Three weeks into Obama’s first term as president, he gave a speech in Fort Meyers. As Governor of Florida, I agreed to introduce him.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said, “please give a warm Florida welcome to President Barack Obama.”
He walked out toward me.
Both of us smiled.
The applause was just about frantic. We shook hands. The new president leaned forward and gave me a hug.
As hugs go, it wasn’t anything special. It was over in a second—less than that.
It was the kind of hug that says, “Hey, good to see you, man. Thanks for being here.”
It was the kind of hug I’d exchanged with thousands and thousands of Floridians over the years.
I didn’t think a thing about it as it was happening.
But it changed the rest of my life.
Reach, pull, release—just like that.
As the president and I walked off the stage together, Terry Moran, co-anchor of ABC’s Nightline, was waiting backstage with a crew. He had been promised a joint interview with the Republican governor and the Democratic president about the stimulus plan and the power of bipartisanship.
“So, why?” Terry asked me. “Why are you here, governor?”
That was an easy question. “Because it’s important to my state,” I said, “and this stimulus package would help us with education, infrastructure, healthcare and we’ve got a budget that’s getting tighter day by day.”
Terry pressed harder. “So, Governor,” he said, “in Washington, not a single Republican House member voted for this bill. Only three Republican senators. What’s the disconnect between you as a Republican governor here in Florida and Washington Republicans?”
I didn’t want to bash Washington Republicans. Why do that? “All I can explain is my perspective,” I said. “And it’s really as being the CEO of Florida and how it affects my state and how it affects our people and that it will benefit them enormously and that’s how I look at it. It’s no more complicated than that.”
Terry turned to the president.
“How do you account for the difference?” he asked.
“Well,” Obama said, “I think Governor Crist described it properly. He’s on the ground. He’s dealing with folks every day. I think in Washington, there’s a danger where the debates get very abstract. And frankly, that they’re very ingrown. It becomes more of a competition between Democrats and Republicans for power or attention or who’s controlling chambers than it is about what’s happening on the ground. And that’s a danger that both parties can fall into. It’s something that I want to fight. That’s why it’s so useful for me to come out and be on the ground here because it reminds me of what’s going on and why I was sent to Washington in the first place.
“Nothing like the voice of the people,” I piped in.
“Absolutely,” the president said.
It was just an uplifting moment, I thought. It gave hope to both of us. While the tone in Washington was stubbornly divided, it too could change—if the president and I just set the right example.
It was a beautiful sentiment, filled with the optimism that got me—a Republican governor—and him—a Democratic president—elected not so long before.
I didn’t know it yet. But that high-spirited day in Fort Myers—meeting Obama (bad enough) and greeting him with a hug (even worse)—ended my viable life as a Republican politician. I would never have a future in my old party again. My bipartisan hopes and dreams, I would discover soon enough to my shock and disappointment, were vastly overstated and hopelessly out of date.
Excerpt from The Party’s Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat. Courtesy of Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Charlie Crist, 2014. Crist is the former Republican governor of Florida. After running for the U.S. Senate as an Independent, he campaigned for Barack Obama’s reelection and addressed the Democratic National Convention. On November 4th, 2013, Crist announced he was running for Governor of Florida in 2014 as a Democrat. Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Florida, he lives with his wife, Carole, in St. Petersburg.