Do you ever feel you should be someplace else, doing something else? That’s how I felt a couple of Friday evenings ago, at the annual meeting of the New Jersey Press Association. It was the cocktail reception at the Westin before the business meeting, and I was exchanging small talk with Richard Bilotti, publisher of the Times of Trenton. Into our little group walked one of the featured speakers at the meeting, former Governor Thomas H. Kean, who was going to trade quips and political arguments with another former governor, Brendan Byrne.

With about 15 minutes to kill before the meeting officially started, we all engaged in some small talk. So far so good. Then, thanks to some good questions from Bilotti, a reporter long before he became a publisher and requisite glad hander for the paper, came the realization: Here was an extended, informal interview with the former governor, the chairman of the 9/11 Commission, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, the president of Drew University, the state’s “most trusted figure,” according to the current issue of New Jersey Monthly magazine, and a man with informed opinions on such diverse subjects as Iraq, the state budget, and the future of Social Security.

A reporter from the national news desk of the Star Ledger or USA Today would have had a field day. Our little group had Bilotti of the Trenton Times to ask questions. My brain, addled by overexposure to classical music and with none of that NPR wisdom, was no help. But at least I was able to listen and eventually jot down some notes. Here’s some of what Kean had to say:

On the war on terror: We don’t understand the Muslim world and the Muslims don’t understand us, said Kean. To them we are “crusaders.” To make matters worse, the Muslim world has no entity such as the European Union, with which we could begin to forge a better relationship.

On the war in Iraq: “I was not for the war in Iraq, but once there, it’s hard to get out. If our troops were pulled you would have either civil war or a failed state — exactly the kind of place Osama Bin Laden is looking for. There are dangerous places in this world: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia. If we pulled out Iraq would go to the head of the list.”

Kean reminded his small circle of listeners that Iraq is not some long-lived nation that dates back to the cradle of civilization. In fact it’s a state that was cobbled together by the British after World War I. Kean recalled the story of Winston Churchill being asked by a young man what he should do to prepare for government service. Churchill’s response: Study history, study history, study history. Kean, the Republican, noted that the people who planned this war may not have studied the history.

On New Jersey’s financial health: “We’ve gotten ourselves into such a hole. We demand everything first class but don’t want to pay. Debt payments are huge. Last year state spending went up 14 percent, people’s salaries went up 3 or 4 percent. We now have higher taxes than in New York and in what we used to call ‘Tax-achusetts’. We still have a lower gasoline tax, which could be raised. But you can’t keep increasing taxes more than the states around you. We are losing our most productive citizens.”

On Social Security: “Nobody is really addressing that issue in the presidential campaign. But we all know that young people won’t get Social Security. My son won’t get it. But no one wants to address it. You can begin by raising the retirement age — Bush is at least attempting it.”

On Governor McGreevey’s decision to stay in office until November, thereby enabling a Democratic appointee to serve for a full year prior to the next election: “It’s not a Republican issue. It’s a good government issue.” With the McGreevey’s decision, “we will have an unelected person running the state for the next year.”

On the future of democracy: Kean referred to the long and arduous process by which the 9/11 commission finally obtained information from the White House. “It took us a long time,” Kean said with a rueful smile. “But in the end we got into the Oval Office and the president of the United States told us that we could ask any question that we wanted and that we could take as much time as we needed. When 10 private citizens get that kind of access to their president, democracy is working pretty well.”

So on an evening when the war on terror had been transmogrified into a war on a nation that hardly considers itself a nation, when the state that he once led is hurtling toward bankruptcy, when the public was distracted from it all by baseball playoffs, Tom Kean was chit chatting with publishers at the Westin in Princeton’s Forrestal Village. Does he ever feel like he should be someplace else, doing something else? Whether Bush or Kerry wins next Tuesday, there will be some transitions in Washington. Maybe Tom Kean should be down there.

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