday, September 17, 2012 — Martin Dyckman

As a Republican, Charlie Crist defeated five different Democrats on his job-hopping path to the governor's office. That may have something to do with the underwhelming response among Florida Democrats to his endorsement of President Obama and the speculation that he will seek their nomination for governor in 2014.

Or it could be that they have one thing in common with their arch-rival Republicans: a mutual mistrust of a man who can change principles faster than Superman shed his civvies--and not even need a phone booth to do it.

(That's also true of the Republicans' presidential nominee, even if they seem no longer to notice or care. But that's a subject for another day.) 

As a state senator, Crist harvested headlines from a bill to force the prison system to put chain gangs back on the highways--a practice long since discarded as inefficient, expensive, needlessly degrading and, above all, unsafe to the public. I nicknamed him "Chain Gang Charlie" for that. He took it as a compliment. It polished the reputation he was seeking, that of a crusader against crime.

Yet he had hardly warmed the governor's chair when he acted to automatically restore voting and other civil rights to tens of thousands of ex-convicts. He did so over the choleric protests of a Republican attorney general, and when Rick Scott became governor, he swiftly rescinded Crist's reform.

So it was simply in character for Crist to enlist in the Republican assault on Obama's Affordable Care Act--the president's most important achievement--and then warmly endorse him for re-election. That was then, he would say, and this is now. He lives for the moment.

Perhaps he has even trained himself to erase the past from his memory. There is a story that bears on that.

One of Crist's early political victims was James Towey, director of Florida's human services agency under Gov. Lawton Chiles. The Republican Senate leadership had it in for Chiles for having defeated Jeb Bush's challenge to his 1994 re-election, and decided to make Towey pay the price. 

Crist chaired the committee that was assigned to deny Towey confirmation to a second term as agency head.

"I watched his gentlemanly composure and calm sincerity as he was ringmaster of a circus and high priest of a sham proceeding," Towey told me four years ago, when Crist supposedly was being considered for vice-president on John McCain's ticket. "And sadly he would still swear that it was because I was a bad manager that I was let go -- even though the year before he had voted to confirm."

Towey, who had been a friend of Mother Teresa and a volunteer in her charities, eventually became director of President George W. Bush's faith-based initiative. He's now the president of Ave Maria University.

He was having lunch with his wife in the White House Mess one day during the Bush presidency when Crist walked in and began to chat pleasantly, as if nothing ever had happened between them in 1995.

"I said, 'I forgive you for what you did,'" Towey related. "He said, 'For what?'" 

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper formerly known as the St. Petersburg Times. 

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