Ring of Truth

06.29.14

The Messy, Sordid Story of Jim Greer, Charlie Crist’s Man to a Fault

In ‘The Chairman,’ a new book about Jim Greer, the former Florida GOP chairman unloads all manner of gossip about the ex-governor—but you still get a sense Greer is under Crist’s spell.

The Chairman, the new book about disgraced former Florida Republican Party chairman Jim Greer, is a sloppy, ugly mess. From the first page, it is riddled with self-serving revisionist history, factual errors even a particularly slow-witted intern could catch, and a tone that can only be described as the Big Whine.

Greer on Greer—the book is nominally by Peter Golenbeck but is described in the Miami Herald as “a 400-page rant by Greer” —is a perfect example of the unreliable narrator. The Jim Greer drawn on these pages is a master political strategist, organizer, fundraiser, negotiator, father, husband, poet, sage, and philosopher who strides through this volume like a god, right up to the ultimate betrayal by former governor Charlie Crist, the Tea Party, and Delmar “Judas” Johnson, Greer’s one-time aide.

The Chairman elides over (when not flatly misrepresenting) the financial malfeasance that landed him an 18-month stint in the Gulf County Correctional Facility in beautiful Wewahitchka, Florida. The scandal itself is sordid and complex, but Greer and a handful of Crist cronies looted the Florida GOP, spending in a way that would put drunken sailors to shame and secretly skimming off a percentage of the party’s fundraising take. Greer says Crist knew about and even suggested the scheme, but Crist says he didn’t. Whatever the case, Greer and Crist lived in a world of corporate jets, five-star hotels, life-size oil paintings, and unlimited budgets.

Greer’s narrative shows little understanding of the political leaders, party systems, election laws, consultants, and donors who make up the Republican apparatus in Florida. His characterizations of almost every Florida political figure other than Crist are wildly inaccurate, portraying old-line Reagan Republicans such as former Rep. Bill McCollum as fire-breathing Tea Party maniacs. His descriptions of Sen. Marco Rubio range from laughable to slanderous. He gets names, dates, titles, ideology, and Florida political history wrong time and again in a way a simple Google search could resolve.

The narrative portrays Greer as Crist’s man to a fault. Crist’s abiding contempt for conservative voters, grassroots activists, and the rising Tea Party swiftly infects Greer, and the tone of the book. Greer conflates the Republican rebellion against Crist’s misrule and his own excess with the Tea Party. It wasn’t the Tea Party that ended Greer, it was rank-and-file Republicans, who saw Greer illegally using party money in an effort to elect Crist to the Senate, all while spending the party to the cusp of bankruptcy.

But let’s be honest. No one is suffering through this mess of a book to learn about Greer. We’re reading it for the Crist gossip.

People lacking direct experience with Crist may have a hard time grappling with Greer’s account, no matter how jaded they are about politicians. The former GOP chairman puts down on paper things about Crist that have long circulated in Florida’s political circles. I have worked against Crist for 13 years, and Florida reporters will tell you I’ve never had much interest in the gay rumors, the allegations of paid-off boyfriends, the stories of cocaine use, trashed hotel rooms, and excessive drinking, the quickie divorce complete with sealed court records, the illegitimate daughter story, or the ugly custody battle involving his stepdaughters. I’ve pitched a lot of hits on Crist, but generally not those.

Anyone who knows Crist and reads Greer’s depiction of him will be struck instantly by its ring of truth. Crist really is that driven by narcissism, ambition, and personal vanity.

Greer puts them all out there, and in doing so provides a large number of new leads for motivated (if muckraking) reporters, including his take on the role of Crist’s former longtime consiglière George LeMieux in keeping Crist’s personal life from intersecting with his political rise:

“LeMieux did know where all the bodies were buried. He had always been in charge of making Charlie’s problems go away, such as discussed earlier regarding the 2006 campaign and the rumors about two alleged gay lovers and an alleged out-of-wedlock daughter. According to Greer, LeMieux had kept both issues from damaging the campaign…‘You’ll never know what I went through.’ ‘I’m sure,’ I said. Talking about the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, he said, ‘It was a very stressful time in my life. Those gay eruptions could have kept us from being governor.’”

If Greer’s narrative of LeMieux’s appointment by Crist to the U.S. Senate is true, it’s a remarkable story of gutsy political blackmail.

Tallahassee is full of former staffers, consultants, lobbyists, and others who have worked around, with, and for Crist. I met him in 1987 on the Connie Mack for U.S Senate campaign. I did television ads with my then-partner Adam Goodman for Crist’s long-shot U.S. Senate campaign in 1998. My wife was Crist’s chief Cabinet aide for a brief time while he was education commissioner. Even at the zenith of Crist’s popularity, there was an underground of Republicans who respected Charlie’s political skills but found the man bizarre and unable to engage in normal human interaction outside the political domain. He was always affable but ultimately unknowable; intellectually incurious but ferociously ambitious.

Anyone who knows Crist and reads Greer’s depiction of him will be struck instantly by its ring of truth. Crist really is that driven by narcissism, ambition, and personal vanity. He really is a purely political creature. The constant neediness, the disinterest in governing, the desire to avoid the hard calls, the passive-aggressive staff games of who’s in, who’s out; all of it passes the smell test.

Most politicians aren’t like you and me, but Crist really is another species of human. For almost his entire adult life he has lived alone, was married only momentarily as a very young man, has rarely held a job outside politics, has had no truly close friends. Before his marriage to Carole Rome, aside from politics, Crist’s only lifelong commitment was to his ambition. You can see it all on these pages.

Another thing that will be familiar to those who know Crist: his complete disinterest in any subject not directly related to his political ambitions. Greer never recounts Crist actually governing or even engaging in any kind of substantive policy battles. That’s because Crist is the Seinfield of politicians: a governor about nothing. His usual campaign is a slogan, a river of money, and energetic, superficial backslapping. He’s damn good at it, but that’s all there is. Florida Democrats convinced of Crist’s swift ideological conversion from rock-ribbed conservative to Obama liberal should be cautious. He’s a man who believes in policy as long as it gets him to the next election. After that, all bets are off.

The Chairman is a messy, ugly, inside look at one of America’s strangest politicians. Jim Greer was never equipped to handle either the candidate he chose to serve or the temptations placed before him. Even now, he is unwilling to take responsibility for the venality that landed him in jail. Greer’s story is one of a sad, destroyed man left deeply bitter at the wreckage of his life at the hands of Crist. He knows Crist used and betrayed him. He knows Crist is a gifted, manipulative political sociopath.

But Crist is no ordinary political sociopath. So powerful is his hold over Greer that even today one gets the sense that when Greer is freed from prison, a part of him will be waiting for the phone to ring and for Crist’s voice to call out, “Mr. Chairrrrmannnnn!”