“Does that mean I have to go to Trenton?” – Gen. George McClellan, with dismay, when told by a friend that he had been elected Governor of New Jersey.
Quick, what do the following cities – Crystal City, Philadelphia, Fayetteville and Staunton – have in common?
They were either the birthplace or childhood home of one of four presidential candidates from New Jersey.
As a Gov. Chris Christie presidential run continues to preoccupy the chattering classes, an insider happily noted to PolitickerNJ.com, “He’d be the only one of our presidential candidates who is actually a home grown guy.”
It’s actually not completely true – 1996 and 2000 presidential contender Steve Forbes was born in Morristown and went to school in Far Hills – but on every other count the observation holds.
Two presidents with ties to New Jersey and one Democratic nominee who later became a New Jersey governor all had heavily out-of-state associations, contrasting heavily with Christie – Newark-born, and Livingston-reared with a professional political profile built in the Garden State.
“The only time I lived out of state is when I went to the University of Delaware,” says Christie, whose public persona blends blue collar hero symbolism unnerving to Democrats, who see a disconnect between the Republican’s Springsteen stylings and his anti-union, regressive tax policies, even as they fumbled away the last election with a Wall Street midwesterner who couldn’t properly name the Garden State Parkway.
That eclectic group of politicians with ties here who ultimately did decide to launch presidential campaigns could not make the same boast.
Grover Cleveland (born in Caldwell, NJ)
Similarities to Christie: Born not far from where Christie was born, in Essex County. Like Christie in the event that Christie runs for president this year, Cleveland moved fast politically, holding office as mayor of Buffalo in 1882, then as governor of New York from 1883 to 1885 before successfully running for president. While governor, Cleveland established himself as a plain-talking conservative, and vetoed the legislature eight times in just his first two years in office. Also like Christie, the former lawman (a sheriff) had an aggressive corruption busting reputation.
Dissimilarities: Cleveland ‘s brand had little to do with New Jersey. Again, the operative word for Christie is “homegrown.” Not so for Cleveland when it comes to New Jersey. The Democrat moved to Fayetteville, NY as a tot and built his political career entirely in New York.
Fiercely nonpartisan to the detriment of his own party’s machine, Cleveland served two terms as president, from 1885 to 1889 and from 1893 to 1897.
George McClellan (born in Philadelphia, Pa.)
McClellan could earn at least his own chapter in “Only in New Jersey,” where the failed general and personal bitter enemy of one of the country’s greatest presidents became a wartime rock star in Trenton as an anti-abolitionist Copperhead.
Similarities to Christie: He tried to seize on the unpopularity of the war-plagued President Abe Lincoln, as Christie would project himself as better fit to lead the country in an economic crisis; difficulty being anyone else’s second banana – just like the sitting New Jersey governor. Doubts about ego? This was a man who thought he would be a superior commander-in-chief to Lincoln.
Dissimilarities to Christie: Political party, obviously; McClellan ran for office as an active general and only later became a governor.
Born in Philadelphia, McClellan was a Civil War general who mercilessly rankled Lincoln by refusing to engage the Confederates on the field of battle. The Prez fired Little Mac, who resurfaced as the 1864 Democratic presidential contender against his old boss.
McClellan wanted a new battle strategy and played on Northern worries about the war before General Sherman’s stunning victory at the Battle of Atlanta, which recalibrated public perception about the North’s potential for victory and essentially re-elected Lincoln in a landslide.
Nursing his post-war political wounds, McClellan found a willing home in New Jersey, which welcomed the wrong-side-of-history general as governor from 1878-1881.
Woodrow Wilson (born in Staunton, Virginia)
Similarities to Christie: Like his GOP successor, Governor Wilson showed that he was alert to public perceptions of New Jersey as he embraced the reformer label and ran for president in 1912 as an egg-headed tough guy. If Christie were to run for president, he would also be repeating Wilson’s timeline. The Democrat served as governor for just two years before hearing the call of history that beckoned him upward and into the White House.
Dissimilarities to Christie: It’s hard to picture the professorial Wilson generating much play on YouTube. A former Princeton University president, Wilson, moreover, would not run for the nearest microphone to do his rendition of “Born to Run” – and not just because he obviously wouldn’t know the lyrics. More significantly, Wilson was a progressive, who willingly took on the most powerful bosses in the state – including the legendary Frank Hague. In state, Christie has worked with the bosses – and boasted bipartisanship in out-of-state speeches.
Academia – not birth or politics – brought Gov. Woodrow Wilson to the Garden State. Building his national credit as a progressive unafraid to take the bat out on the bosses, he prevailed in the 1912 presidential election against a divided GOP.
Having been beaten in the primary by President William Howard Taft, former President Teddy Roosevelt formed the Bull Moose Party and gave Wilson the edge he needed to drum Taft out of office.
“If you are going to be successful outside New Jersey, you need to run as a reformer – given the nature of this state,” Kean University Professor Terry Golway told PolitickerNJ.com, drawing the Wilson-Christie parallel.
Bill Bradley (born in Crystal City, Missouri)
Similarities: Unlike so many New Jersey politicians, the Democrat – like Christie – was never perceived to be bossed. He arrived in politics as a highly successful NBA star and throughout his career in the U.S. Senate, didn’t have to deeply kowtow to anyone.
Dissimilarities: Son of a banker (not a Newark factory worker), Bradley was from a prosperous out-of-state family. Unlike Christie, he struggled in his career to inspire voters. “If I had that kind of oratorical ability, I might have been able to do better in my presidential run,” Obama-backed Bradley told PolitickerNJ.com during the 2008 Obama-Hillary Clinton Democratic Primary. “It’s what the country needs.” Bradley, moreover, never quite connected to New Jersey’s culture – not unlike former Gov. Jon Corzine, whose lack of local references and intimate knowledge of local political connective tissue put him at a disadvantage against political animal Christie. To this day, confounded Democrats complain off-the-record about Bradley’s inability to play politics and his moral refusal to write letters of introduction of recommendation if such requests smacked of favoritism. Christie, by contrast, appeared visibly upset with himself during his 2009 campaign if he failed to identify detailed knowledge of the most innocuous political food fight.
Born in the Midwest, Bradley established himself professionally in New York before successfully launching his political career in the late 1970s here on the strength of his Princeton University ties and New York Knicks celebrity.
In his ill-starred run for president at the end of his political career in the Senate (1979- 1997), Bradley ran without establishment support and lost the 2000 Democratic Party nomination to Al Gore.