Tom Kean, Chris Christie and Bill Clinton

Much has been written about former Gov. Tom Kean’s (R) disillusionment with his most famous mentee and fellow New Jersey governor, Chris Christie (R). The most detailed piece, 10,000-plus words, is Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker analysis out today, based on a long interview Lizza did with Kean, a two-term governor from 1982 to 1990.

Kean, in effect, describes Christie as a bully and the former governor says he’s not sure he’d back the current governor if he runs for president.

{mosads}Based on a long interview I did with Kean in early 2007 for my book on President Clinton’s post-presidency, my guess is that Kean, no matter which Republican runs, might have difficulty in 2016 pulling the lever for anyone but former secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Kean’s affection and admiration for Hillary’s husband, the potential “first gentleman,” was as strong as any I’ve ever heard from a pol in one party for a pol in the other.

The name Clinton, he or she, does not appear in Lizza’s piece.

“We have been friends for a long, long time,” Kean told me when we talked in 2007. “I helped him out in his [presidential] administration when he asked me to, small projects.” Kean dated their friendship back to the years when they were both sitting governors and worked together on such issues as education. “If you take what I would call a moderate Republican from the northeast and a southern Democrat, very few differences on issues,” Kean said, adding several times about Clinton, “He’s so darned intelligent.”

Kean, who was term-limited, recalled sitting at home on Election Day 1989, watching the Republican who was to be his successor lose badly. At 11 p.m., Kean, feeling discouraged, told me, “the phone rings and it’s Bill Clinton. ‘I was thinking about you and I was thinking that about now somebody ought to call and tell you you’re the best governor in the country.'”

While serving as president of Drew University, Kean had a heart attack and Clinton, then near the end of his first term, called Kean twice in the recovery room after surgery. “He talked to me so darned long the nurses told me to get off the phone.”

Kean recalled inviting Clinton to be the speaker in the spring of 2005 as Kean was retiring from his job as president of Drew. “They asked me of all the people who would you like?”

“My first choice would be Bill Clinton.”

The tricky part was that the former president was still recovering from quadruple bypass surgery performed the previous fall, as well as a second procedure just performed. Kean recalled that Clinton’s doctors advised him against accepting the invitation, but he came anyway. “We’re friends, I’d like to do it,” Kean recalled Clinton telling his handlers. Clinton “looked awful,” Kean said. “He was pale, thin … he showed me the scar of his operation.” Once onstage, the former president angrily waved away his staff’s requirement that he take only three questions and speak for 20 minutes, talking instead for 50 minutes and taking on all questions. “He didn’t want to stop taking questions,” Kean said. Clinton then insisted on working the rope line.

Kean, who served as chairman of the 9/11 Commission established by Congress to investigate events leading to the attack on America, told me he would never have gotten involved with a controversial ABC miniseries, “The Path to 9/11” — Kean served as co-executive producer and the miniseries was based on the commission’s report — had he known the negative view it took of the Clinton administration’s role in the attempt to stop Osama bin Laden in the lead-up to 9/11. “I’m sorry I got involved with it because it hurt Bill Clinton. He’s a friend and I would not have done anything consciously ever to hurt him.”

Felsenthal is a political blogger and contributing editor for Chicago magazine. She has written biographies on Katharine Graham and Bill Clinton, and profiles on Donald Rumsfeld, Bill Daley and Roger Ebert, among others. Contact her at

Tags 9/11 Commission Bill Clinton Chris Christie Hillary Clinton New Jersey Tom Kean

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