Carl Golden respected transparency in New Jersey politics

4 minutes reading time

One spring morning in 1994, Carl Golden spotted me as he entered the governor's office on the first floor of the Statehouse in Trenton.

The calmness with which he had started the day had suddenly disappeared. His eyes bulged with anger.

“Why the hell did you write that?” he barked, asking me about the story I'd written for the Trenton Times that had been published that morning – but which I've long since forgotten. “I was so angry I wanted to punch you in the chest.”

I was silent for a moment. And then answered:

“Where is the sternum?”

Another pause – and we both burst out laughing. I followed him to his office on the first floor and we got into a standoff where we had to agree to disagree. And four hours later I was back down in his office, pestering him about some other news of the next day. The news cycle continued.

Golden, a widely respected, responsive political activist who later served as communications director for two Republican governors and a liberal chief justice, died last week at age 86. He had a dazzling career that began as an ink-stained, old-school reporter at the Easton, Pa., Express and Newark News and ended in some ways where he began, on the news pages as a skilled and unbiased columnist looking down on current events from the high cliff of experience.

For me, however, Golden's death marks the end of a style of press communication that is sadly lacking in this day and age of simple text messaging. Golden believed in building a dialogue with reporters, daily and often in person in his office on the first floor of the Statehouse.

Golden treated the press with respect – even in controversial moments

Golden's door was almost always open, and when it wasn't, the governor was usually on the line — or inside, hammering something out. A routine call to get a reaction to a story or an interview request would turn into a political spiel that lasted nearly an hour. Or he'd slyly try to soften the impact of an upcoming story. Or he'd just laugh as he recounted his early days in Gov. Thomas H. Kean's administration or on the campaign trail, often with a storyteller's keen eye for color and irony.

His career was shaped by an earlier era, when cut and paste was not a feature in a drop-down window on your laptop – he could remember the days of using scissors and huge containers of rubber glue on your desk to move paragraphs in a story hammered out on cheap paper and a typewriter. But he retained those old values ​​as a spokesman and adviser. He approached his opponents in the press with predictable caution, but also with respect.

The former reporter understood the pressures reporters faced, their time-pressed demands and their need to build out the governor's office as a central issue. He was in the shoes of the people who turned to him for information in the pressure cooker of competition.

He also understood that maintaining a questionable relationship based on respect with reporters was critical to his job of promoting the image and agenda of his two most important bosses, Kean and Governor Christine Todd Whitman. In his view, regular access was essential.

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It was also part of the media culture of the time. Reporters could freely knock on the door of the governor's chief of staff or walk through the anteroom to pigeonhole other advisers without first getting approval from Golden or anyone higher up. Nor did he have to go through the internal bureaucracy before he could give an official answer. Kean and Whitman trusted him to defend and promote their agenda.

Golden's office was a regular hive of reporters every day, listening to his gossip and occasional gallows humor. One time, during a routine visit, a tall figure in a brown coat and fedora strolled through the door. He was shocked, but also sensed some silly news was coming. “I think that's the governor!” he whispered, shocked, his body language urging me to follow her.

I jumped into the hallway and caught up with the disguised Whitman at the entrance to her office. When she took off the disguise, she saw me standing there with a notepad. This was supposed to be a gag for her security people, not for the press. Too late.

Part of that style also came from his time with Kean, whose availability to reporters was legendary. The joke in Trenton was that to get to Carl Golden, you had to go through Tom Kean. Kean would occasionally stroll down press row to chat with reporters and actually answer questions. This approach also reflected the reality of the New Jersey media at the time. New Jersey's daily newspapers were powerful and the primary way to reach voters. The newspapers were the gatekeepers and administrations that tried to bypass or ignore them did so at their peril.

That's not to say access was always free. Golden could compete with the best of them. The post-Election Day “street money” scandal — when a Whitman strategist, Ed Rollins, boasted that the campaign was paying black ministers to reduce its support for Democrat Jim Florio and that Democratic campaign staff were being paid to stay home — became a national sensation and threatened to call into question the legitimacy of Whitman's election.

The storm subsided when federal investigators found no evidence to support Rollins' claims, but it was an era of crisis management, and Golden steered the shaky Whitman ship through a school of hungry news sharks. Like most communications personnel, he could be secretive and selective in a crisis. Ralph Siegel, then an Associated Press correspondent in the 1990s, was not informed that Whitman had been hospitalized for the removal of a benign cyst – the AP was assumed to be first to report on the governor's health crisis; 20 news outlets, including the state's largest newspapers, relied on it for backing.

He quarreled bitterly with Golden for not warning him in time, which led to a frosty relationship for several weeks. (But as Ralph recalled at Golden's funeral in Burlington on Tuesday, Golden broke the thaw by making a witty remark in the hallway one day: “I have a dentist's appointment today. You want me to issue a press release?”)

And he had the ability to soften some of the hard ideological edges of Whitman, who during her first term sought aggressive privatization of government services. But Golden, in his easygoing, off-the-cuff way, portrayed this as a sensible, good government move for taxpayers, and to a young reporter like me at the time, it didn't seem like such a big deal. Yet in many cases it interrupted workers' careers and didn't deliver the promised savings.

He was also a master at manipulating the press competition. Years later, he would boast that he would give the Star-Ledger the scoop on a major political initiative or speech for its Sunday editions, and the rest of the Jersey press would spend the next three days chasing the same story. It was a gold rush for the free media.

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A lasting balance of respect and skepticism

But there was always a balance between skepticism and respect – something that, frankly, is sorely lacking in New Jersey journalism today. Today, social media is the easy way to get an unfiltered message out to the public. The shrunken press is now seen as more of a nuisance, a lesser threat.

There is little understanding of the everyday dialogue Golden has done — and other professionals like Winnie Comfort, now retired from the justice system, or Pete McDonough, another former Whitman press secretary who is retiring from Rutgers University — and the new method is to respond to questions in a carefully censored statement. Or by tweet or text. That's not to say you can't get some give-and-take with the governor or legislators — but that's the exception. Public information has become corporate, and governors and legislators of recent years have treated it as if it were confidential information that should be kept top secret.

It's part of the arrogance behind the latest attempt to undermine the Open Public Records Act, an invaluable tool for journalists. Behind it is the attitude that the press simply doesn't matter as much as it once did. Reporters may not like the changes, but what can they do about it?

In recent years, Golden has served as a pundit for various media outlets. His columns were sharp and weighty, often steering conversations away from the mass onslaught of conventional wisdom. He would often call me to discuss an idea or to vent a little about a politician's excesses. We would compare notes on someone else's insensitive remarks or stupid power play. And inevitably, we would talk about the past, when the press mile was lively, not the sterile cubicle of today.

I'm really going to miss him. And I'm going to feel it somewhere near my sternum.

Charlie Stile is a veteran New Jersey political columnist. To gain unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey's political power structure and his influential watchdog work, subscribe or activate your digital account today.


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