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The Governors’ Curveball

Politics and performance cross paths in New Jersey

Author Chris Wright Illustration Peter Oumanski


NEWARK, N.J. – Brendan Byrne makes his way through the lobby of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, trying to figure out where he’s supposed to be. Dressed in a seersucker suit, his bushy white eyebrows tilted in a theatrical display of uncertainty, the 89-year-old tries to check in at the media accreditation table, which isn’t right. A PR person intervenes, giving the 47th governor of New Jersey (1974 to 1982) the red carpet treatment he deserves.

Byrne is one of the participants in what is being billed as an auspicious event: a lunchtime panel discussion featuring five “legendary” Garden State governors (the other four being Thomas Kean, James Florio, Christine Todd Whitman and James McGreevey). And it’s not long before the one-time Democratic heavyweight gives his younger successors a lesson in how to work a room.

Accompanied by the tinkling of silverware on china, the event’s moderator begins with an ice-breaker: What did the panelists most admire about the governor who followed them? Seated at the center of the dais, Byrne cups a hand around his ear and asks for the question again. Then, having received it, he says that he most admired the way his successor “used the same photographer for the official portrait,” which gets a big laugh.

The former governor doesn’t stop there. While the other panelists deliver weighty opinions on education and budget reform, Byrne seems content to lob the occasional zinger into the mix. “In New Jersey, if you’re not getting something for nothing, you’re not getting your fair share,” he remarks at one point. Later, in the midst of getting worked up about fiscal ineptitude in the current statehouse, he interrupts himself: “Ah, that’s all right; I’m gonna be gone soon.”

Afterward, Byrne’s wife, Ruthi, who arranged the event, holds court amid plates of half-eaten chicken. “He’s smart as hell and funny as all get-out,” she says of her husband. NJPAC boss John Schreiber—who went out on a limb by hosting a political debate at the state’s flagship performance venue—seems especially pleased with how things turned out. “In New Jersey,” he says from the sidelines, “politics is entertainment.”

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