On the heels of finishing former NJ Governor Tom Kean’s autobiography, I read Christine Todd Whitman’s It’s My Party, Too. Talk about a study in contrasts.
In reading Whitman’s book, I kept thinking of this column by Steve Adubato that I came across while reviewing the Kean book. Adubato, for those not in the know, is the undisputed king of New Jersey political commentators. He is a player in NJ political discourse and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the state. After reading Whitman’s book, I came to the same conclusion about Whitman that Adubato did: Christie Whitman didn’t care about New Jersey all that much. Her sights were always set on the national level, and it seems New Jersey was just a stepping stone to bigger and better things. It’s My Party, Too offers only fleeting glimpses of Whitman as governor. Whitman spends just as much time on her brief tenure as EPA chief or ruminating on the political issues of the day. And while I’m sympathetic Whitman’s case for a wider party (I particularly like the “big umbrella” illustration — a large party propped up by the stem of fiscal conservatism), as a New Jersey partisan I can’t help but be disappointed by the short shift she gives my state.
In the second part of my review of Tom Kean’s autobiography, I noted that Tom Kean was a name dropper whose “charitableness reaches almost cartoonish levels.” He possessed a kind word for everybody except for the Hudson County Democratic machine and, indirectly, Jim Florio. Whitman, on the other hand, is an anti-name dropper. It seems as if she doesn’t remember or doesn’t care about those NJ politicos she dealt with in the state. Rather than list names and personal attributes like Kean, Whitman says “my opponent,” or “my rival,” or “my competition,” as if their names were irrelevant. Successor Jim McGreevey appears maybe once in the early goings, where she blames “social fundamentalists” (an awkward term encompassing the Christian Right and anyone who opposes moderate GOP incumbents) for her too close reelection bid and McGreevey’s subsequent victory in the 2001 race. Jim Florio’s name appears not at all that I can remember, despite their historic 1993 battle where Whitman not only became the first female governor in NJ history, but also the first person to defeat an incumbent governor in state history (something she can justifiably be proud of). Her GOP predecessor (their terms separated by Florio’s single term) Tom Kean appears just twice. In the first instance, Whitman complains about the weak endorsement Kean gave her against Bill Bradley in her first big race; in the second, she complains how the press gave Kean a much easier time about his similarly privileged background (because he was a man). Bradley appears in the context of their Senate battle, and in a personal slight when Whitman was a college intern in Washington where Bradley thought she was his assistant.
It’s My Party, Too seeks to make the case for moderates within the GOP, and is effective on some points. Once again, I am sympathetic to Whitman’s position. I identify with the moderate to liberal Republicans in the Senate like Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe, Lincoln Chafee, and Susan Collins. And I do think this red state/blue state divide is untenable in the long term, so the party is going to have to grow at the margins if it wants to maintain long term viability. But It’s My Party, Too struggles to escape Whitman’s feelings of being slighted — for being a woman in a “man’s game,” by state party officials who served her up as a sacrificial lamb candidate to Bill Bradley, by state and national officials for reacting too slowly when Whitman proved a stronger challenger to Bradley than they anticipated, by the religious right for challenging her reelection bid, and by “social fundamentalists” for challenging her moderate buddies with primary bids and for driving the party where she doesn’t want it to go. Where Tom Kean can’t be grateful enough toward New Jersey—so grateful toward the people and places who made his career that he saw nothing wrong in spending a page or two on the guy who ran his campaigns for state senate—Whitman can’t get onto the national stage fast enough. New Jersey’s geography beyond the Whitman farm is barely engaged. The same with the state’s people beyond her family and immediate political circle. The GOP is her party too, but New Jersey and Christie Whitman certainly aren’t perfect together.