Recollections of Governor Hughes: Gordon MacInnes

Transcript excerpts from an interview with Gordon MacInnes (Special Assistant to Education Commissioner Carl Marburger; Special Assistant to Robert J Hughes; later Assemblyman; State Senator and Assistant Commissioner of Education) conducted for the Eagleton Center on the American Governor. The full interview is available in the Video Library.


Gordon MacInnes: . . . I had two jobs in the Hughes administration. The first was to be the Special Assistant to the then Commissioner of Education, Carl Marburger, and then to become the Special Assistant to Dick Hughes himself.

Q: These were full-time jobs after you finished school?

Gordon MacInnes: Yes.

Q: How were they?

Gordon MacInnes: Well, let me say that I enjoyed the second job more than the first. I was pleased to be given the chance to work with Governor Hughes. I learned early that public education can be a frustrating subject and that people who are characterized as reformers frequently are not absolutely certain about what they intend to do if given the chance. After eighteen months with the Commissioner, I moved over to the Governor’s office.

Q: What did you do in the Governor’s office?

Gordon MacInnes: Well, that was in the days when the Governor’s office staff consisted of a speech writer; an administrative assistant; a special assistant; the counsel to the governor, with five or six attorneys one of who was full-time on extraditions, pardons and things; an executive assistant; and a patronage secretary.

Q: A patronage secretary?

Gordon MacInnes: Well, they’re called the appointment secretary but their job was to fill the positions that the governor nominates which under the New Jersey constitution, it’s quite a few. This was in the last two years of Dick Hughes term and the staff had been reduced somewhat but not that much, so I had responsibility for the liaison with higher education and education. The Department of Institutions and Agencies, which at that time constituted welfare, mental health, a lot things, Medicaid, agriculture, community affairs, riot planning, there was something else too…

Q: So you got a good, broad look at State government?

Gordon MacInnes: Yes, I did. Environment was one of the areas that I also had and where I learned my best lesson from Dick Hughes.

Q: Which was?

Gordon MacInnes: This was a complicated subject, but basically the constitutions, going back forever, have given the State ownership of that land that is flowed by the mean high tide, and it turns out to be a lot of land in New Jersey, and some of it is quite valuable and the people in Ocean County wanted to say: If anybody’s been paying taxes on this land for 20 years and has some title that they’re entitled to ownership. The Republicans ran the legislature by a 2:1 margin and they put on the ballot a proposed constitutional amendment. The amendment said, basically, what I’ve just said: If you’ve paid taxes on this and you have some sort of title you can get ownership. The consequence to the State would’ve been the loss of hundreds of thousands of acres of some very, very valuable land. Much of the Hackensack Meadowlands and all the shore areas, all the estuaries, all the rivers, and so my first job was to look at this and to find out what the consequences would be if this were enacted, but to do it quietly. And I did and it was pretty astonishing. I came back with my report and I saw a real master-at-work who took what was a fairly straightforward, and I think pretty clear, analysis of the implications of this and understood perfectly how it should be framed and how it should be rolled out.

Q: To block the amendment?

Gordon MacInnes: To block the amendment and he did it in such a way that there were even Sunday front-page editorials and newspapers that had called on him to resign, the New York News in that case, saying, “This is an outrage and Dick Hughes is right,” and the Republicans responded by saying, “It’ll be a cold day in hell before we’ll ever rescind that concurrent resolution.” And Hughes kept it up and had press conferences all over the State and they came back and rescinded it.

Q: What do you think of Hughes? I mean, you just told us that he had a mastery of politics and issues?

Gordon MacInnes: Both.

Q: What was your take on Hughes?

Gordon MacInnes: Well, I was pretty young. I had not dealt with a lot of politicians and, as I explained, the staff was pretty small so. Then, in addition to my governmental job, I also did some political work after hours which included being the research staff director for all of the legislative candidates for the 1969 campaign, and also the liaison with the Governor, and so any candidate for the Assembly that wanted the Governor to appear at a fund-raiser would talk to me and I would get the Governor’s schedule put together and as a consequence of that I spent a lot of time in the back seat of the Governor’s limousine because we would get up early on Saturday morning and we would do 12 or 13 events and then I would be back early Sunday morning, we’d do another 10 or 12 events. He was tireless in his efforts on behalf of Bob Meyner, the candidate for Governor, and Democratic legislative candidates. We talked a lot and I thought to myself “My God, you know politicians are unfairly treated in the press. The view of them is incorrect. These people are widely read; they’re very wise; they deal with a lot of fast-paced, conflicting situations where they have to make judgments; they tend to make good judgments; they are literate, they can quote widely from Mark Twain and Woodrow Wilson; these New Jersey politicians are just great.” I expected that my experience would be replicated many times thereafter and it never was.

Q: It never was?

Gordon MacInnes: It never was. I never met a politician for whom I had the same kind of respect as I did Dick Hughes. He was the most genial person on meeting. He never forgot a name or a face, it seemed to me. I know how he did it because, his mnemonic trick for my wife was to remember that she had a partially severed Achilles’ heel when she was seven months pregnant, with our second kid, and every time I would see him after that, he would always say, “How’s Blair doing? How’s that leg?” But anyway, he was, to people who did not know him well, he was almost a stereotypical Irish politician, hail-fellow-well-met, friendly, clap-on-the-back. To many who dealt with him he was also so genial that it appeared like he was a pushover and, in the end, he had a steel spine and knew exactly what he was trying to get done. He had a clear notion of how to get there and acted on it. He introduced me to ideas that I thought you’d take for granted. I mean, I would be in the office when he would call Ray Bateman, who was the President of the Senate, and he’d say, “Ray, Dick Hughes. How you doing?” and, “How’s the lovely wife?” and, “How are those kids doing?” and so on. “By the way, Ray, I just wanted to let you know that I’m going to have to say some things that you may not like about you and your colleagues and they’ll probably be in the paper tomorrow. Here’s what I had to say and I don’t want you to take any personal offense, Ray, it would be great to see you. Let’s get dinner sometime.” He was really a remarkably effective politician and I think he started the process that modernized New Jersey; that turned it from what it had been: A byway, a grey industrial state with a manufacturing base; and I think he started the process of modernizing it, particularly in the area of higher education. If you think about it, there were no community colleges when Dick Hughes became Governor. There were six state teacher colleges and Rutgers and when he left there were, I don’t know, eighteen county colleges. There were eight state colleges, all of them either in the process of converting to becoming liberal arts and more broadly based or brand new.

Q: Who were the key people around Hughes when you were around Hughes? Who were the closest advisers? Do you recall?

Gordon MacInnes: Well, he had a lot of people he relied on and it depended on, I think, on the subject. I mean, his political advisor was Bob Burkhardt, and to some extent John Kervick, and he had some old Mercer County friends who he turned to.

Q: Was he a Mercer Country politician?

Gordon MacInnes: Yes, he was and that’s how he got the nomination. Thorn Lord was his law partner. Thorn Lord was his worthiest separate show but he was from North Carolina and a painfully slow-speaking, shy lawyer who became the County Chairman of Mercer County Democrats at a time when the Republicans were in the county. Thorn Lord had a way with dealing with all these brash colleagues of his who ran other Democratic counties and at the time Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Passaic, Union and Camden were the counties that decided what the Democrats did and Thorn Lord put together a coalition of those chairs to make sure that Dick Hughes was nominated in 1961 and Bob Meyner had a different candidate. He called all the main country chairs to Morven, then the Governor’s residence, and scheduled a press conference. Apparently, at that meeting, Thorn Lord interrupted Governor Meyner and said, “We’re not going to nominate your candidate, we’re going to nominate Dick Hughes,” but anyway, he relied on Burkhardt and Kervick I think for most of his political– Steve Farber was his Executive Assistant at the time and was his main policy driver around the office.

Q: What did you do when Hughes left office?

Gordon MacInnes: I became the first director of the Fund for New Jersey , which at the time was called the Wallace Eljabar Fund. It tells you a little bit about the way circumstances prevail and decide in your life. I was in Hughes’s office. He used the small private office. The ‘phone rang, it was John Gibbons, who had been a member of the Lilly Commission on the Newark Riots, was the President of the State Bar and is the namesake for Gibbons law firm today. He was in the interim a member of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. He called Hughes because his neighbor had this foundation that, he was the son-in-law and there were three sisters and they’d been left this estate by his father-in-law who had been the creator of the Wallace Tiernan Company and their dad decided they needed a full-time director for the first time. Gibbons thought that maybe some of those young staff people around the Governor would be interested and so Hughes said, “Well, I don’t know, John. One of them is sitting here, let me ask him.” So, that’s how I got the interview.