There's a game that my father and other Jersey-raised men of his generation play sometimes, which I call "Tales of Jersey." They don't have a name for it. They may not even know they're playing it.
The way it works is that one of the participants will tell a story of mid-century New Jersey institutional ridiculousness -- the mob bagman with his own leather-and-wood City Hall office, the grafty mayor who ensures that the state spends $30 million on a highway overpass that takes a decade to build and is only pronounced done when everyone in the mayor's immediate family owns a boat. My father remembers a campaign truck lumbering through his childhood neighborhood all day long, a man hanging off the back yelling "who troo da bomb, Louie?" through a megaphone.
Anyway, then the other participant responds in kind. This can go on for hours. It's not quite right to say that either participant "wins" the game; it's more a way to learn ridiculous things about Perth Amboy and Elizabeth and Newark, and laughingly exorcise the trauma of growing up surrounded by institutions that only intermittently even pretend to be dedicated to their ostensible purposes.
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More on Rutgers
There is something corrosive about the certainty that each and every institution will eventually prove itself unworthy of trust, let alone reverence. Tales of Jersey runs on a pure and fatalistic strain of high-test bleakness and ironized despair, but it runs. The way that New Jersey has chosen to deal with its rotten institutions -- their soaring, half-poignant pretense and their bottomless unshameable shittiness -- is to laugh.
So it is with Eric LeGrand's invitation and subsequent dis-invitation to make the commencement speech at Rutgers on May 18. So it is with the school "clearing up the miscommunication" and re-inviting him amid a whirling LOL-storm of public opprobrium. This is a Tale of Jersey. It is not just OK to laugh at it. It is necessary.
This all begins with idiots and their awful dreams. Rutgers, New Jersey's state university, is one of the few institutions in the state that can broadly be said to work very well, and has survived the fat-fingered kleptocrats and reptiles and backslapping sociopaths that have attempted to loot or compromise it from the governor's mansion. In-state tuition is affordable, the various campuses scattered around the state educate and graduate a dizzyingly diverse community of students, and if the basketball team hasn't been good in decades and the football team seems to have topped out around Pinstripe Bowl level, everyone still feels more or less good about the place. Naturally, the next step was to join the Big Ten.
All jokes about longstanding regional rivalries with Purdue and Iowa aside, Rutgers' migration to the Big Ten looks a good deal worse because of context, and the manifest untrustworthiness of those who made it happen. Of these principle players, the last still at Rutgers is school president Dr. Robert Barchi, who is the final and arguably least-deserving survivor of the 2013 scandal surrounding Mike Rice, the bullying, full-blast bile-hydrant of a basketball coach who succeeded in burning down a program that was already mostly rubble. Barchi fired those responsible, elided his own responsibility for them, and got back to work.
Barchi's mandate at Rutgers has been twofold, although the two are related. The job Barchi clearly regards as foremost is that of implementing Governor Chris Christie's overhaul of the state's higher education system, a costly and dubiously necessary process done without any state aid, at a school that is already awash in some very dumb debt. Barchi was also tasked with gigging various college rankings systems to increase the school's profile -- out-of-state tuition is the last, best plan to pay for all this. The move to the Big Ten is part of this campaign.
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More from our team site
Because this entire gambit was conceived and executed by idiots -- or, more precisely, cynical technocrats of without any great respect for the importance of an institution like Rutgers in a state like New Jersey -- we have gotten what we've gotten. The goonish pretense that led the school to invite Condoleezza Rice to give the commencement address in the first place, because she is a famous political person -- and then have to rescind the invitation because a great many students and faculty consider her to be, um, a war criminal -- is symptomatic of this. A former Secretary of State, even this semi-disgraced former Secretary of State, is the sort of speaker that Barchi's Rutgers would have giving a commencement speech. But, because this is Barchi's Rutgers, this is the Secretary of State they got.
The decision to offer the honor to Eric LeGrand, the unsinkable and happily heroic former Rutgers player who was paralyzed in a game, was a corrective -- here, after an embarrassment, was the one Rutgers alum that most everyone in New Jersey feels good about. The decision to take that invitation back and give it to Tom Kean, a perfectly decent governor from the state's long line of Anthropomorphized Boat Shoe elites, whose last year in Trenton was 1990, was a return to that parodic pretense. The late-breaking decision to have LeGrand speak as well is laudable, but the broader gong show remains what it is.
LeGrand was told the decision to take back his invitation was made for "political reasons," which of course it was. Rutgers could have had a legitimately inspirational local hero -- and professional motivational speaker -- address the crowd, but Barchi realized that what the school really needed was a Legend, or a Leader. The mishandling and misperception says more about the state of Rutgers than the fix does. For all that Rutgers has survived, all the mismanagement and time under some of the dirtiest thumbs in American politicas, there is the sense that this latest batch of flubby, butterfingered technocrats could be its undoing.
New Jersey is no longer what it was. It's not that the state is now innocent of bosses and mayors kicking back and grabbing lapels, or any less bipolar in its toggling between feckless aristocrats and ham-faced strongmen in its state-level politics. It's not like anyone involved has any real idea how to act. I want to be clear: It definitely is not that.
New Jersey is still New Jersey, but while it's as self-thwarting and impossible as ever -- and as wonderful, as deceptively big-hearted and lovely, and my home -- the color and music has drained from the old doof-carnival somewhat. No one is throwing bombs, or shouting about them from the back of flatbed trucks. They are issuing carefully worded statements, subtly equivocated Unequivocal Statements Of Support; they are expressing disappointment and calling for more study. They take stands against government waste and abuses of power and you can't even catch them smirking. They could all just as easily be from Connecticut, honestly. Cheaper, shabbier suits cannot be bought off the rack at Men's Warehouse.
The new elites -- the ones for whom Eric LeGrand still seems somehow off-brand -- aren't any less craven or dunderheadedly power-thirsty than the old ones. They certainly are no better at their jobs than they were in the old days; they fail just as cynically, and then fail just as predictably at covering those failures up. They are just trying to be professional about it, to be somehow less New Jersey. But the old bosses are the same as the new bosses, in the end. Every Tale of Jersey ends more or less the same way.