The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tom Kean says Christie’s leadership should give pause to voters nationally

Former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean, one of the state’s most revered figures and a mentor to current Republican Gov. Chris Christie, contends that the leadership qualities Christie has shown while in office should give pause to voters nationally, as they begin to size up Christie as a potential president.

“On the one hand, I think he’s got a lot to offer. I think he’s the most able politician since Bill Clinton,” Kean (R) said in an interview with The Washington Post. “On the other hand, you look at these other qualities and ask, do you really want that in your president?”

Kean’s comments come as the current governor is beset by controversy over revelations that officials loyal to Christie engineered closure of part of the George Washington Bridge in September, inconveniencing tens of thousands of state residents in an apparent act of vindictiveness against a local mayor.

There is no evidence that Christie knew of the actions of his subordinates and appointees, some of whom he has since fired. But Kean — who has known Christie since the current governor was a teenager -- faulted Christie for establishing a culture in his tight inner circle in which no one “will ever say no to him, and that is dangerous.”

He also said that Christie's approach to governing is overly aggressive and his agenda is personal.

Kean’s own breach with his onetime protege occurred last year, when Christie attempted to unseat Kean’s son, Thomas H. Kean Jr. (R), as state Senate minority leader. Christie’s power play failed — in one of the few times he has not gotten his way with his party in the legislature.

Kean said the aggressiveness that Christie had shown toward his son, who was feuding with a Christie ally, was typical: “If you come at him, he’s going to come back at you harder.”

For the elder Kean, Christie’s political move was an act of personal betrayal, as well. He has often recalled answering the door of his home in Livingston, N.J., one day back in the 1970s, to find 15-year-old Christie standing there.

The teen explained that he had heard Kean, then an assemblyman, speak at his high school, and been inspired to go into politics himself. He asked for advice how to do it.

That night, Kean said, he invited Christie to accompany him to a political event in Bergen County, beginning a relationship that saw the younger man working as a volunteer on every one of Kean’s subsequent campaigns.

Kean went on to serve two terms as a hugely popular New Jersey governor. His stature and reputation as a consensus builder was such that he also was named co-chairman, with former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), of the 9/11 Commission that investigated the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

The former governor said he also advocated the appointment of Christie, then a little-known lawyer, to be U.S. attorney for New Jersey. Christie assumed the post in 2002, and it provided the springboard for his own political career.

Kean has called for a full and bipartisan investigation of the George Washington Bridge closure.

Of his state’s famously rough political culture, Kean said: “New Jersey is always interesting, but not like this.”