Brendan T. Byrne: A Life You’d Buy If You Could

Jim McQueeny | January 5, 2018 | Politics
A personal reminiscence of ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Be Bought’

Brendan Byrne, 47th governor of New Jersey
Brendan T. Byrne, the 47th governor of New Jersey, died Thursday at 93. Byrne was a towering figure in New Jersey politics: The last two-term Democratic governor, he shepherded in the state income tax as a way to increase urban school funding; brought casinos to Atlantic City; and created the Meadowlands Sports complex. Known for his wit, Byrne was also responsible for a number of environmental initiatives, including protecting the Pinelands. In remembrance of Byrne and his legacy, we’ve asked a some of those who knew him to write a few words. Today, we turn to former reporter and former chief of staff to U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, Jim McQueeny.

One of the greatest vantage points in life is the perspective afforded by being a reporter. Someone who is rarely qualified or bold enough to be an actual newsmaker, but just facile or lucky enough to see and be where news is made, and who is doing it.

Former Governor Brendan T. Byrne, who passed away yesterday, was my first big-time dose of that.

As a green cub reporter for The Star-Ledger, I was assigned to our State House bureau the very day Byrne began as governor in January 1974. I covered him past his first term until I was sent to head our paper’s Washington, D.C., bureau.

Byrne cut an impressive political and personal figure in that office, just as New Jersey was coming out of the shadows of New York City and Philadelphia, with casinos in Atlantic City and a major league sports complex in the Meadowlands, among other things.

There is a magnificent book about Byrne, “The Man Who Couldn’t Be Bought,” written by one of his first staff legal counsels, Donald Linky.

The title refers to a mobster recorded on tape commenting that Byrne, who was an Essex County prosecutor and judge at the time, couldn’t be bribed. The quote was reused in a New York Times front-page article about his announcement for governor in 1973, a time of severe Trenton corruption permeated by the national stench of Watergate. That quote in that particular media outlet was a gift that helped propel him to victory.

Byrne served two terms, but the first term I fully covered was marked by his energy, follies, humor, luck and foresight.

Unlike New Jersey governors since, with perhaps the exception of Republican Tom Kean, there were few barriers between the press and him. He played basketball pickup games against reporters on a state police team, and sometimes softball.

It was not at all unusual to walk to the anteroom of Byrne’s inner office to ask Dotty Seltzer, his secretary, whether the governor was available. A voice would often shout out from behind a half-closed door: “Hey, c’mon in Jim!”

Played like a violin

My paper fell in love with him — and that kind of access. Byrne often played our paper, and me, like a violin to get what he wanted from a rebellious Assembly and Senate composed of absurdly lopsided majorities of his fellow Democrats washed in with him by Watergate.

The relations he enjoyed with his rambunctious majorities weren’t as good as he had with the media. They got worse when he sought almost immediately to institute a state income tax, his hand being forced by a court decision to pump money into the state’s horribly neglected urban schools.

Byrne’s political approach only made things worse, however.

The nadir was reached when the Legislature was forced to come in session during their vacations for the umpteenth time to enact the income tax — only to see a front-page picture of Byrne in some outrageous speedo bathing suit lounging poolside, out of state no less.

But, he got the income tax, for better or worse. And casino gambling for a dying Atlantic City. His humor could offset a lot of criticism. I attended a press conference in his office a year after casino gambling was underway when Byrne was asked about the uptick in crime in the resort city.

“C’mon guys,” he said to increasingly nettlesome questioning on the issue. “A year ago, there was nothing worth stealing in Atlantic City.”

Thorny relationships

Of course, much of his thorny political relationships with members of his own party led to a near coup in the 1977 Democratic primary for re-election.

The field was flooded with Democrats wanting to make sure he became “OTB,” one-term-Byrne. But the field succeeded only in soaking up the anti-Byrne vote, and he prevailed, with a lingering suspicion by some that this Irish politician had snookered many of those candidates into the race so he could prevail.

Byrne wasn’t even expected to survive re-election in the general campaign that fall against establishment Republican state Senator Ray Bateman who carried into the race a very big lead.

Byrne’s wit turned the tables in one fell swoop. Late in the campaign, Bateman teamed up with former U.S. Treasury Secretary Bill Simon to outline an economic recovery program dubbed the “Bateman-Simon Plan.”

After that press conference, the press rushed back to Trenton to hear how Byrne could possibly trump the impressive showing of his favored opponent.

Again facing the State House press corps, he just looked at them and said how much credibility can any economic recovery plan have “when its initials are B.S.?” Whether it was a polling turning point or not, I felt then, that there was a sentimental shift by the people who read or saw that rejoinder. And win he did.

I left the State House for the White House shortly after he began his second term, which was frankly a pale imitation of his first, energetic four years.

But “Byrne Stories” would still drift down my way in the following years.

When Byrne left office, a reporter asked how it felt to be out of power, and when did it hit him.

“When I got into the back seat of the car and it didn’t go anywhere,” he said.

Byrne said he first began enjoying political retirement “when people finally began waving at me with all their fingers.”

I recently ran into a physically enfeebled Byrne signing his book at a reception held in the Newark offices of Public Service Gas and Electric. I hadn’t talked to him in years, really.

As I stood in line to get him to sign a copy, I began wondering if he still had his faculties at 90, considering how he was bent over at the signing table.

I didn’t want to embarrass him if that was the case, so I simply slid the book over to him for just a signature, and whispered “I used to cover you in the State House, first term mostly, and we played basketball together.” I never gave my name; he didn’t appear to look up.

Saying nothing, he scribbled inside the cover, and an aide moved me along for others.

I took a few steps away, and opened the book up to see what he had written.

“To Jim. You Were There. Brendan Byrne.”

Astonished he remembered, I quickly turned to look back.

He looked right back at me, and winked with those bristled and wizened trademark eyebrows.