The Governor at 80

His gentlemanly style of politics may be out of favor, but 25 years after leaving office, Tom Kean is still intent on making a difference.

Portrait by Daniel Adel

On a gray winter afternoon in New Brunswick, in a 19th-century mansion on the Rutgers campus, Tom Kean holds court in a drawing room hung with gilt-framed oil portraits that evoke a more genteel era. The lessons he imparts to the students gathered around him evoke another era, too.

“I’ll tell you another story,” he says, and this one, like most of the others he tells a dozen graduate students at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, features a cast of Republicans and Democrats, none of whom drew knives on each other.

The class, Legislative Policymaking, has invited Kean to talk about how policy got made in his years in Trenton, both in the Assembly and as governor. He has driven himself over from his Bedminster home—in a loaner car, because his own had a flat—at the invitation of the professor, Joe Doria, who was a Democratic assemblyman when Kean was the Republican governor. They sit together in front of a fireplace whose mantel displays a photo of Kean with Mario Cuomo, his Democratic gubernatorial counterpart in New York through the 1980s.

Wearing a green tweed jacket and white shirt with no tie, Kean looks less like the political elder he is—a former governor who was elected to his first term in 1981 by the second smallest margin in state history, and to a second term by the largest—than the prep-school history teacher he once was. He turns 80 in April, a milestone that has inspired a series of testimonial events at which his main job is to absorb praise from political colleagues and others who know him. The students here, though, were born mostly after he left office, and Kean’s job is to talk rather than listen.

Kean tells the class about a bipartisan political world that seems foreign and distant. He speaks without a hint of sarcasm about his “close friends” Bill Clinton, Mike Dukakis and former North Carolina governor Jim Hunt, Democrats all. He also tells them about the cross-aisle relationships that made possible legislative compromises; about protecting wetlands, expanding the state’s role in education, raising the gas tax and creating the Transportation Trust Fund—the kinds of policies most Republicans today would decry. He talks about judicial appointments guided by conscience rather than partisan pressure; about a boy’s pet raccoon he saved from confiscation by state wildlife officers, and the grateful Christmas cards he received for years thereafter, signed with a paw print.

“The best thing about being governor, and the only thing I really miss about it,” he says, “is that I didn’t go home any night without feeling I had done something for somebody.”

Glory Days
Tom Kean presided over the state through the same prosperous and confident decade when Bruce Springsteen presided over the pop charts. A Republican who swallows his R’s like a Kennedy, a patrician whose own genealogy is so tightly entwined with New Jersey’s history that he counts the first colonial governor among his ancestors, Kean is exhibit number one that New Jersey is a place of distinction and consequence. If New Jersey minted its own coins, his crooked grin would assuredly be on one.

Kean’s landslide victory in 1985, and his success as a moderate Republican governing a Democratic state, put him on the same national stage where Chris Christie is auditioning now. The anointers in Kean’s party envisioned him on a national ticket. He did not. “I think you’ve got to really want it more than anything else in the world or you shouldn’t do it,” he tells this reporter in a later interview. “And I was never there.” His most influential national service came later, as the chairman of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission that investigated the terrorist attacks on the United States.

So different is Kean from Christie in personal style and political ambition that the Rutgers students can’t help but raise some implicit comparisons when it comes time for questions. “Governor Christie got both praise and criticism for how he campaigned for governors throughout this past election as the president of the Republican Governors Association,” one student begins. “Was it similar when you were president [of the same association]?”

Kean leans back in his chair, stretches his neck contemplatively and pauses before answering. He was a young assemblyman in the 1970s when a teenage Christie knocked on the door of his home, asking to be tutored in the ways of politics. Kean invited him to an event in Bergen County that day and became a mentor. But their alliance has been strained lately, after Christie tried to oust Kean’s son, Tom Kean Jr., as the Republican minority leader in the state Senate.

“There were different traditions then,” Kean answers, declining the bait, too diplomatic to criticize Christie’s barnstorming tour. “I would never campaign against an incumbent Democratic governor, because they were friends of mine.”

Kean learned politics from his father, the late Robert Kean, who served 10 terms in the House of Representatives during an era when congressmen crossed party lines to attend the weddings of each other’s children and rarely campaigned against incumbent colleagues across the aisle. But that world vanished, he laments.

“You can’t work with people you think are out to kill you,” he tells the students, neatly compressing his political philosophy into a maxim they are unlikely to forget.

Kean’s office these days is in a nondescript building in a converted lumberyard in Far Hills—a 10-minute drive from  the Bedminster home he shares with Deborah, his wife of 48 years (they  have three children together). Pay a visit, and he happily captions the many photos that decorate the walls. Starting with the shot of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, he relates: “He wrote me the most wonderful note, saying ‘You don’t know what a difference [you] made.’” (In 1985, crossing the Republicans in the Legislature, Kean signed a bill making New Jersey the first state to order its pension funds to divest from companies that did business with South Africa, a $2 billion hit.) “He said it was the first time the apartheid people recognized there were going to be economic consequences.”

He turns to a photo of Coretta Scott King, who called him a “Republican in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass”—all but endorsing him in his 1985 campaign. “She said Ted Kennedy called her and told her, ‘You shouldn’t go in for this Republican,’ and she told him, ‘Martin would have,’ and that shut him up,” Kean recalls.

He points to Frank Sinatra. “Hugh Carey wanted me to court him all the time,” he says, referring to the former Democratic governor of New York. “He said, ‘You know, if you get on the right side of Sinatra he’s the most wonderful fundraiser,’ and I said, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to do that.’” He didn’t, but with Sinatra and Reagan he did ride past cheering crowds down Bergenline Avenue to Hoboken. He then slipped away from Reagan’s campaign speech to take a nostalgic walk with Sinatra. “He said, ‘Would you mind coming with me? I’d just like to remember the city a bit where I grew up.’ So we walked over to the church where he said his mother went at six every single morning.”

More photos: Richard Nixon (“Nobody knows it, but he was a nice man.”); Gerald Ford; Pope John Paul II; both Bushes; both Clintons; former Governor Brendan Byrne, his Democratic predecessor, with top hat and cane (“We did a soft-shoe routine together at a benefit.”); and Senator Hamilton Fish Kean, speaking at a Herbert Hoover rally in Paterson.

Democrat Jim McGreevey, another of Kean’s successors as governor, has recently experienced the power of Kean’s presence. “I walked out of his office and said to my staff, ‘I feel like I’ve been to the mountaintop,’” McGreevey says. He had come to ask Kean to serve on yet another board, a prisoner re-entry group, and Kean, as is his habit, agreed. “His motivation,” McGreevey says, “was not for political power or ego, but a profound sense of service.”

A few months earlier, Kean had joined a host of political luminaries at the opening of Martin’s Place, the prisoner re-entry and jobs center in Jersey City that McGreevey runs. “He received a resounding round of applause—and this is how many years since he’s been governor?” says McGreevey, who served as executive director of the state parole board in the 1980s, one of Kean’s cross-party appointments. “I said, ‘Governor, listen to this affection,’ and he said to me, ‘Jim, you know I carried Jersey City.’ And I’m like, how many Republican governors carried Jersey City?”

That affection was rooted in appreciation not just for what Kean did as governor, but for what he didn’t do after—leave. New Jersey was enough for him. His ancestors had served in Washington, but he ran for federal office just once, against Millicent Fenwick in a Republican primary for Congress in 1974. “Someone asked her, ‘What would you do if you lost?’ and she said, ‘Well, the state would be honored by Tom Kean in the Congress.’ That’s the kind of campaign it was.” Kean lost the primary by 96 votes. “We were friends before it, we were friends after it, and we were friends right through it.”

The governor’s race in 1981 was, proportionally, even closer: 1,797 votes. “All the polling shows that if the election were held two weeks earlier, he would have lost, and that if it were held two weeks later, he would have won by a wider margin,” says Tom Kean Jr., a possible candidate in the eventual post-Christie governor’s race. “The more people got to know him, the more they just got the sense that here was a person that cared about them.”

His Democratic opponent from that race, Jim Florio, eventually served as governor from 1990 to 1994. They would later become friends and occasional allies, particularly on environmental issues, where Kean is often at odds with his own party. “Our election was the last civil election: no negative campaigning, no ads that were hostile, it was on the issues,” Florio says. “Could he get elected as a Republican now? I don’t think so—he’s too sensible. He’s been much the same through the course of his life, but the setting and background have shifted to the far right, and I don’t know if he’d admit this or not, but I suspect he’s probably uncomfortable with some of that.”

As governor, Kean teamed up with labor unions, eager for more construction jobs, to push through the Transportation Trust Fund, which for three decades has paid to repair roads, bridges, sewers and other critical pieces of the state’s infrastructure. He played tennis with Sharpe James, the Democratic mayor of Newark and a key ally in getting the New Jersey Performing Arts Center built. And during the real estate boom of the 1980s, he angered developers across the state when he curtailed building on wetlands.

“The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act—it’s all Republican stuff,” says Kean, who counts Theodore Roosevelt among his heroes. “The fact that the Republican Party is now walking away from their heritage is, I think, wrong from the point of view of the party, it’s wrong from the point of view of the country, and it’s wrong from the point of view of the world.”

When other Republicans wanted to strip Brendan Byrne’s name from the Meadowlands arena, Kean let it stand and then appointed him to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. “Everyone likes Tom Kean—he’s a good and decent guy,” says Byrne, who turns 91 in April. Byrne bucked opposition in his own party when he was governor to appoint Kean to the New Jersey Highway Authority in 1977, after Kean left the Assembly and ran unsuccessfully for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. They played tennis together regularly after Kean was elected, the old governor schooling the new one in the ways of handling the Democrats in the legislature. They have remained close friends, appearing together often and sharing their opinions in a weekly Star-Ledger column—two one-time rivals whose devotion to the state transcends party differences.

“That’s as it should be,” says Byrne, “where you attack the issues with a viewpoint, but not with hostility. Life is too short for it to be any other way.”

As job offers arrived near the end of his second term in 1990, Kean was particularly drawn to those in education, the field in which he had started his professional life. (He taught for 2½ years at his prep-school alma mater, St. Mark’s School in Massachusetts.)

Kean accepted an offer to become president of Drew University, a small liberal-arts school in Madison. His stature alone raised Drew’s profile, and the political science seminar he taught put him back in the classroom. During his 15-year tenure, he increased scholarships for minority students, built new buildings and renovated old ones, and tripled the endowment to $225 million. He kept his hand in politics for a while. In 1992, he was asked for help by two old friends whose campaigns were scheduled to overlap in New Jersey on the same day. He set the machinery in motion for a rally for George H. W. Bush  in Newark, and a rally on his own campus for Bill Clinton. “I left half an hour before [Clinton] got there to do the rally for Bush in Newark,” he says. “That’s how I got caught a little bit.”

Kean’s party kept trying to woo him into a Senate run. He kept saying no. “I think they’ve asked me five times, six maybe. Whenever there was one up, for a long time,” he says. “Now they’ve given up.”

But he said yes when George W. Bush asked him to serve as chairman of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission. Lee Hamilton, the former Democratic congressman from Indiana, was Kean’s vice chairman. He recalls their first meeting. “Tom said to me, ‘Lee, we’re going to make every decision jointly and we’re going to hang together here,’ and that kind of astounded me, because I was used to the Congressional system where the chairman calls all the shots,” Hamilton says. “I must say I had questions as to whether he’d hold to it, but he held to it absolutely all the way. He was insistent from the beginning that we had to have a unanimous report.”

The commission issued its report, unanimously, a decade ago. “We got the major recommendations enacted by the Congress, which is very rare,” Kean says. He and Hamilton remain vocal allies on the issue of how to counter terrorist threats to the United States. “The threat has changed,” Kean says. “Instead of worrying about 19 people coming in on planes and sitting around here for a year trying to plot something big, now we’re worried about lone-wolf terrorists, about people who are already United States citizens who are radicalized over the Internet, about cyber threats, about ISIS recruiting people who may be American citizens or European citizens with visas to come into the United States.”

A wide array of other issues pass through Kean’s Far Hills office, reflecting his involvement with organizations focusing on the environment, the arts, international relations, teen pregnancy and trade with China. Political matters are ever-present—sometimes even contentious. “It wasn’t my favorite time,” he says of the tense period in late 2013 when Chris Christie and his son were battling in the state Senate. “I don’t think we were ever enemies or anything,” Kean says, adding that the governor “knew how I felt.”

They are an odd couple, Kean and Christie—the courtly conciliator and the brash brawler. “They have very, very different personal styles,” says Carl Golden, who worked for Kean in the Assembly in 1971 and was his press secretary through both terms as governor. “I don’t mean to imply that one is superior to the other, but it’s impossible for me to envision Tom Kean staring down someone at a town meeting and saying, ‘Sit down and shut up.’ It wouldn’t happen.”

Their long relationship would seem to point toward an endorsement by Kean if Christie runs for president. But Kean also has a long relationship with another potential candidate: Jeb Bush.

“My family has been friends with the Bush family for three, maybe four generations now,” Kean says. “It’s someone I know and respect very much getting into the field.”

Jeb Bush recently called to invite Kean for dinner. “He didn’t ask for my support, he just said come and hear what I have to say,” Kean says. But Kean had to decline—he already had another engagement on his schedule.

Christie has not asked for his support either. “Not yet,” says Kean. The grand old man remains on the sidelines—“For the moment,” he says, having learned long ago, and across his decades in public life, not to show his cards too soon.

Kevin Coyne is a freelance writer and teacher at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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  1. Ken Dowell

    I was a reporter at a small North Jersey newspaper when Tom Kean was in the Senate. He always found time for me and was always honest, forthright and informative. You wonder if a guy like this would make it in today’s political world. If not, it is a sad commentary on the state of politicans in the 21st century.

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