Ahead of his keynote at Eckerd commencement, former NJ gov Tom Kean talks politics with CL

It may seem incongruous that a Republican is delivering a commencement speech at St. Pete's Eckerd College, a private liberal arts college that seems to us embody both liberalism and arts — in a good way.

But former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, who served in that capacity from 1982 to 1990 and is considered the state's most popular governor to date, is a Republican from another time.

He won his first gubernatorial election by the narrowest margin in the state's history and worked hard with a Democratic State Senate on issues like the environment and affordable housing. Four years later, he ran for reelection and won, this time by the largest margin in New Jersey's history, and even captured 60 percent of the African-American vote.

As former president of Drew University, a small liberal arts college in northern New Jersey, he said the thought of coming to speak at Eckerd was appealing.

Ahead of his speech, which will take place Sunday at Eckerd's graduation ceremony, we caught up with Kean about presidential races, Florida's crazy politics and more. Here are some of the insights he had to impart.

On bipartisanship. 

Sure, R versus D was alive and well in the 1980s, but it was a lot less intense back then. Kean said unlike the present day, there was motivation to actually accomplish things.

"The was a lot of cooperation," he said. "I had a Democratic State Senate the whole eight years, and we got an awful lot accomplished. But we got it accomplished because we did it together. And I was happy to give them credit because they often deserved the credit."

On gridlock.

Fast-forward two-and-a-half decades: gridlock everywhere.

“It is very disappointing because, for instance, as I talk to people about the economy and how to get jobs back to this country, and what are the obstacles," he said. "The first obstacle is government. They tell me that if they could have clarity on what the government was doing or if it was even functioning, government could move in on some of these problems, then everything else would become better. They think the whole economy will improve ... it's sad when your own government is the problem.”

He said climate change is the clearest example of why bipartisanship is important.

“I think as long as you're under the age of 60, you think climate's a real problem,” he said. “I think most people understand now that if we don't do something on climate, that not only our children's generation, but our generation's going to have real problems. That is something that there are solutions out there [for] ... but it's something that we don't see much progress on in Washington.”

It strikes him odd that it's even a political issue.

“There isn't a debate in other parts of the world.”

On education.

“We're spending more and more money on old people and less and less money on young people," he said. "If you're taking money away from education, for instance, which we are, K through 12 and college, that's not going to lead to a good future."

Not to mention the exorbitant cost of college, he said, which can inhibit college students from taking the right kinds of risks.

“Students are changing their majors because they think if they do the thing they want to do, they won't be able to pay back their student loans. And that's an awful thing. People should be able to go into the profession that they want to go to, not be driven there by economic circumstances ... you've got to do what you want to do. You've got to follow that star, in other words. Otherwise you may regret your whole life that you didn't.”

On Chris Christie.

Current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is a likely presidential contender, but he's got some vulnerability; namely, a scandal or two. 

“As we know, he's got problems. I've known him since he was 14 years old. We come from the same town," Kean said. "I've known him for a long time and tried to help him where I can. He's got enormous ability, but he's got the problems that we all know about. The one thing I've learned about him over the years is, never count him out. He's very bright, he's a very good speaker, and if this presidential race gets into any kind of a brawl, he's the best brawler out there.”

But there is one quality in particular Christie possesses that Kean finds appealing in the presidential sense.

“He's plainspoken, which I think is a good trait."

On Pandering

Although Kean didn't utter the word "bullshit" during our conversation, it was clear that he was not a fan of it and doesn't appreciate how pervasive it is in modern American politics.

"I think that the problem we have too often in politics is that people in government are telling you what they read in the polls, not what they really believe," he said. "So you get all these politicians telling you what they think you want to hear. And if you look at our greatest presidents in this country — if you look at Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, for that matter, and Harry Truman — they all said what they believe, they were all plainspoken and you don't necessarily agree with them, but you know they were dead honest and they were telling you what they thought was right for the country."

On endorsements

The former governor said it's too early to endorse, so he's keeping an open, but skeptical, mind.

"I'm personally going to look very, very hard at this presidential field before I endorse anybody, because we've never had such a need in this country for a great president as we have coming up,” he said.

He added that his family has known the Bushes for generations — his son is a close friend of Jeb Bush's son — but that doesn't mean Bush will get an endorsement. After all, he likes a lot of what Sen. Marco Rubio has to say, as well as the candidate's apparent plainspokenness. And even though he thinks he'll probably endorse someone from his party, when it comes to backing a Democrat, it's never say never.

“I've been a friend of Hillary Clinton's for a long time, and I've got great respect for her," he said. "She and I have been on a number of panels, a number of things together over the years. And I like her, I like her. She's a fine candidate for president.”

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