Politics July/August 2011

The Agony of Crist

A political superstar’s precipitous fall
Todd Williams/Aurora Photos

As recently as 2008, it seemed better to be Charlie Crist than to be just about any other politician in the country. The moderate Republican governor of the nation’s biggest swing state, Crist was vastly popular, with approval ratings in the upper 60s, and widely considered a leading candidate for the GOP vice-presidential slot. But comedowns in politics can be swift. Early this spring, Crist—no longer a governor, a vice-presidential hopeful, or even a Republican—sat before a camera in a Tampa office park to apologize for a year-old campaign misdemeanor: in an online ad during his unsuccessful 2010 Senate race, Crist had used a brief clip from the Talking Heads song “Road to Nowhere” without asking permission, and he’d been sued for copyright infringement by the band’s front man, David Byrne. Now, to satisfy the terms of the settlement, he had to record a public apology.

His head tilted down, presumably toward a script, Crist said, “The use of David Byrne’s song and his voice in my campaign advertisement without his permission was wrong and should not have occurred.” The former governor continued, penitently, for a minute and a half, affirming the copyright claims of artists and swearing that, “should there be any further election campaigns” for him, he would be sure to license any music legally. The background of the video—the sort of blue-and-gray swirl that normally frames middle-school yearbook shots—didn’t do Crist any favors, and neither did his humbled delivery. On the left, Salon noted Crist’s “sad, dead eyes.” On the right, Hot Air’s Allahpundit declared the apology “excruciating to behold.”

The Crist story contains many lessons, but one is that the price of leaving your political party can be a radical form of political isolation. “It’s an incredibly sad story—it’s Shakespearean,” Stuart Stevens, the prominent Republican media consultant who worked on every one of Crist’s four statewide campaigns, told me. After his failed Senate run, the former governor should have had his pick of jobs, whether moving to Washington for a cushy lobbying gig or a term at the RNC, or setting up shop at a white-shoe Florida law firm from which he could mount his next electoral bid.

Instead, barely half a year after his Senate defeat, Crist is working as a partner for Morgan & Morgan, a personal-injury law firm headquartered in Orlando. The firm is famous throughout Florida for its heavy rotation of TV ads soliciting clients: in an especially hokey one, the two named partners, John Morgan and his wife, Ultima, appear with their dogs. In early May, a new spot hit the airwaves, featuring the ex-governor himself. “I’m Charlie Crist,” he declares. “If you need help sorting out your legal issues as the result of an accident or insurance dispute, visit me at Charlie@ForThePeople.com.”

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