Recollections of Governor Hughes: Richard Leone
Transcript excerpts of interviews with Richard Leone (Special Assistant to Richard J Hughes; later Brendan Byrne campaign manager and State Treasurer) conducted for the Eagleton Center on the American Governor. The full interviews are available in the Video Library.
Q: You say you were an administrative assistant to Hughes. Were you a student at the time?
Richard Leone: I actually got hired into that office when I was still in graduate school at Princeton. I had no intention of staying in New Jersey. I wanted to go into international affairs.
Q: Where did you go to undergraduate?
Richard Leone: Rochester, University of Rochester. I am from upstate New York.
Q: Then you went to the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, what year?
Richard Leone: I went there in ‘63.
Q: And while you were in graduate school you went to work for the New Jersey governor, how did that come about?
Richard Leone: In March of ‘65 the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School then, Marvin Bernstein, as he subsequently related to me, decided that I was, my actual aptitude was for this sort of thing, which was not my plan. My plan was to go into the foreign service. And he steered me to a guy named Joe Katz, who was the dominate member of the Hughes office. I decided to go to Trenton. I had never met a governor, never been in a governor’s office or a state house before. And I came in and they asked me write a couple of things. And Joe said come on with me. We went down the hall and we met the governor. He said look, look, he wrote this stuff.
Q: He was an old newspaper man, was he communications director or did he have a broader portfolio?
Richard Leone: He was a top staff person. Hughes staff, I mean, 8 or 10 of us used to sit around and argue with the governor. It was a very level organizational table, and very different from what most governors would tolerate. But Hughes was a remarkably secure and brilliant man in his own way. And he enjoyed the give and take.
Q: So Joe Katz said to the governor this guy can write, let’s make use of him?
Richard Leone: Yes, they hired me. And I became quickly important, because I was given an obscure issue to handle. A Rutgers professor named Eugene Genovese at an anti-Vietnam teach-in, and these are the key words which I will never forget, “Unlike others here, I do not fear or regret the impending Viet Cong victory in Vietnam, I welcome it.” That set off a firestorm and became an irresistible magnet for the attention of the Republican candidate for governor. This was an election year, 1965. Wayne Dumont, a pretty good guy, but he was lured by the siren call of this issue. They gave it to me to handle because I was still in school. This happened in April. And no one knew it would become the most important issue in the campaign, it became the only issue in the campaign. And my stock kind of rose with it and I was given responsibility for the new programs for the second term.
Q: How did Hughes, the Democrat, handle this?
Richard Leone: Hughes was a supporter of Johnson in the war, but he believed in academic freedom and free speech, and he said no, he wouldn’t demand that he be fired. And that became the issue.
Q: And the people of this backwater state you described earlier believed in free speech as well, so they re-elected him?
Richard Leone: He won by what then was the largest margin in history. He went on to put in a gun control law that is still in place, you have to get a license from your local police chief to buy a gun of any kind, including a long gun. He got through the first broad based tax. He set up the community colleges. He revolutionized higher education. At that time New Jersey had six state colleges, they were just normal schools, each one headed by a former principal. He broke that open and created the Department of Higher Education. He did a lot. His portrait, by the way, even as we speak, is about to move out of the governor’s office to one of those obscure places in the dome. For me it is a poignant moment.
Q: Because room has to be made for McGreevey’s portrait?
Richard Leone: McGreevey and Codey and it is getting cluttered.
Q: What was Hughes like as a manager?
Richard Leone: He was like FDR as a manager. He often gave more than one person the same job. He relished conflict. He would, as I said, 8 or 10 of us would yell at him, and then he would make his own mind up, sometimes going with one. He used his staff very effectively. I have to tell you one anecdote, I know we are here to talk about Byrne. But it couldn’t have been more than a month after I was in the office, they asked me to look at Penn Central and its finances, because they claimed to be in trouble. And the president of Penn Central was coming to meet with the governor, Stuart Sanders…
Q: That is a railroad, for anybody who doesn’t remember.
Richard Leone: The old Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central Railroad were together. And he had Bob Meyner, the former governor, as his lawyer, Stuart Sanders. So we have a meeting with Governor Hughes, Bob Meyner and Stuart Sanders and this kid from Princeton , right. And we are going along and Hughes says, I don’t know Bob, looking at this memo here that Richard just wrote, he says I ought to let you go bankrupt if that is what it takes to clean up this inefficient company. That was Hughes. I’ve never known anybody else who would do anything like that.
Q: How did that make you feel at that moment?
Richard Leone: At that moment I was quite uncomfortable [laughs]. Later on it made me feel good. He was a great fellow. And he became a key player in Byrne’s life, because he became the chief justice who forced the income tax issue and the school tax issue.
Q: What was Hughes like as speaker?
Richard Leone: He was a great speaker. He was kind of the best of a dying breed at that time, the old-fashioned Irish-American politician, who was loveable. He could have business walk out and say he was a great guy, and labor walk out and say he was a great guy, with a sharp legalistic mind. Very funny. He could take your best speech and turn it into a better speech. He could pull off things that other people couldn’t. The debates with Dumont were not a fair fight. Hughes would have the audience laughing, and saying things like well, now I am going to sit down and when I do, I hope the real Wayne Dumont will stand up. And poor Wayne would get up and people would start laughing. He would sit back down and they would break into applause. It was great.
Q: What was he like as a boss?
Richard Leone: For me he was wonderful.
Q: How so?
Richard Leone: Because he would let you do as much as you could do, regardless of what stage you were at.
Q: How old were you when you went work for him?
Richard Leone: 24.
Q: What was he like as a politician?
Richard Leone: He had to balance a machine that was corrupt. And I think I would put it this way, Hughes was determined that he would remain clean. And I think everybody sees him that way. He was not determined to change the system. Brendan was determined to change the system. That was the next generation of Irish-American politicians in New Jersey. I think Hughes would have if he had come along a little later. But he had been a judge, come up through the political system. I think he did as much as he thought he could. At that time the bosses seemed unassailable.
Q: Who were the bosses?
Richard Leone: John V. Kenny in Hudson County , who was the direct successor of Frank Hague. Actually, the first thing Hughes sat me down to tell me about, I want to tell you about these guys, I call them the bad boys. They are all SOBs, that is all you really have to know about New Jersey politics. Here is who they are. Harry Lerner, well, excuse me, Dennis Carey at that time in Essex County. David Wilentz, who is kind of in a different category, but …
Q: What category was David Wilentz in?
Richard Leone: He was the attorney general who prosecuted the Lindbergh kidnapping trial. He was the Democratic national committeeman during the decades when each state only had one. He was the man who at the 1944 Democratic Convention who made the speech against Roosevelt ’s renomination, because Roosevelt had fallen out with Frank Hague. He was a brilliant guy who had a brilliant son. He once said to me during the reform era in the ‘70s, he said well, how did we do? I don’t know. We backed Roosevelt, we backed Truman, backed Stevenson, backed Kennedy, now you got this guy McGovern, what did we know. He was that kind of guy. A wonderful guy.
Richard Leone: ….Another, this was a breakfast or dinner I had [during 1973 Cahill-Byrne transition following Byrne election], it was dinner, again with [Richard] DeKorte [Governor Cahill’s Counsel] and [Governor] Cahill. And we are talking about appointments in the transition, and this was an extremely cooperative transition. I mean not only did they keep open the jobs and positions we wanted, but in one case they appointed a prosecutor to fill a slot so we wouldn’t be able to fulfill our promise to someone we promised it to but didn’t want to give it to. So we are near the end of the dinner and Cahill says, oh, one other thing Dick. I am going to appoint a chief justice. I said Governor, we won’t be able to stand for that. He starts chuckling and says you’ll stand for this. It is Dick Hughes. So the next morning I went to see Brendan and I gave him my report, and at the end of it I said, uh, one other thing Governor, he is going to appoint a chief justice. And Brendan started to get up out of his chair, and I said it is Dick Hughes. And he sat back down. We were happy with the Hughes appointment, I was obviously.
Q: Why did Cahill pick Hughes?
Richard Leone: They really liked each other. And he thought Hughes would do what a chief justice needed to do. Remember Cahill had gone for an income tax to support the schools. And what predates Abbott is the decision Robinson vs. Cahill. They thought Hughes was, and they were right.