Florida’s beleaguered governor, Charlie Crist, has decided to bolt the Republican Party as the only way to continue his quest for the U.S. Senate. Tea Party darling Marco Rubio’s advantage has been “ideological purity,” much prized these days by conservatives who long for a new Ronald Reagan, conveniently forgetting that Reagan was as capable of choosing pragmatism over purity as any other successful leader. Crist, his critics say, is a chameleon, and can’t be trusted to stay in the conservative camp when the poll winds blow west.
Maybe. But what started the downfall for Crist, just months ago a rising star for the G.O.P., was his physical “embrace” of President Barack Obama last year when Obama came to Florida to stump for his stimulus package. It was symbolic, in part because Crist also “embraced” the stimulus package; it was also suggestive, as Rubio allies despicably used the video of the hug to fan rumors that Crist may be gay. The presidential squeeze by Crist has had an even more devastating effect on his image than the backlash suffered by entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr.’s following his infamous hug with President Richard Nixon.
Yet Governor Crist didn’t do anything wrong; in fact, what he did was 100% right. He treated the visiting Chief Executive with affection and respect. His conduct communicated nothing more than the proper attitude all elected officials, of any party or persuasion, owe to this or any President of the United States. He sent a message to Floridians that all Americans, whether they like or agree with the individual who has been duly elected, must respect the office.
If you watch the tape, you have to conclude that the criticism of Crist is absurd. Obama makes the first move, and Crist gracefully reciprocates. It is not really an embrace or a hug; it is more of a civil exchange of arm pats. What, exactly, would the Tea Party gang have wanted Crist to do? Snub him in public? Spit in Obama’s eye? Stick out his tongue?
That so many criticize the Governor of Florida for being friendly, civil and respectful to the President of the United States shows the larger civility problem in American politics and society generally. Crist, whatever his other faults, demonstrated that he is a statesman and a gentleman.
What does it say about his opponents that they believe these qualities disqualify him for the U.S. Senate? And what does it tell us about the Senate itself?