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New Jersey’s Former Governors Remember the Late Brendan Byrne

Thomas Kean, James Florio, James McGreevey — along with Byrne’s biographer, Don Linky — recall the governor and the man they knew

Brendan Byrne
Brendan Byrne, 47th governor of New Jersey

Gov. Brendan Byrne’s memorial will be held today, at 11:00 a.m., in the Paper Mill Playhouse. Donations in the governor's honor are to go to the Paper Mill Playhouse.

Former Governor Thomas Kean

When I became governor, I had a totally Democratic Legislature, most of which Brendan had worked with for the past eight years. And what we’d do is we’d play tennis at least once a week, and afterward, we’d sit and talk … We’d just sit on the bench and talk for a half-hour to an hour after tennis, and I’d tell him all my problems. And he’d say, ‘This is what I’d do.” I’d tell him some Democratic legislator I was having problems with, and he’d say what the key to him was, his chief campaign contributor, or the main issue he cared about, or the district he was from. (Who was the better tennis player?) Well, he’s not around anymore to make the argument. I think we were pretty competitive, honestly.

Basically, I have been arguing with the man for 40 years, mostly in public. And one of the things I take out of it is that is the way politics used to be, and should be again. That we disagreed for 40 years, and yet, I didn’t have a better friend. That’s the way it ought to be in politics.

The genesis of the Pinelands (protections) for him, it was the book by John McPhee. It was the case of a governor who read. He read the book, and he was convinced by it and decided this was an area that had to be preserved. That was it. It wasn’t anyone coming to him, it wasn’t a lobbying group or even an environmental group. He read the book.

There was a campaign consultant, a fellow named David Garth, who was the best in the country at that point. And David was deciding whether or not to take Brendan’s (reelection) campaign. Brendan was way behind in the polls, he’d done the income tax and Ray Bateman was way ahead. So David spent the day watching Brendan campaign, and afterward, he told me, “I didn’t think I’d take the campaign, I thought he was absolutely flat.” And at the end of the day, Brendan had a tennis game, and David hung around. He said, “all of a sudden it was a different Brendan Byrne. He charged the net, he’d get behind but he wouldn’t lose. He stayed at it and at it, and finally he won. I saw that guy on the tennis court, the wisdom, the aggression, the belief he wasn’t going to lose. That’s the real BB, and I’m going to take the campaign because this guy can win.” I don’t think anyone else knows that story.

He had a very, very bitter primary, and some nasty things were said. There was one guy who wrote a letter in the paper and said some scurrilous things about Brendan. He went on to win the primary and get elected. And there comes across his desk the guy’s name for appointment, and Brendan crosses it out. So he gets a call from the Democratic county chairman, and he says to Brendan, “this is one of my guys and you took him off the list.” Brendan reminded him about the letter, and the chairman said that was just politics. And Brendan said, “So’s this.”

He was a bit of a maverick and didn’t always get along well with his own party. He’d have a number of run-ins with people. He didn’t suffer fools gladly as governor and didn’t spend a lot of time patting people on the head who he didn’t think deserved the patting. He didn’t get along with the Democratic state chairman at all. He ended up with a member of his own cabinet running against him for reelection. He got voted down a number of times in the Legislature. . . They gave him a lot of problems, and he had to solve them. That’s difficult with your own party. Yet he was kind and gentle and caring. He was the rare combination of someone who was thoroughly decent but also successful in politics. That’s very, very rare.

Former Governor James Florio

I first met him when he came down to Camden County as a candidate, that would have been in 1973, and he was supported by the political organizations. And when he arrived, it was startling how unimpressive he was at that time. He was wearing a white seersucker suit, white bucks, red argyle socks, and he mumbled among all these political people and didn't make eye contact with anyone. It was always amazing to me how he transformed himself from that approach to what he ultimately became: a very skilled political performer. There is still a large group of people who still talk about that meeting.

Brendan Byrne is universally admired. The last person who had that same aura about him was Gov. Hughes. He was good-humored, a nice person, but also very sensitive about issues and feeling strongly about things he wanted to get done. While everyone thinks of him as genial and humorous, he could be tough as nails on issues he felt strongly about … The Pinelands took a lot of guts to take on the very hostile real estate interests that were in opposition. There was actually a movement to secede. People in South Jersey had a semi-serious argument that they thought that the Pinelands initiative was a rip-off to steal South Jersey's water.

He was responsible for a lot of quality people getting into government and staying there.

He created the income tax and everyone knows I accelerated it, I experienced a lot of the same things from the public. The opposition was in many regards racial, and we talked about that. We exchanged stories about when people were hostile. He said to tough it out, and if you believe in what you are doing, you will prevail ultimately … There is something to said about going forward, even in the face of opposition, if you believe what you are doing is the right thing to do.

Former Governor James McGreevey

Gov. Brendan Byrne possessed an almost insatiable thirst for life, knowledge, and all things New Jersey politics. He could recite from the classics of American and Irish poetry, carry a song from Gilbert and Sullivan or Broadway, discuss an arcane theological construct, or expound upon the rules of evidence applied during the Hauptmann murder trial.

I was blessed to have forged a friendship early in my political life, seeking his advice as an aspiring assemblyman and mayor. Brendan dedicated our newly constructed Woodbridge Municipal Building to our nation’s veterans, using his infamous saltpeter line — “remember that stuff they put in our food so we wouldn’t get too excited around women. Well, I think it’s finally beginning to work.” — in order to demonstrate his affinity with the vets.

His way of using humor to bond with an audience or the public was remarkable.

As veterans, Brendan and my father enjoyed each other’s company. My father would admonish me that Brendan above all was a war hero due to his bravery in flying an excessive number of sorties in the Army Air Force.

My father, who served as the chairman of the WWII Monument Commission, which is located across from the State House, had wanted an ordinary GI grunt to be the focus of the memorial. Much to my father’s consternation, the state’s Department of Military and Veteran’s Affairs insisted the primary place of honor be afforded to “Winged Victory,” a modern semblance of the Greek goddess Nike.

Brendan, who was the keynote speaker at the memorial dedication, said over the loudspeaker something to the effect of, “Jack, who’s the broad? I don’t remember those wings on the front line.”

The veterans loved it, as Brendan was honoring their service, while poking fun at the political correctness of the DMAVA.

As for his law client Air Italia, Byrne said he was retained not because of his law partner, Italian-American Charles Carella, but because his client believed he was Italian, as his name was understood to be “Brendan Byrne Arena.”

This past New Year’s Day was most special. Spending time with the governor and his wife Ruthie, we enjoyed a brief walk inside, looked at an Irish travelogue picture book, and had a bit of apple cider “champagne.” Brendan asked me what was the alcoholic content. I replied “40 proof,” to which he replied, “I don’t think so, but I’ll have another.”

Brendan Bryne was an extraordinary man, a WWII hero, a statesman, a beloved husband and father, and a blessed friend. New Jersey and her citizens are far better off for his service, decency, and judgment.

Requiescat in pace.

Don Linky, Byrne’s biographer

(Linky is the author of “New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne, the Man Who Couldn’t Be Bought” and former chief counsel and director of the Office of Policy and Planning under Byrne.)

Byrne was a product of an Irish-Catholic immigrant family, raised by parents with the aid of a grandmother who had emigrated alone in her teens by ship from Ireland. She later met and married a fellow immigrant who worked in the factories of the City of Orange. In 1887, when the family had grown to nine children, contagious disease swept through the densely packed tenements of the city, with six of the nine Byrne children dying in a single week. In the next year, Brendan's grandmother gave birth to her tenth and final child, Francis Aloysius, who, decades later would father Brendan Byrne. Brendan's grandmother, who had lost her six children, lived in the same home with her son Francis and play a major role in the upbringing of her grandson Brendan. As an adult, when Brendan was asked how the family tragedy had affected his childhood, he responded somewhat matter-of-factly: "We didn't talk about it. A lot of people died in those days."

On election day in November 1977 when Byrne sought a second term, a severe rainstorm hit northern New Jersey and New York City, with flash flooding causing delays in commuters coming home to vote, as well as making it difficult to gain access to some voting locations. The flooding was particularly affecting Bergen County commuters, who were expected to be strong supporters of Byrne due to the benefits they received in the new tax program by no longer having to pay New York taxes. Late in the afternoon, I was one of the only Byrne staffers to be in the Governor's Counsel's office at the State House and received a call from Byrne campaign headquarters from Dick Coffee and Dick Leone, two key figures running Byrne's reelection effort. "Don, we want you to draft an executive order to extend voting for two additional hours," they said on a joint line. Taken aback, I responded, "Let me get this straight. You want me to draft an executive order for the governor to sign in his own election that is to his own political benefit. This sounds like a South American putsch." Despite my protest, they insisted that the Bergen commuter vote was crucial to Byrne's chances and I went ahead and drafted the document, which thankfully was never used. Years later, long after Brendan left office, I told him the story and he replied "Really, they never told me. I would never have signed it, but you have to give them some credit for trying."

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