WASHINGTON -- New Jersey politicians used to be the butt of a lot of jokes. Many of them, it appeared, were for sale or at least for rent. One judge was propelled into the governorship in large measure because of a wiretapped complaint by a Mafia figure that he couldn't be corrupted.
So it is at least mildly surprising to find two Jersey politicians, one from each party, coming forward with compelling and insightful criticism of the political system. It has come, moreover, from politicians who have been highly successful, not just losers trying to rationalize their own inadequacies.
Unsurprisingly, Sen. Bill Bradley's critique attracted the greatest attention. He has been one of the certified stars of the Democratic Party since he first ran for the Senate in 1978, a member of that small circle of party figures considered as potential heavyweight presidential candidates.
But, describing the system as "broken," Bradley was evenhanded in his analysis of the failures of both parties, describing the Republicans as too blindly committed to the notion that the market will solve the nation's economic and social ills and the Democrats as too devoted to governmental solutions.
The predictable result has been a round of intense speculation about whether, now that he is leaving the Senate, Bradley intends to seek the presidency as an independent candidate either next year or thereafter -- speculation that Bradley himself has encouraged while insisting he would not challenge President Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
The more intriguing case, however, may be that of the Republican truth-teller, former Gov. Tom Kean, who announced that he would not run for Bradley's seat next year because he did not believe he would have influence in the Republican Party of today.
This decision was particularly striking because Kean always has been a politician with his eye on achieving some national stature and, more to the point, because he would have been the strong favorite to win the Senate nomination and the seat next year. He was immensely popular as a two-term governor of the state when he left office in 1990, and he would have had the backing of Jersey's most popular politician today, Gov. Christie Whitman.
Kean also had achieved a special kind of celebrity as governor with a series of television commercials designed to attract tourists and business to his state in which he delivered in his patrician accents the punch line "New Jersey and you--purrfect together."
At the most obvious level, Kean's complaint was that the "radical right" has gained such control of his party that a moderate like himself would be powerless. In his two terms as governor, Kean was a fiscal conservative but a progressive on social issues such as abortion rights.
And he made an intense effort to broaden the party's base by attracting black voters, an effort successful enough that he won a majority of the black vote in his second gubernatorial race, a rare achievement for any Republican anywhere.
What Kean sees today is a Republican party with its "whole priority" the reduction of the federal budget, when he believes the government must deal with continuing problems of education, the environment and the disadvantaged trapped in urban ghettoes.
Perhaps most telling, however, was Kean's complaint about what he called "a lack of civility" and a "meanness" in national politics today. The New Jersey Republican was saying aloud what many moderate Republicans, as well as Democrats, are saying privately these days -- that the level of intolerance of dissent by the newly ascendant conservatives goes beyond normal partisanship.
The complaints from the Democrats can be dismissed perhaps as no more than a reflection of their unhappiness about losing control of Congress after so many years in charge. But the moderate Republicans are dismayed because the leaders of the Far Right consider the opposition -- within or outside the party -- to be not only mistaken but in a morally indefensible position.
So Kean's critique cannot be brushed aside as so much sour grapes. He has a record of winning elections and functioning effectively as governor of a large and complex industrial state. But now he finds the whole business not worth it.
And with him out of the picture, you have to wonder what kind of successor Jersey voters will find for Bill Bradley.